Saturday, 31 October 2009

HM Coastguard Kilchoan

Her Majesty's Coastguard station, Kilchoan - in this photo, dwarfed by the mass of Ben Hiant behind it - is sited almost at the end of Pier Road, near the CalMac ferry terminal. The personnel who man it are fully trained for Search And Rescue, including Cliff Rescue.

The team's area extends from Glenborrodale westwards, covering some of the wildest and most remote coastline in the UK. The next nearest team is at Salen, twenty miles away, with Fort William, Mallaig and Lochaline available for support. The team has a Toyota Hi-Lux, a full range of search, rescue and emergency aid equipment, and can call in HM Coastguard helicopter from Stornoway and the RNLI lifeboats at Tobermory and Mallaig.

The eleven-strong unit has a station officer, Hugh MacLachlan, a deputy station officer, Rosie MacLachlan, and nine other volunteer members, all equipped with pagers and available 24 hours a day. The most common call-outs have been searches for missing persons, when the team has been used as far away as Loch Morar, but it also responds to emergencies ranging from kayaks in distress to small dogs which have fallen over cliffs. Its most recent call-out was to a spear-fisherman who went missing off Ardnamurchan Lighthouse, when team members searched a treacherous coastline for three days, some of it during a Force 10 gale.

Friday, 30 October 2009

The Ockle Road

Southeasterly wind force 5 to 6 all day, with almost constant, heavy rain, so the burns were running strongly, carrying dark, peaty water to the sea where it spread out to stain the shallows. None of which stopped us from taking a walk along the road between Kilmory and Ockle on the north coast, the sea across the Minches grey-green, with stripes of foam whipped away from us by the force of the wind, and Rhum, Eigg and Muck dodging in and out of low cloud. Hardly a ship to be seen, the only one being a white fish farm supply ship working its way towards Mallaig.

The road twists and turns as it scrabbles along the side of the hills, teetering above steep slopes which drop down to a succession of headlands and bays. The wildlife was doing the sensible thing and lying low, but the sudden herding of a flock of sheep drew our attention to a fox running across the field above Swordle. The area is estate land, and one of their herds of cows watched us, their feet sucking at the mud as they moved.

Just before we got back to the car the weather cleared so we turned aside into the walled graveyard at Kilmory with its fallen Celtic crosses and green carpet of spongy moss, to stand for a moment beside two graves, not those of locals but merchant seamen washed up on Ardnamurchan's shore in the dark days of 1940, their neat, War Graves Commission headstones bearing the terse inscription, 'Known unto God'.

Thursday, 29 October 2009


Kilchoan and its surrounding villages are crofting villages. A croft is a small, traditional, west coast farm. A typical croft in Kilchoan is about one hundred metres wide, and runs some four hundred metres from the shore up the hill to the boundary fence. With that arrangement, each crofter had a variety of soils and slopes to work, and access to the shore.

Traditionally, land in the Highlands was held in common, and it was the task of the local chief to allocate crofts to his clansmen. After Bonnie Price Charlie's 1745 rebellion, many chiefs treated the land as their own and sold it to incoming landlords for use in sheep farming. In the Clearances that followed, many families were forced off their crofts by their landlords and fled abroad. When the exploitation and poverty of the remaining crofters was exposed to Victorian Britain, crofting laws were passed to protect them: many of these rights, and the support that came with them, still apply today.

Kilchoan, in its broad sense, is divided into three crofting townships, Kilchoan itself, at the east end, Ormsaigmor just to the east of the shop, and Ormsaigbeg at the western end. Each township is responsible for the good running of its crofts: for example, the township committee allocates rights on the extensive common grazing beyond the boundary fence, deciding how many beasts each crofter may keep on that land.

With so little land, however well run, a modern crofter cannot live without other incomes. Some keep caravans to let - a croft is allowed three - or a holiday home. Most have other jobs, from working on the local fish farms or Ardnamurchan Estate, to working in local small businesses, to jobs such as postie, carer or cleaner.

