Tuesday, 31 May 2016

A March Dyke

The stone field walls that criss-cross this peninsula fascinate me.  Many of them are obviously old, and some may be very old indeed, but dating them is very difficult.

This wall is an example of one which can, to some extent, be dated. It follows the course of a burn which drains the northern slopes of Ben Hiant and disappears into the forestry that covers the slopes of Beinn nan Losgann. The picture shows it at bottom right, with Beinn na h-Urchrach in the background.

The stone part of it is low, less than 0.5m high, though it was probably raised in its time by the addition of peat blocks. Even so, it was never a wall that was designed to exclude anything, and certainly not the very agile animals that were kept in the local clachans.

The burn it runs alongside can be seen in the centre left of this Bing satellite image. While it doesn't drain into Lochan Poll an Dubhaidh, the lochan is a useful feature in locating the wall. It's possible to zoom in to the pink area....

....close enough to be able to see the wall, and to see that it doesn't extend very far, suggesting, once again, that it had a limited but particular purpose.

This is a clip from William Bald's 1806 map of the Ardnamurchan Estate, showing the same area. The lochan helps to locate the position of the wall.

The wall can be seen to run along the boundary between Choiremhuilinn's common grazings and those of Tornamona, and it's right beside the point where the old road into Kilchoan crosses that boundary.  So it's main use was probably to delineate the boundary between the two clachans. Such walls are called march dykes.

Since these clachans are probably hundreds of years older than Bald's map, this is likely to be a very old wall.

Mingary Castle Completion Celebration

Many thanks to Holly Bull, manager of Mingary Castle, for sending the Diary these beautiful photos which were taken by Changing Light's Andy Lock.  The beautiful weather over the bank holiday weekend was perfect for celebrating the completion of Mingary Castle, which is now open for bookings.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Dor Beetle

The first dor beetles are usually around in April but they seem to have appeared late this year. Perhaps they knew that we were going to have some late-April snow and stayed safely underground until it had cleared.

This is the first dor beetle of the year. He was making his way across a sheep-mown field in the rain, and making very heavy weather of it.

Dor beetles can fly - just, and very erratically. Perhaps he was too cold to risk taking off but had to find something to eat. This shouldn't have been difficult as the dor is a dung beetle and, with plenty of sheep around there was plenty of that. However, the book says that dor beetles prefer cow dung: to have found any cow droppings he would have had to walk a very, very long way.

Dors are big beetles, this one being almost an inch long. Although they look black, in certain lights and from certain angles they have a beautiful purple-blue sheen to their carapace. This was best seen back in July 2014 when some dors were seen falling around - blog entry here.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

SM-10: Greadal Fhinn Chambered Cairn

Greadal Fhinn is a neolithic cairn of the Hebridean type, with a smaller central cist chamber (right) and larger passage chamber (left), both once covered in a mounded cairn structure of about 22m diameter.

It is situated on one of the Ormsaigmore crofts and is most easily approached via a gate which leads from the road near the shop. This is croft land and, if you visit the monument, you are asked to avoid disturbing both the crofters, who live near the old farmhouse, and their animals.

The monument stands on a low hill. In its original form, it would have consisted of a circle of large flat, upright rocks - kerb stones - within which rocks and earth would have been piled in a mound to cover the chambers but, as the original RCAHMS report states, "it has been extensively robbed of its stone," in part to build the many drystone walls which now surround it.

It may be that the smaller, cist cairn (left), which is almost in the middle of the cairn, was original, and the larger, passage chamber, was dug into the side of the mound at a later time. From evidence from other burials, such as the similar cairn at Swordle, they would both have contained the human remains from several individuals as well as objects which were part of the burial ritual. However, although there are reports of artefacts being found in the cists, none have been recorded.

The RCAHMS report describes the cist chamber as, "rectangular in plan and measuring 1m by 0.75m, and is composed of four upright slabs covered by a capstone. A narrow opening at the SE corner of the chamber may be the original entrance, as this is flanked by two stones which just protrude through the turf."

