Sunday, 31 January 2016

A Window in the Weather

After the storms of the last couple of days we needed to seize the opportunity of the break promised for today to walk in the hills. Today's forecast promised light winds, low cloud, and minimal rain so we looked for somewhere to walk which was as dry as possible, which might be difficult after the 80mm that has fallen in the last five days.

So we parked the car at the top of the track that leads down to the big sheep fank at the south end of Loch Mudle, and then climbed the steep scarp on the other side of the glen....

....looking back across it to a Ben Hiant whose head was lost in the low cloud.

We then we followed the scarp crest southwards, climbing steadily, in absolutely ideal walking conditions as the slopes on either side had drained the land quickly.

The B8007 road climbs the opposite side of the glen to a low saddle before dropping off into the Basin.  Just out of sight behind the hill to the left is the turn onto the track that goes up to the big wind turbine on Beinn Bhuidhe.

Far more snow had accumulated on this side of Ben Hiant than the Kilchoan side, and we caught it just as it had melted enough to pick out every rock, fold and feature of the landscape. With a light wind, no rain, and the going easy underfoot, this was joyful winter walking.

The red deer stags, having spent months in the latter part of last year fighting each other, are now gathered in bachelor groups and not too worried by the occasional passer by - unless you stop and point something at them, even if it is a camera.

This picture looks across the saddle to the lower slopes of Ben Hiant. The snowy scar across the hillside at top left marks the path followed by most people to the ben's summit, while the hill away to the right is Beinn na h-Urchrach.

Just before we came to the wind turbine track, we reached a small summit called Tom a Chapuill, where we stopped briefly for coffee and to admire the view across the Basin to the south coast of Ardnamurchan. A snow-capped Mull, and Tobermory Bay, is at centre, Morvern is the dark land to the left, in front of which the bay of Camas nan Geall is just visible.

We then joined the wind turbine track, following it down to the road but then crossing it and climbing again to another knoll beneath which are the remains of several, mostly circular buildings, one of which is significantly larger than the others. They may be a group of shieling huts but, since five of the peninsula's ancient trackways meet at this saddle, it has been suggested that this may be a staging point for the drove road that ran from Bay McNeill eastwards to the markets at places like Falkirk.

We're so pleased we managed a good walk today as the forecast for tomorrow and Tuesday are about as bad as any we can remember. This is XCWeather's version, which shows average wind speeds tomorrow evening reaching force 9, with gusts over 70mph. The BBC is even more pessimistic, suggesting gusts to 81mph - anything over 72mph is hurricane force.

Power Outage

A small helicopter flew low along the back of the Ormsaigbeg crofts a few minutes ago. Usually such flight are the local electricity company, Scottish and Southern, checking the power lines after an outage.

A few minutes later we had a call from the SSE call centre asking whether we'd been all right through yesterday's power cut - which we had been since, when we built this house, one of its design features was that we should be comfortable during prolonged cuts.

The very pleasant lady told us that the outage had been caused by a lightning strike on the power lines "in a field near Beinn  na Seilg," that the repair had been temporary, and that we are on the mains supply, not on a generator. She warned that it might be necessary to cut the supply again when the full repair is carried out, but she promised they would give us due warning.

Pictures from Friday's Storm

These pictures of the storm on Friday, taken near Ardnamurchan Point, come from Kilchoan Early Bird and show what look like deep accumulations of snow.

This picture, of the mouth of a burn near the Point, may give a clue as to what this particular white stuff is.

Many thanks to Kilchoan Early Bird for the pictures.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

The Storm Rages On

At a quarter to ten last night, with the storm raging as fiercely as ever, the power went off, not a clean break but a dozen on-offs-on-offs perfectly designed to wreck electrical goods.  While houses beyond Glenborrodale were reconnected by midnight, some 300+ homes at this end of the peninsula stayed off until almost one this afternoon.

Part of the delay was because the engineers at Scottish and Southern, who have worked so hard in impossible conditions, had to be pulled off the job because the gale had started to bring in a mixture of snow, sleet and rain, mixed in with lightning. The fault was sufficiently serious for SSE to bring in generators, but a lorry carrying one of them was reported to have jack-knifed in the early hours of the morning - which isn't surprising as, when I got up at four, there was a one-inch covering of snow across the landscape, almost all of which had gone by morning.

This afternoon, with the storm as fierce as ever, the Raptor and I drove out to Ardnamurchan Point lighthouse. Compared to the Sound of Mull, top picture, which is in the lee of Ardnamurchan, the Point was exposed to the full anger of the Atlantic, so the huge waves coming in....