Whatever they do to make ends meet, crofting is a hard life, so great credit is due to those who have stayed in villages like Kilchoan and kept ancient Highland traditions alive.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Northern Lights Alert

Very excited: an email arrived this morning from Aurorawatch declaring a Red Alert, which means that there's a good chance of seeing the northern lights tonight - if the clouds stay away.

Kilchoan is far enough north to enjoy some spectacular events, but there haven't been many over the past few years as sunspot activity, which triggers the aurora, has an eleven-year cycle which has been going through its quiet period.

Usually the lights are a curtain low in the northern sky but, a few years ago, we had a magnificent display, very like the one shown in this photo (courtesy NASA/J Curtis of U Alaska/ACRC, on Flickr). This is a 'corona aurora', which seems to spread out from a point high in the sky, so it's a bit like looking up into a tent. The sheets of light move and change colour, from the pink seen here to yellow, green and blue. We stood outside, staring up at the spectacle in awe.

For anyone who enjoys the sky at night, Aurorawatch, a group based at Lancaster University, is well worth joining. Just at the moment their website isn't working - it's probably jammed by people like me wanting to know what's going on - but it can usually be joined here

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

October Weather

October is one of the best months of the year in Kilchoan. It's a month of rainbows, of lipid sunshine and sudden showers, of turning leaves in Sunart's ancient oak woods, of golden brown where the bracken dies across the braes above the village. It's a month of contrasts. Yesterday we enjoyed warm sun as we walked on the north coast. Today the wind is a southeaster, Force 6 gusting 7 and rising, bringing low cloud, heavy rain, and a sharp chop across the Sound of Mull.

Before we came to the village we read Alasdair Maclean's "Night Falls on Ardnamurchan" in which the old Sanna crofter's diary is published. His main topic in each day's entry is the weather. We didn't understand then. We do now. The weather controls the place, its contrasts form it. The changes, hour by hour, are sudden, unpredictable and, occasionally, dangerous. The BBC may be proud of its weather forecasts but they simply don't work here.

The family has gone across to Tobermory. They'll have had a bouncy crossing as the small ferry is on at the moment – little more than a landing craft which carries only four cars. On the other side they'll enjoy hot chocolate in The Chocolate Factory and, despite having to eat it in the rain, the excellent fish and chips served from the van by the harbour. If the wind doesn't rise still more they'll catch the last ferry back, the 3.45; otherwise they'll have to spend the night in Tobermory.

Monday, 26 October 2009

A Ghostly Village

We were quite put out this morning when, walking in bright sunshine along the coast to the north of Sanna, we met another human being. We don't meet humans in such wild and beautiful places. They don't belong there: they were cleared out, years ago, and sent to Canada or the United States, leaving behind them the shells of their houses.

The man appeared over the crest of a hill with a Scottie dog at his heels. "It's a ghost," the smallest member of the party whispered, and well she might, for the man wore a MacKenzie kilt. It turned out that he was as put out as we were at the intrusion of others, and as apologetic. He has been coming up to Kilchoan for years, and that particular part of the coast is his favourite - partly, at least, because he normally never meets anyone along it. He was, as all our visitors are, very pleasant, and allowed the two girls to be photographed with him.

The purpose of our walk was to visit Plocaig, one of Ardnamurchan's abandoned villages. The buildings are made of stone with no mortar, which must have made them desperately drafty, have rounded corners, very few windows, and lintels over the doors made from a single, massive piece of rock. The houses stand in a ragged row, facing out onto a grassy area upon which one can imagine children playing while their mothers watch from the doorways. Today their homes are inhabited by sheep.

Sunday, 25 October 2009


A stiff westerly this morning bringing in heavy drops of rain wasn't going to put the family off a walk on the beach at Sanna. The sands were deserted except for one other family which waved cheerfully to us as they passed.

When most of our party were ready to go home the smallest member decided we should climb the mountain at the back of Sanna Bheag, even though the ground was sodden, the rocks slippery and, by the time we reached the summit, we were in cloud.

It's so typical of this place that, as we began our descent, we were rewarded with the sudden appearance of the sun and lovely views over Sanna Bay and southwards to Portuairk.


