Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Flotsam and Jetsam

We woke to a scattering of snow along Ormsaigbeg and temperatures that had struggled to stay above zero overnight. Thankfully, the wind has dropped, though it remains in the northeast and is busy bringing fresh flurries of wet snow as the day progresses. The east of the country is far worse, with Aberdeen reported as virtually cut off.

The photo looks across Kilchoan Bay to Ormsaigbeg and Moel Buidhe, the yellow hill, its structures neatly picked out by the snowfall. A buzzard quarters the marshland looking for mice and other small animals.

The area at the back of Kilchoan Bay has the misfortune to be one of the places where flotsam and jetsam collect along this coast, while many of our beaches and bays, particularly those along the north coast, remain clear. It's probably a function of tide and prevailing wind, but another factor must be the passing traffic. With the Sound of Mull a fairly busy shipping lane, the beaches facing it are bound to suffer more.

Strictly, neither of the words flotsam and jetsam describe this rubbish, as flotsam is defined as material not deliberately thrown overboard while jetsam is material jettisoned, for example to lighten a ship in an emergency. The length of rope was probably lost overboard from a fishing boat or fish farm, while the plastic soft drinks bottle was thrown away thoughtlessly.

The Ardnamurchan coast has far less rubbish along it than ten years ago thanks, in part, to laws which have made it an offence to dispose of rubbish at sea, including the Merchant Shipping (Prevention of Pollution by Garbage) Regulations 1988. Most ferries now display notices warning passengers that it is an offence to dispose of rubbish overboard.

The village, in preparation for our summer visitors, makes an annual effort to clear its beaches. Led by Geoffrey Campbell, this year's Kilchoan Clean-Up will take place on Easter Monday, starting outside the Ferry Stores at 11.00am. All are very welcome to take part - even twenty minutes helps. Bags, gloves and other gear are supplied, and the task ends, appropriately, at 1.00pm at the Pub.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

A Late March Roar

If March came in like a lamb, it's going out with a roar. We've had a northeasterly gale all day, with wind speeds - measured on my anemometer which is in the lee of a hill - gusting to Force 9, and a top speed of 83kpm (51mph) at 12.20. The gale has brought sleet alternating with stinging rain, and a temperature not above 4C all day. The snow has settled well down the flanks of Ben Hiant. Gales from that direction aren't common here.

The Yeoman Bridge (above), a bulk carrier, passed down the Sound this morning on its way to Glensanda Quarry to pick up a cargo of aggregate, chasing a small fishing boat dwarfed by the carrier's size.

The Hebridean Princess, a small, luxury cruise liner, spent the night in the lee of Ben Hiant, anchored off Mingary Castle. While the scenery, with the snow line low on the hills, is spectacular, this isn't cruising weather.

And the Clansman, a CalMac ferry which does the Oban to Coll, Tiree and Castle Bay services, came down the Sound late afternoon. She had no trouble with the wind but her smaller sister, the Loch Linnhe, which is doing the Kilchoan-Tobermory run, was blown all over the place. Being flat bottomed, a wind on her quarter is bad news. At one point, on her lunchtime sailing to Tobermory, she was knocked round through almost 180 degrees.

But the most surprising sight was this yacht, which came into Kilchoan Bay at about 5.30pm, and then turned and set off across the Sound to Tobermory. It takes a brave, or a very unimaginative sailor to be out in a small boat in this weather.

The radio reported that the A82 was closed near Tyndrum because of snow - which is excellent news for the lads who are setting off for their walk along the 96 miles of the West Highland Way tomorrow, in aid of Kilchoan Playpark (site here). At least those of us tucked up warm at home will sleep soundly in the knowledge they're earning their sponsorship money.

Monday, 29 March 2010

A Cold Snap

The weather forecast warned us - and it has turned a lot colder. This morning we woke to a crust of ice on standing water in buckets and birdbaths, a biting easterly breeze, and a dusting of snow on the mountaintops of Mull.

All this is bad news for Nan MacLachlan's lambs, but they have a trailer full of straw to cuddle up in at night. For the Blackface sheep out on the common grazing, any early lambs will have a tough time. At least the ground remains reasonably dry.

Considerable excitement at lunchtime in this house because we saw a merlin fly by, heading along the coast towards Sron Bheag. We've never seen a merlin before but knew they were in the area from reports on the wildlife section of the Ardnamurchan Estate's website. They're a small hawk which is easy to tell in the air because of its rapid wingbeat.