....were smashed to foam against the dark rocks. To stand straight in the gale was almost impossible, and the whole of the Point was covered in driving, salty spray, yet there were moments....

Picture courtesy the Raptor
....when the Small Isles emerged along the horizon.

The winds are finally beginning to ease. We're promised a calm-ish day tomorrow, before another severe storm arrives in the early hours of Monday morning.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Swordle Gust Tops 110mph

Many thanks to Dominic Cooper for sending me this picture taken from the output screen of his weather station which shows a gust of 111mph at 0548 this morning at Swordle on Ardnamurchan's north coast.

Storm Gertrude

Under the new idea of giving major storms a name, this is Storm Gertrude, which has returned to tradition by bringing us a proper westerly after the recent storms with their prevailing southeasterly winds. As with any storm, it's not the steady high winds which do the damage but the sudden gusts, like this one which has flattened the waves as they break across Glas Eilean.

When one bears in mind that the gusts we're experiencing here on the south side of the peninsula are in the lee of the hills, one can only imagine what conditions are like out at Ardnamurchan Point lighthouse, particularly as these winds have an unusually long fetch which should generate some huge waves.

As always, this storm is graphically illustrated by Cameron Beccario's magnificent global wind visualisation which also shows that, unlike most storms which rotate around an area of low pressure, this is a run of intense westerlies which have reached their maximum speed over an unfortunate Shetland, but which are also bringing high winds right across Scotland. Very unusually, last night our local police took to Facebook to advise drivers not to venture out while Gertrude hangs around. Gertrude is forecast to be with us much longer than most storms, until well into tomorrow evening, and there's another storm coming in on Monday as the elongate frontal system seen at bottom left in the illustration develops into a more traditional, circular and very vicious depression.

As the gusts came through these tups found a rock to shelter behind and turned their rumps to the blast.  We have walked through the village twice today and, while there are plenty of lulls in the wind, and even some sun, the gusts come with stinging sleet and hail.

The weather didn't deter the very large turnout at Ann MacLachlan's funeral this afternoon, though people coming from afar couldn't make it, not could those from Tobermory as the ferry service was cancelled. As daughter Rosie pointed out in a very moving family tribute to their mother, this was in a good tradition, as Ann's husband Allan was buried in a storm, and the couple's wedding featured deep snow which prevented many guests from attending.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

A Visit to Portuairk

When we woke yesterday morning there was snow to the south of us on the hills of Mull and Morvern. This picture looks across the entrance of Loch Sunart and shows the well boat Viktoria Viking waiting to come alongside the salmon cages at McLean's Nose.

Later in the morning we drove across to Portuairk, where a watery sun had come out to paint colours across the islands of Muck and Rum, the latter surprisingly bare of snow.

The sun also picked out the white houses of Lower Sanna across the bay, but not for long as....

....the wind rose to near gale force, drawing dark clouds in from the west which carried sleet as well as rain, but as the weather cleared we saw that Rum did now have its covering of snow.

We returned to the Kilchoan side of the peninsula as the sun once again appeared, forcing its way between angry clouds - picture, taken from Ormsaigmore, looks across Kilchoan Bay to Maol Buidhe, with Mull away to the left.

The weather forecast is cheerless. By the early hours of tomorrow the mean wind speed will be gale force, with gusts of over 70mph, and these continue with little break until Saturday midday.

A Straight Stone Wall

This is one of hundreds of stone walls which criss-cross the peninsula. There's nothing particularly unusual about it except that we were sitting beside it, having a rest during a recent walk on Estate land, and speculating as to how many man-hours of heavy labour had gone into its building. There were two big advantages here in building field boundaries out of stone. First, the material is long-lasting. Second, by gathering the stones from the surrounding fields, it helped clear them for arable farming.

This wall may not be unusual except that it's badly collapsed and.... straight. Straight walls tend to be post-Clearance, 1830 onwards, and most of these are still in fairly good condition. So this one is a little different.

Looking at a Bing satellite image of the area is fascinating. '1' is the point where the photograph was taken, looking roughly northwest.  The wall continues across the landscape for a mile or so, reaching almost as far as the Allt Choiremhuilinn with only a couple of slight bends. Compare it with the wall marked '2-2-2', which waggles all over the place. '1' is also clearly younger than '2', as it cuts across it where they meet.

