Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Building Plots

Some superb building plots are available in the Kilchoan area. Until recently, a site was almost impossible to obtain, but local landowners are now much more willing to free land for development.

The land that is coming on the market is often part of a croft. Before becoming available for sale, it will usually have been decrofted, which is done through the Crofting Commission, and outline planning permission will have been obtained. The area plan effectively bans all land below the coast road from being developed, so the plots are mostly above the road, with south-facing views.

Typical of these plots is the one pictured here. It occupies the site of Kilchoan's original mill house, long derelict and now removed. As might be expected, the site is beside a stream called the Millburn, and includes some of the machinery that once worked the grinding wheel. The land is on a working croft which keeps sheep.

As with many of Kilchoan's plots, the main feature of this one is the view, in this case, across Kilchoan Bay and the Sound of Mull towards Ben Talla, which is some 25 miles distant. And with it comes the opportunity to live and work in this thriving little community, a place which is as remote as it is beautiful.

A map showing the position of the site is here, and details are here.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Basking Sharks

A grey dawn today off the Ormsaigbeg shore, but one of those starts which suggests that the sun is about to break through for yet another fine day. That's the fully-loaded bulk carrier Yeoman Bank in the distance.

But the excitement was closer inshore. As we spotted this basking shark in the bay below our house a sea eagle heaved by, moving low along the cliffs. The basking shark stayed around, to be joined by another, smaller individual, giving me time to hurry down to the point where the larger one did a leisurely swim-by.

It often looks as if there are two in the water close together, but it's the dorsal fin and the top of the tail. In the top picture, the third object breaking the surface is the tip of his nose - hence the beast's genus name, Cetorhinus, ceto meaning 'marine monster' and rhinus meaning 'nose'. Basking sharks are migratory, covering thousands of miles each year in their search for the plankton and small invertebrates off which this ten-plus ton animal survives.

Basking shark don't often venture into Kilchoan Bay. We saw two regularly during one week of 2008, but they're far more common off the north coast where six were recently seen from Ardnamurchan Lighthouse. More recently still, no less than nine were spotted by one favoured Portuairk resident - but what would one expect with Portuairk's gravitational pull, that lovely little village being the acknowledged centre of the universe?

Monday, 28 June 2010


Branault is a crofting township on the road to Kilmory and Ockle. It has a permanent population of seven adults. Its name is derived from the Gaelic Bra'-nan-allt, the head of the streams.

It is an appropriate name, for Branault lies in the valley of the Achateny Water, a small river which flows out onto the north coast near Achateny. Above Branault, seen in the picture above, the stream is called the Allt an Doire Dharaich, and it drains an exceptionally beautiful, open valley, a place where herds of red deer and Ardnamurchan Estate animals graze. Its headwaters are Loch Mudle, visible here in the distance, and the streams which come down into that loch.

From the number of derelict stone houses, Branault once had a far higher population: these old croft houses, arranged in a ragged line and each surrounded by trees, are clearly visible from the Achateny road. Today, the Cameron's neatly tended farm is the only one which remains.

A map of the area is here. Photos were taken in March - hence the snow on the hills.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

RAF Low Flying Comments

The Diary doesn't receive many comments but the post about RAF low flying has broken all records - with two comments detailing exceptionally close encounters. One of the writers was Blake from Minnesota, the other Matt Phillips of Hull, Yorkshire, a frequent visitor to the peninsula, who included a link to his Picasa site which has two photographs of low-flying jets as well as some fine pictures of West Ardnamurchan.

In the post I mentioned that the peninsula has yet to be overflown by the new Eurofighter - the Typhoon. That changed on Wednesday when two came low over Kilchoan Bay. They made an impressive entrance but, if anything, they're even noisier than the Tornadoes, which isn't surprising since each engine produces 20,000lb of thrust compared to the Tornado's 16,000. Sadly, I was enjoying a cup of coffee indoors at the time so didn't manage a picture - this one is of a recent Tornado low pass.