If the cold is bad news for lambs, the arrival of a merlin, to add to the local sparrowhawk, is bad news for those small birds which have managed to struggle through this cold winter.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

MacIain's Knoll

Grey skies and a stiff north wind bearing the occasional drizzle didn't prevent us from setting off in search of the rounded hill named after the clan which, for four centuries, were the lairds of Ardnamurchan.

We left the car by the forestry at NM522660 (map link at bottom of this entry) and, turning northwestwards, followed the burn called Allt Rath a' Bheulain upstream across land owned by Ardnamurchan Estate. What's so good about following a burn is that it constantly changes, though the flow in this one, which has a fine waterfall upstream from the one shown in the photograph, was rather too low to be spectacular.

We saw plenty of the Estate's red deer....

....and even more of its Blackface sheep, though one of them had obviously taken a tumble down a steep slope into the bed of the burn.

Despite the weather, from Coire Mam a' Ghaill there's a good view down onto Tom Mhic Iain (MacIain's knoll) and the small Lochan Tom Mhic Iain. In the distance lie the northern flanks of Ben Hiant, the mountain's summit wreathed in mist.

There must be good historical reason for this little hill and its accompanying lochan being named after that great clan. Even in grey weather, it's a pretty spot, and on a fine day there would be a spectacular view down the valley to the MacIain's ancient seat of Mingary Castle.

Perhaps this spot was a favourite destination for one of the clans' chiefs who, like us, enjoyed a Sunday walk in this beautiful part of the world.

A map is here.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Another First for the Year

This is one of the mile-posts in each year, the first launch of our kayaks. We've owned sea kayaks for the last ten years and, at one time, used to go out throughout the winter, but a realisation of just how cold the water becomes put a stop to it.

So, with only light rain and the sea like a millpond, we paddled gently along the Ormsaigbeg shore into Kilchoan Bay, and nosed up the Millburn before turning back. We faced the usual strong objections to our presence, particularly from the oystercatchers, who are beginning to think about nesting and don't want any disturbance along the beach which will shortly be their nursery.

It was great to be back on the water, to be reminded of how different the perspective is, the land around the crofts appearing foreshortened, so the common grazing seems only a few yards away. Perhaps next time we'll turn west and run under the great cliffs of Sron Bheag towards Ardnamurchan Point.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Eagle Attack

A sea eagle swoops down on a goose swimming in Kilchoan Bay.

The goose avoids the attack and swims on.

The eagle flies round and comes in again, this time pursued by a furious gull.

But the gull can't prevent the eagle from pressing home its attack.

The eagle misses again. By this time it's being chased by three gulls so it flies off.

This happened below Trevor Potts' camp site in Ormsaigbeg yesterday afternoon. We've seen a sea eagle attack a goose in this way before. The goose makes no attempt to take off - perhaps it's afraid of the eagle knocking it out of the air. Instead, as the eagle comes in, it makes a splashy dive under water.

In this attack the eagle came round about four times but, the previous time, it made many more assaults before giving up.

This eagle is a fully mature adult with characteristic white tail and a wing span of 8ft.

Thursday, 25 March 2010


A gentle, grey day today, with only one brief shower of rain. The photo looks down the Sound of Mull towards Tobermory lighthouse and the distant hills of Mull, with Calmac's ferry Loch Linnhe, back on duty for the Kilchoan-Tobermory run, approaching Tobermory Bay. The extended summer timetable starts today, but Sunday sailings don't begin until May.

The scallop boat Pegasus, registration OB216, came out of Tobermory early, her divers searching for scallops close under the Ormsaigbeg cliffs.

Meanwhile, ducks continue to arrive, this fine pair of Shelduck making themselves at home in the pond just below The Ferry Stores. They've spent the winter in the Heligoland Bight, off northwest Germany, moulting. It seems a cold place to go to shed your feathers.

If there was plenty of traffic on the water, it wasn't moving down Kilchoan's roads. They're tarmacking what might be called our High Street, from The Ferry Stores to the cattle grid by the Mingary turn. One of the joys of our roads is that there are no alternative routes, so drivers sit and wait for them to finish a stretch. As a result, the shop was rather quiet this morning, and the mail and papers were late.