'2-2-2' is what is called a 'head dyke', the main wall that ran round the outer perimeter of a clachan's arable land. The clachan in this case is Choiremhuilinn. '3' is obviously an even older wall than both '1' and '2' as it has decayed to the point where, on the ground, it's not easily visible.

That this is good arable land is evident from the many fields of lazy beds, particularly in the western part of this image.

We are very fortunate in having a map, drawn by William Bald in 1806, of the Ardnamurchan Estate - image courtesy Ardnamurchan Estate. Considering Bald's map pre-dates the first Ordnance Survey maps by 50 years, it's a remarkable achievement. It's so accurate that the walls in the Bing image are clearly distinguishable. Bald's map confirms that wall '1' is pre-Clearance, but also shows that wall '3' had already fallen out of use. That fields had been abandoned in 1806 suggests either that the population of Choiremhuilinn had, at an earlier stage, been larger than in was in 1806, or that the same sized population needed less arable land, perhaps following the introduction of the potato.

The straight wall '1', which cuts right across the clachan's fields and walls, isn't shown extending beyond '2' - but it probably did, but was neglected when Bald drew his made.

This leaves us with some questions. What was the purpose of this unusual, old, straight wall, and what is its age? I'll take a guess at its age. I wonder if Sir Alexander Murray of Stanhope, who had the Ardnamurchan Estate in the early18th century and was responsible for the very straight drainage ditches that he had dug to drain the hills, had any thing to do with it.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Spring Has Arrived!

Never mind that we had a gale overnight Monday/Tuesday, with Dominic Cooper at Swordle recording a gust of 74mph - that's hurricane force 12 - at 7.48am yesterday, and that our rain gauge filled to 30mm in the 24 hours up to 8.00am. Never mind that the fields along Ormsaigbeg are flooded, or that daytime temperatures are soaring to 12 and 13C. Never mind that we haven't seen the sun since its brief appearance at Bay McNeill on Monday. Never mind....'s spring, the weather's perfect, so frogs are out a'courting.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Ann MacLachlan

Ann MacLachlan died at home at 4.00pm on Saturday. While she had been away in hospital in Glasgow and Fort William, for the last ten days she was at home, surrounded by her four children and nine grandchildren.

Ann's funeral will be on Friday 29th January at 1.00pm at the parish church in Kilchoan, followed by interment at the new cemetery. All are welcome, and are invited to join the family at the Kilchoan Community Centre afterwards.

The family would like to express its thanks for all the support and help they have received, and for all the messages from Ann's many friends.

We extend our deepest sympathy to Hughie, Rosie, Titch, Nan and the rest of Ann's family.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Bay McNeill

We're promised a week of gales, rain and very little hope of sunshine, with today offering us a selection of what is to come, so we chose to walk somewhere fairly sheltered from the strong south-southeasterly - Bay McNeill. One access to the bay is by a track from a small car park along the lighthouse road, where there's a gate which leads to a reception committee of two friendly (except to dogs) highland cows. The landowner has been replacing his fences and has improved the access - there used to be a rather precarious style nearer the bay, but this is now a small and easily worked pedestrian gate.

We less walked to the bay than were blown there, with a stinging rain goading us along, but once one begins to approach the beach the weather really doesn't matter: it's a typical Ardnamurchan beach, white sands, dark rocks, utter solitude and....

....unpredictable weather for, as soon as we reached the beach, the sky began to clear though the wind remained as vicious as ever.

This view looks from a hill at the back of the beach southwest towards Ardnamurchan Point lighthouse. The beach has formed between an offshore island, Eilean Carrach, and the mainland, and it's one of those beaches which comes and goes. Today there was more sand than ever.

Looking northwestwards, there's a small entrance to the bay proper, and it's from this sheltered anchorage that it gets its name. The McNeills of Barra used to bring their cattle in to this cove before driving them to market along the old drove road that runs the length of Ardnamurchan.

We crossed the beach to the island, with blown sand stinging our legs instead of rain, stopping at one of the salt water pools amongst the rocks on its protected side. It was filled with this greenish growth, possibly formed by algae.

Finding a large rock on the top of the island behind which to shelter from the gale, we watched the waves break on one of the offshore skerries which make rounding Ardnamurchan Point such a nightmare for sailors. As always, the gulls seemed to be enjoying the wind.

As we set off back to the car the weather did the unexpected: for a few precious moments the sun came out.

Blackcap Reappears

As yesterday's post suggested, we were becoming a little concerned about our female blackcap whom we hadn't seen for some days, but she reappeared at lunchtime today feeding not on the sultanas which we'd bought specially for her but the peanuts, where she has to compete with chaffinches, great tits, sparrows and sundry others.