The passage grave, seen here from the northwest, is close to the edge of the cairn and is described thus: "Seven upright stones and one of the capstones of the passage grave survive, and the stumps of two other stones are still visible. Aligned ESE and WNW and entered through a short passage measuring 1.4m by 0.9m, the chamber is composed of five substantial slabs still standing to a height of 1.55m. The chamber measures 3.2m by 1.9m internally and is divided from the N side of the passage by a transverse slab; a similar slab on the S side may have been destroyed. A dislodged capstone blocks the passage at this point."

This picture shows the two chambers from the southeast while....

....this diagram, which shows the relative sizes of the two cists and one kerb stone, is taken from Ritchie's paper, here.

That the cairn is known as Greadal Fhinn is confusing. Local lore has it that the ‘Fhinn’ refers to a Viking chieftain Ketill Flatnefr of Raumsal, known on the west coast as Caithil Fin. In 888AD he fled Norway and, according to the Sagas, settled on the west coast of Scotland, where he later died. The suggestion seems to be that he was buried here.

Similar large local cairns are at Camas nan Geall and Swordle. All have in common that they are set near but back from the coast, and have associated settlements.

Historic Environment Scotland's designation is here and the Kilchoan Diary history of Ormsaigmore is here.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Isolated Farmsteads

The view that, in pre-clearance times, the predominant settlement pattern was of houses grouped into clachans, seems largely true but, more and more, we're finding isolated buildings which were obviously dwellings, often with associated structures such as byres and sheep folds. A good example of such a farmstead is the settlement in this picture, close to Lochan na Gruagaich (just out-of-picture to the right, with Loch Mudle in the distance). Structures 2 & 3 are the house and, perhaps, a byre; 4 is what appears to be a very old animal enclosure; and 5 is a more recent enclosure.

Members of the Ardnamurchan History & Heritage Association have begun to map these isolated farmsteads across western Ardnamurchan. While there are ten identified so far, we're finding more. However, one of the problems associated with them is dating. The dilapidated condition of some, such as....

....this one, which was found during an expedition with the Raptor on Mingary clachan land near the summit of Torr Solais between Mingary Castle and Kilchoan, suggest they may be older than eighteenth century, when many of the stone houses in the clachans were constructed.

This map, drawn by John Cowley in 1734 for the then Ardnamurchan Estate owner, Sir Alexander Murray, at last offers some evidence of their age. The arrow beside the track between Mingary (1) and the Mill at Kilchoan (2) pinpoints a structure which is very likely a farmstead.  It's a large building, aligned roughly NW-SE, and at the southern end of Torr Solais. The one in the previous picture is too small and in the wrong place, so we went looking for something that might fit the description.

It's very pleasing when such a search is successful. This very substantial building was covered in brambles but is in exactly the right place. Measuring 12m by 5m, and with the right orientation, it's far bigger than the previous building and could well be the farmstead on Cowley's map.  So at least one these isolated farmsteads was in existence in 1734.

William Bald's map of 1806 - this clip is from a copy held by Ardnamurchan Estate - shows that the farmstead buildings have gone, the fields being marked in the colours of those worked by the Mingary clachan.

Sadly, Cowley's map was of very limited extent, so we're unable to use it to check for dating evidence for some of the other farmsteads.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Fallow Deer

One of the best places to see fallow deer is around the edges of the Beinn nan Losgann forestry which lies on the right of the road out of Kilchoan, as it climbs towards the Kilmory turn. These two were grazing in the valley of the Allt nan Gabhar, the stream of the goat, and, because we walk quietly....

....they weren't aware of our approach, becoming at one point more concerned with something further up the glen.

Even when they did see us, by which time we were standing very still, they weren't too bothered, but there always seems to be a trigger with deer when they suddenly decide we're unfriendly and....

....make off, clearing any obstacles with graceful ease.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Sunday Lunch

There was a time when Sunday lunch was a family affair and always included a roast and a bottle of red wine. These days, we tend to take a long walk on a Sunday morning, and always carry a picnic with us, in the pink container. It's pretty basic - a drink, a muesli bar, a packet of cashew nuts and a chocolate bar - but it enables us to enjoy Sunday lunch looking out over wonderful views, in this case the entrance to Camas nan Geall.