The resurfacing is badly needed after the frosts of this winter, and they're doing a proper job of it, with two layers going down. It looks good - so good that somebody is bound to come along and dig it all up again.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

A Desert

175 people live on the end of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, west of line which runs from Ockle on the north coast to the bay of Camas nan Geall on the south (see map at the bottom of the page). Estimating the land area at about 110 square kilometres, that gives a population density of 1.59 persons per square kilometre. If West Ardnamurchan were an independent country - what a lovely thought - it would, in the ranking of population densities by country, be 228th out of 234, with a lower density than Libya, Australia or Namibia, all famous 'desert' countries. Most of the places below it are remote islands such as South Georgia, Midway and Jan Mayen, or desperate places like Greenland and Western Sahara.

This place is, in the true sense of the word, a 'desert' - but what a beautiful desert.

We must hold another record. There are others than can equal us, but we have one village which has a population of one - Ockle. We have a lighthouse with a population of one, and several houses which are in the middle of.... a desert.... also with populations of one.

All this changes with the coming of spring, when our numbers begin to swell. I haven't done a count of our population in the heady weeks at the end of July and beginning of August, but it must be four or five times the resident one. But, even with this seething hoard, our wilderness remains empty. It's possible to walk for miles on an August bank holiday and see nobody, there are peaks to be climbed which probably haven't seen a soul in years, and there are beaches to be discovered which will remain empty all day.

And, when our visitors go home and are asked where they've been for their holiday, they can say they've been to a desert.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Lambs, Flowers & Ships

Although the forecasts haven't been good, and we have had some heavy showers, the weather has continued kind. Today it's sunny with a stiff force 4 southerly wind gusting to force 7, which is raising white horses in Kilchoan Bay.

The twin lambs born on Saturday have emerged from the small shed where they were sheltering and are hiding in some marsh grass. They were ten days late but none of the rest of the flock is showing any signs of producing.

And the sun continues to bring out the spring flowers. Okay, so it's only a dandelion nestling against a south-facing roadside bank, but it's the first of the coming summer's thousands.
To go with the busy wind, the Sound has seen plenty of shipping traffic. Yesterday we watched this rather strange boat heading north. She's the SD Salmaid, the SD standing for Serco Denholm, the company which owns her, a joint venture between the Serco and Denholm Groups. Amongst other things, she recovers buoys, and used to be part of the Royal Maritime Auxiliary Service vessels - mainly tugs - which serviced Royal Navy ships while in port. But SD has taken over these services in the three UK naval bases at Portsmouth, Devonport and Clyde. According to this excellent AIS site, she was en route to an 'Exercise Area'.

This smart little general cargo boat which sailed up the Sound yesterday afternoon is the Eidsvaag Sirius, built in 2006, a Norwegian ship whose home base is Trondheim. She carries general cargoes such a bulk grain, and was bound for Belfast.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Beinn na h-Imeilte

The end of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula is a cross-section of the guts of the great volcano that erupted there some 60 million years ago. Glaciers removed what lay above, exposing what may have been a magma chamber, but it was a complex affair, with the magma intruding in a series of concentric rings which cooled to form ring dykes. The magma was of a basaltic composition called eucrite.

While the snow was still clearing from the tops, we walked from the Sanna road at NM472665 northwestwards along the ridge crest formed by the eucrite ring dyke, until we reached the summit of Beinn na h-Imeilte, the hill of many streams. Despite the thaw and the name of the hill, it was dry, if rough walking. There are fine, all-round views from there. Looking south, there's a twenty-five miles view, across Lochan an Aodainn and Kilchoan Bay to the Sound of Mull and the mountains of Ben Talla and Ben More.

Looking northwest, the round lump of Meall Sanna forms part of the ring dyke. In the photo (above) it partly obscures the Island of Muck, with snow-covered Rhum to the right and flat Canna to the left in the distance.

To the north lies the tiny crofting settlement of Achnaha, sitting in the centre of the great Ardnamurchan volcano's magma chamber. The island of Eigg is in the background, beyond the northern part of the ring dyke, whose main feature, to the right, is Meall Clach an Daraich.

Finally, looking east, the ridge of the Great Eucrite swings northwards, with Creag an Airgid, the silver rock, to the right of the photo. In 1518, in the broken, boggy lands clearly visible this side of the crag, John MacIain and two of his sons were killed in a fierce battle with Sir Donald MacDonald of Lochalsh, a fight from which Clan MacIain never recovered.