She looked wet, bedraggled and not a happy bunny. This west coast weather, with its gales and rain, is obviously not suiting her.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Community Council Elections

Many people have commented on how sorely we have missed having a Community Council since last November, for example in pressing for something to be done about the B8007 at Ardslignish (above), which is busy sliding off down the hill.

Highland Council is now inviting nominations from persons seeking election as members to Community Councils which remained unformed after the last election. Nominations have to be in by 4.00pm on Wednesday 3rd February.

Guidance notes and nomination papers are available on the Highland Council website here. Even if you don't want to stand, perhaps talk to someone who would make a good councillor and try to persuade them to stand.

Small Bird News

Our small birds continue to cost us a fortune through the winter but the pleasure they give each day is well worth it. We don't usually feed them on the ground, partly because it isn't particularly hygienic, partly because it's an indirect way of feeding our cats, but also because the bigger and more aggressive birds get all the best food, but this picture shows the number of small birds that arrive within a minute of a handful of grain being scattered across the terrace.

One bird is treated differently. Our semi-tame robin has been visiting us for months, and is standing at the front door each morning at the time bird breakfast is served to receive his private meal.

This picture shows business as usual at the hanging feeders which provide a menu of peanuts, seeds, sultanas - the blackbird is feeding off them - and fat in the form of lard.

We've noticed that the variety of species coming to visit us this winter has been severely reduced. Amongst the more unusual ones were the blackcaps, but we lost the male just before Christmas and, although the female has been around, eating mainly sultanas, we're seeing less and less of her.

The species which we would expect to be seeing, and aren't, include the greenfinch. One or two, like this male, occasionally pass through the garden, but it's an event when they do. Visits by siskins and coal tits have fallen away, and we're even seeing fewer goldfinches - and in the autumn there were hundreds of them around.

Following particular individuals, particularly amongst species like the chaffinches of which we see scores in a day, is difficult unless they have a distinguishing feature, like this great tit which had damaged her left leg. She was around for a while and then disappeared, having either recovered and moved away, or died.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Archaeology to the East of Bourblaige

A group from Ardnamurchan Community Archaeology had planned a survey of the area to the east of Bourblaige last weekend, but the weather postponed it until today. The area is steep, dropping in a series of terraces towards the coast, and it is on these terraces, rocky and infertile as they are, that people have been settling for hundreds of years.

The area boasts a rich and varied archaeology, with much of it is very difficult to interpret. This elongate mound is an example. It's clearly man-made, and it may be no more than a field cairn where rocks from the fields surrounding it were thrown, but its elongate shape and the arrangement of larger rocks in a row suggested something more complex, perhaps a grave.

This oval-shaped building was probably a shieling hut, a shieling being a temporary camp occupied in the summer by women and children whose job it was to look after the animals away from the clachan while the men tended to the year's crops. It's a large hut, with what may be a fireplace in it (to Wendy's right), and is one of a group of at least five.

Perched at the top of a steep slope is a small building (at left) and, to its right, a less-well preserved structure, the two possibly forming a dwelling house and associated byre. The land around them is rocky and poor, so whoever lived here must have scratched a bare living. That people existed in such extremes suggests either a large and growing population with arable land at a premium or that this was the isolated dwelling of someone like a shepherd.
The patch of grass arrowed in this picture proved to be the most interesting find of the day. There is little of the structure left but enough for the outline of a building to be distinguished.

The building is about 12.5m long and 5m wide. It sits on a platform excavated into the hillside: in this view, looking along the building from its northeast end, the excavation is to the right. The long wall to the left is more clearly visible, but much of the rock from this has tumbled down the slope.

This sketch shows the rough outline of the building, and the positions of the largest rocks. Rock '1' is next to Wendy in the photo.

This structure is evidently old, and excavating it would be the sort of project which ACA aspires to take on. The structure we would most like to find is a Viking long house, and a building of this size and shape matches descriptions of the sort of small farm houses which Viking settlers constructed. We know the Vikings were on this coast for some 300 years but no sign of their dwellings has yet been found. For a description of Viking dwellings, follow this link. Our structure is about the size of Eiríksstaðir.

We finished the walk by crossing the ridge to the west and dropping down into the outskirts of Bourblaige, a clachan which must have existed on this site from at least Viking times, but which was cleared to form a sheep farm in 1828. It was interesting to compare the condition of its buildings, abandoned nearly 200 years ago, with our 'Viking' house.