It's been a good breeding year for Ardnamurchan's small birds. During the summer and early autumn the resulting hordes were eating their way through half a ton of peanuts every day: in fact, there was some concern that we might be breeding some new species of flightless birds. Then, as happens every autumn, a sparrow hawk appeared and, in the massacre that followed, most of the fledglings disappeared, leaving a rump population to survive the gales of winter.

This is a wonderful place for raptors. Golden eagles are a common sight, and we have resident buzzards, hen harriers, kestrels, peregrines, sparrow hawks, and reports of hobbies and red kites. But by far the most impressive are the sea eagles which come across here from Mull and Rhum. We see them at infrequent intervals then, often in the first months of the new year, we'll see them regularly. They've been described as flying barn doors, which is an apt description until they attack: we had the spectacle of watching one harrying a greylag goose in Kilchoan Bay, when the eagle's acrobatics were impressive. The goose had damaged a wing and could only defend itself by plunging underwater each time the eagle swooped. In the end the eagle gave up and flew away.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Ardnamurchan Lighthouse

Ardnamurchan lighthouse stands at the most westerly point on the British mainland. Completed in 1849, it was built by Alan Stevenson, a member of a family of Scottish engineers; Robert Louis Stevenson, the writer, was his nephew.

The lighthouse, which is run by the Northern Lighthouse Board, is fully automated. The buildings which once housed the keepers of the light are now used as a visitors' centre run by a local trust. There is a cafe, exhibition, and tours of the lighthouse tower; and one of the keepers' cottages is available for weekly rental. From the top of the tower there are fine views across the Minches to Skye, Rhum, Eigg and Muck, and southwards across Mull to Dutchman's Cap, one of the Treshnish Islands. On a fine day, it's possible to see the Outer Hebrides. Details of the visitors' centre and rental of the cottage are here

The lighthouse trustees have recently made the controversial decision to erect a 20Kw wind turbine on the site. In some ways this is an ideal position as it's a rare day when there is no wind. But sometimes the weather might be a bit much: driven by hurricane-force winds, waves have been known to break against the white wall around the base of the light. It will be a test of modern technology next to a marvel of Victorian engineering which, although it is over 150 years old, looks as if it was erected yesterday.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Road Works and Delays

A contractor is working on the latest round of upgrades to the B8007, the narrow, windy single-track road which is Kilchoan's only land connection to 'civilisation'. It's a daunting task, as the improvements tend to be on the narrowest sections where the road swings round blind corners and traverses sheer slopes. So the machinery - usually a pecker which breaks out the rock - sits in the road, blocking it. Recent contractors have been good at ensuring that motorists aren't held up too long, even though time is wasted moving equipment back and forth along the road instead of getting on with the job.

Normally, it takes about 40 minutes to do the 20 miles into Salen where the B8007 meets the A861, and a further hour or so to make it to Fort William. But the journey into the Fort is further slowed at the moment by the 'Corran', the bigger ferry at the Corran Narrows, being away for a service, so the 'Maid of Glencoul' is doing the job. With the half term holiday, the ferry is busy: this morning there were delays of over half an hour as the boat shuttled from one side to the other. But waiting isn't so bad when you have views like this to enjoy.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Trawlers in the Sound

Three trawlers sailed south down the Sound of Mull this afternoon, G185, SO555 and G186. They made a fine sight cutting into a stiff southeaster.

A few minutes on Google identified them as Irish boats registered in Sligo, the 'Westward Isle', 'Carmarose' and 'Colmcille' respectively. This photo of the three was taken in Killibegs harbour about three weeks ago. The 'Westward Isle' is a particularly good-looking ship painted in a striking green. It's interesting that a slightly older photo on the internet shows her with the same red hull as the other two.

Monday, 19 October 2009

The Ardnamurchan Peninsula

This LandSat satellite image shows the Ardnamurchan peninsula from space.

Kilchoan is marked with a yellow circle. To the south of Kilchoan, across the Sound of Mull, lies the Isle of Mull and Tobermory. The land in the southeast corner of the image is Morvern, part of the Scottish mainland.