A map showing the area of the walk is here.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

A Warm Spring Day

We were forecast wind and rain for today but it's turned into a beautiful spring day, with a brisk southwester bringing us sunny intervals.

This spring's lambs seem to lack all sense of timing. After the one that appeared far too early (see the Diary entry for 1st March), who, incidentally, is doing fine, this flock is starting to produce a good ten days late. Perhaps it's the unusual winter we've had - or a lazy tup.

More wildflowers are coming into flower. This very early primrose has a sheltered spot against some dark rock which has warmed in the recent sunshine.

Gorse has established itself in a few places in the Kilchoan area. Just coming into flower is this bush along the Kilchoan to Sanna road, near the bridge which crosses the burn called Allt Uama na Muice. In the background are the rugged hills formed of the Great Eucrite.

This afternoon we had a glimpse of our first slow worm. He'd been sunning himself on some rough grass by the raspberry plants when we disturbed him.

Slow worms are often mistaken for snakes but they are lizards. We like them in the garden because they eat slugs. The only true snake we've seen here is the adder, after whom our township is named. Ormsaigbeg is derived from the Norse ormr, a snake, and vik, a bay, the beg being Gaelic meaning small. As far as I know they've never bitten anyone.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

A Scottish Burn

This winter there has been frost and snow but little rain, so the burns are running low. This one tumbles down through birch and hazel woodland where the shadowed, damp conditions favour the growth of moss, lichen and fern.

The burn rises on the south flank of the ridge called Druim na Gearr Leachan, dropping over 200m in less than a kilometre, more gently across the limestone outcrops and steeply down the scarps formed of hard dolerite sill.

The course of the burn is cluttered with boulders left by the glaciers that once covered the land. Some have been lifted and carried many miles before being dumped. Between the rocks the silent, peat-stained water swirls in slow eddies.

Friday, 19 March 2010

HM Customs Cutter

One of Her Majesty's Customs Cutters slid down the Sound yesterday afternoon, a fine looking boat showing a good turn of speed. Built by Damen, a Dutch company, she's 42m long and capable of 26 knots. In recent years the government has purchased four of her type, at over £4 million each. With appropriate names like Searcher, Vigilant, Seeker and Valiant, their original role was largely in the control of smuggling.

But.... Look closely. Just above the bold sign 'CUSTOMS' painted on her side is a new, rather tattier one: 'HM BORDER AGENCY'.

The addition of the sign follows yet another British Government reorganisation, with the creation of the UK Border Agency. It's a merger of the Border and Immigration Agency, UK Visas, and the 'port of entry' functions of HM Customs and Revenue which include the control of smuggling.

So Customs cutters now have the additional role of searching for people trying to make an illegal entry. I wonder who they'll be looking for off this west-facing coastline. Americans? Canadians? Inuit?

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Another Pine Marten

We've seen this character the last few evenings. It's not the one I photographed last Wednesday, with the pale face, so perhaps they're a pair.

Watching him has been interesting. He has a heavy, lumbering gait, a bit like a bear or a badger, yet he's very agile, with his nose into everything. And he doesn't hang around - hence the blurred image.

More Bird Sightings

We're not used to the seasons behaving themselves but 2010's, so far, have. We had a cold, dry winter, the first we've seen in years. Now, March having come in like a lamb, it's behaving absolutely correctly, with strong winds, low, scudding cloud, and rain.

Following on from PMP's Diary entry yesterday, the changing seasons are reflected in the birds we've seen in the last week or so.

This group of ten Whooper Swans were photographed by Ricky Clark swimming in the bay by Mingary House. They're winter visitors from northern Europe and Asian Russia but they once bred in Scotland; the last breeding pair were seen in Orkney in the 18th Century.

Perhaps it was the fine weather after the snow that allowed us to see many more geese in the air. This small flock were flying south across the face of Ben Hiant a few days ago. At this time of year one would have hoped to see them flying in the opposite direction: perhaps they knew something we didn't about the weather that was coming.

Reed Buntings are resident in Scotland all the year round but I can't recall seeing one in Kilchoan until this gentleman called at me from some brambles in Ormsaigbeg. He seemed unafraid, allowing me to approach to within a few yards before flying off - but only a short distance. What impressed me was his superb camouflage and how fat he seemed after what must have been a lean winter for small birds.

There are reports of ravens being seen in the skies over the village - not a popular sight, with the first scheduled lambs appearing on the crofts this week.