April Snow

Diane Todd has sent me some more of her super photos taken after the sudden dump of snow almost a month ago on April 28th, which melted away quickly enough at low level on Ardnamurchan but left us with some stunning distant views of snow-capped mountains. This picture shows Ardnamurchan Point lighthouse and the snow-free island of Muck with, behind it, the rugged mountains of Rum.

This picture looks from the banks of the Allt Grigadale across the weir and Loch Grigadale to the snows on Ben Hiant.

From the hills to the north of Sanna, this view looks north across Rubha an Duin Bhain to, from left to right, Muck, Rum and Eigg, while....

....this one shows a slightly different perspective of Muck and Rum, but with Canna visible on the horizon to the left.

Many thanks to Diane for allowing me to use her photographs.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

The Allt nan Gabhar

The Allt nan Gabhar, the stream of the goat, is such a favourite burn that we've wandered its banks many times.

It drains the west side of the forestry which clothes the slopes of Beinn nan Losgann. Its meandering has cut a series of steep bluffs between which lie sheltered, grassy terracettes; and, as one climbs upstream, there are constantly changing views of Ben Hiant and the ridge of Beinn na h-Urchrach.

This is the view downstream, with Beinn an Leahtaid to the right and Meall nan Con in the left distance. The road in to Kilchoan passes close to the corner of the forestry.

It's an area rich in archaeology. This is a very special site, one of our earliest archaeological discoveries, a stone circle which may be a Bronze or Iron Age hut circle but is more likely to be a rather older kerb cairn.

Fallow deer leave the cover of the forestry to come out to graze along its banks, while....

....the twisting nature of the glen means that we often come very close to red deer before they see us.

In places, the burn tumbles down a series of waterfalls, the tops of which....

....make ideal places to sit for a cup of coffee.

Sadly, the headwaters of the burn lie buried in the forestry, but if one continues up the hill one is treated to a panoramic view westwards. Mingary Castle is at bottom left, Kilchoan Bay in the middle distance at right, and the houses of Ormsaigbeg are strung out along the far side of the bay.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016


Plocaig is one of several abandoned settlements dotted around West Ardnamurchan. It's sometimes described as a 'cleared' township, but it was never cleared. In fact, along with its neighbour Sanna, it was a creation of the clearances.

Bald's map of 1806 showed all the clachans and their boundaries. Sanna, which he called Saune and which only had one building, was part of Achosnich's arable land, while the future site of Plocaig belonged to Achnaha. The 1841 census doesn't mention either settlement.

However, by the time the first OS map was published, both Upper and Lower Sanna are well developed, and Plocaig has four buildings. Both settlements came into existence in the 1840s or 1850s, when clachans to the east, such as the Swordles, were being cleared, and the landlord had to find somewhere to dump those of his tenants who wished to stay rather than emigrate.

The maps that the OS was publishing by the end of the century showed that Plocaig had almost as many buildings as Sanna, and that, if a track is an indicator of importance, it had one, running through Achnaha to the southeast, direct to Kilchoan.

What Plocaig lacked even more than Sanna was good arable land. This Bing satellite picture has Plocaig arrowed, while Sanna occupies the bottom left hand corner. Sanna's fields are extensive but, on the other side of the Allt Sanna, Plocaig is miserably endowed. At least Plocaig had a sheltered port, though it was small and, in rough weather, useless.

This photograph looks towards Plocaig from the south-southeast, across its fields, with the Allt Sanna  to the left. Even by Ardnamurchan standards, these are poor fields.

But it was not the miserable fields which finally destroyed Plocaig. In 1921 the decision was made to complete the road beyond Achnaha - not to Plocaig, where the old track had run, but to Sanna because by that time Sanna had twenty crofts, each grazing two cows, while Plocaig had only four crofts, each grazing three cows, a pony and a few sheep. No doubt the decision was helped by the fact that MEM Donaldson lived at Sanna and fought on its behalf.

This picture shows Plocaig in the 1930s, soon after it had been abandoned but with many of its houses still roofed.

Plocaig is gradually merging back into the landscape, but its fields are still used: a crofter grazes sheep across them, and visitors stop to sit by its houses and imagine what it must have been like to live in such an idyllic setting. It can't have been idyllic: life must have been extremely hard.