Clearly visible to the north of Kilchoan are the rings of rock formed by the great Ardnamurchan volcano which erupted some 60 million years ago. A new exhibition, describing the fascinating billion-year geological history of Ardnamurchan, has just opened at the Lighthouse Visitors' Centre.

The western end of the peninsula forms the most westerly point on the British mainland. The white blotches at the northwest corner are the beautiful white sand beaches of Sanna and Bay MacNeil.

Deserted Villages

One of the tragedies of the Western Highlands has been the loss of its people. Two hundred years ago, Western Ardnamurchan had a population estimated at ten times its present one and, therefore, as in so many things, Ardnamurchan offers a window into Scottish history. The evidence lies in three abandoned villages which lie within a few miles of Kilchoan: Plocaig, near Sanna, Glendrian, near Achnaha, and the most visible, Camas nan Geall, easily spotted from the main road into the village. Glendrian was occupied until a few decades ago. One house, the Hendersons', still has all its walls standing, though its roof and upper storey collapsed some years ago.

A visit to any of the three villages is both an enjoyable and moving experience. Camas nan Geall is probably most easily reached, from the car park at Ardslignish, some seven miles out of the village on the B8007 Salen road. It also has an ancient graveyard with stones bearing Celtic inscriptions. But for anyone who enjoys a pleasant walk along a track, with little chance of meeting anyone and only a small stream as an obstacle along the way, there is nothing to beat the lonely splendour of Glendrian. Glendrian lies in a bowl formed by steep, craggy hills; a small burn runs through its peaceful valley; one can see, quite clearly, the field system - an old horse-drawn plough lies abandoned beside the path. For anyone with the stamina, a rough track beyond the village leads to the small cove on the north coast where Glendrian's fishing boats were kept. Look carefully and a small, stone jetty is visible.

All three villages are eerie places. Standing in them, one can imagine how the village lived. There are some who swear that, if you sit in peace and silence, and listen, you will hear the voices of the village's lost inhabitants. They are scattered. A few stayed locally, but most left, for cities like Glasgow or opportunities far further afield, in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Motorcyclist's Accident

A motorcyclist fell from his machine yesterday afternoon on the Achosnich-Lighthouse road. A passing paramedic, on holiday, cared for him until the local emergency services arrived: the District Nurse and doctor, the ambulance from Strontian and the police. The man was air-lifted to hospital by air ambulance helicopter.

Saturday, 17 October 2009


There aren't many things about the coming of winter to look forward to, but the reappearance of the stars is one. Kilchoan is far enough north to have daylight throughout the night in June, but, as the stars begin to reappear in late summer, they aren't the spectacular winter stars.

By October the winter constellations are beginning to show themselves. Last night, at 11pm, the red-eyed Taurus the Bull was lifting above Ben Hiant, and the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters, were visible a few weeks ago. But the dominant winter constellation is Orion the Hunter (picture), and he was still below the horizon. Betelgeuse is a giant red star, and Beta is the ice-blue star Riga. With his distinctive belt, his sword at his hip and his bow drawn, Orion stands poised to shoot an arrow into the charging Bull. At the hunter's heels runs Canis his dog, with Sirius, the bright Dog Star, forming the dog's shoulder.

Kilchoan isn't the greatest place for stargazing - the occasional cloud gets in the way - but it has the huge advantage that there is little of the light pollution that ruins the night sky in towns and cities; and some nights, like last night, are wonderfully clear. Walking out of a winter's evening and staring up at a vault of diamond stars must be one of life's greatest pleasures.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Village Tragedy

Northern Constabulary today confirmed that the body washed up on the shores of Loch Slapin on Skye is that of Kilchoan resident Ian Rodger who went missing while spear-fishing off Ardnamurchan lighthouse a fortnight ago.

Our deepest sympathy to Janice, his widow.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Kilchoan sunrise

What better way to start a blog about Kilchoan than a photo of the Tobermory ferry arriving at the pier just before eight on an October morning.

(Click on picture for full-screen view)