Comments are much appreciated. Anyone who would like to contribute to the Diary can contact me at - no attachments please.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

A Walk around Torr na Moine

Yesterday we walked around Torr na Moine (torr hill, moine moor), a craggy feature to the northwest of the hauntingly beautiful bay of Camas nan Geall. The purpose of the walk was to visit the two ruined villages of Bourblaige and Tornamona - the latter's name obviously derived from the hill beneath which it stands. We left the car by the B 8007 Salen to Kilchoan road and took the track which enters Ardnamurchan Estate land at NM553629. The track peters out after half a kilometre but, by carrying on southwest across fairly rough ground, we came to Bourblaige (NM546623).

Both Bourblaige and Tornamona were cleared by their landlord in 1828 (see yesterday's post) so all that remains of the villages are their fallen drystone walls. As if to compensate for the horrors of their destruction, the land around them is a mass of wildflowers, with delicate stems of foxgloves growing round the walls, and the interiors of the buildings a yellow carpet of birdsfoot trefoil. The orchids were out in profusion, their petals in shades varying from the palest lilacs and pinks to bold purple, each flower patterned in deeper colour.

We also made the acquaintance of this beautiful, delicate flower, the bog asphodel, which seemed to be in full bloom here earlier than expected. It is not an asphodel but a member of the lily family, and produces a fruit in autumn. In parts of Scotland it was used as a substitute for saffron and as a yellow hair dye. Sadly, it can be poisonous to both sheep and cattle.

By following the estate fence steeply downhill we came to the beach just to the east of MacLean's Nose, its lonely, windswept pebbles scattered with flotsam. The small bay, called Port a' Chamais, was obviously used by Bourblaise's inhabitants for their fishing boats. A rough path along the back of the beach leads eastwards towards Camas nan Geall. At the small point called Sgeir Fhada (sgeir a rock or skerry, fada distant), where there is a small fortification which guarded the entrance to Camas nan Geall bay, we turned north, climbing the flank of Torr na Moine.

We were led to the village of Tornamona by this lovely butterfly, a silver-washed fritillary, which disappeared as we approached the ruins, to find them occupied by a small herd of red deer.

From the village, we followed the fence northwestwards, rejoining the road just by the bridge across the stream called Allt Torr na Moine.

Total distance: 4km. Rough walking. A map of the area is here.

Friday, 25 June 2010

The Story of Bourblaige

Tucked into a fold in the eastern slopes of Ben Hiant, the Blessed Mountain, lies the small village of Bourblaige. With views south across the Sound of Mull to Tobermory, and southeastwards up Loch Sunart, surrounded by a patchwork of small fields separated by drystone walls, its houses have the idyllic setting that many dream of enjoying. But this place is deserted, its roofs burnt down, its walls crumbling, its fields overgrown, for Bourblaige is a monument to greed and the cruelty of man upon man.

Bourblaige is a clearance village. In 1828 Sir James Riddell, who owned Ardnamurchan Estate, evicted the villagers and let all its land, combined with land from the neighbouring cleared village of Tornamona, to a single, tenant farmer who would introduce the latest economic 'miracle' - sheep.

Some of those evicted moved to, and settled on much poorer land at Plocaig near Sanna, or in Ormsaigbeg, which was organised into the new system of crofts; but many left for the industrial cities of southern Scotland or in search of opportunity - and freedom from tyrannical landlords - in lands overseas.

The evictions were carried out with considerable cruelty. There is a story that one crippled old woman who barricaded herself into her cottage had her front door walled up by a stonemason, imprisoning her until she agreed to leave. Looking at the buildings, few of their drystone walls stand above a metre high, suggesting that those who carried out the evictions went to some lengths to knock them down.

On the ground today, about fifteen of the ruins may be identified as dwelling houses, although there are many more buildings - twenty-eight according to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Buildings of Scotland - probably mostly byres. Most of the dwelling houses are tiny, no larger than a modern house's living room. Sheep graze on the better land around the village, but the lazy beds, where crops such as potatoes were grown, are still clearly visible on the slopes around the village.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Safety at Sea

The Diary is thrilled to add a young, local cartoonist to its contributors. Seonaid Canning is a wonderful example of someone who, having been born and bred on West Ardnamurchan and tasted life in the 'big city', has returned to settle as a crofter in Sanna. Currently she is also studying for a degree at the University of Kilchoan, that superb HE institution run by Pat Glenday on the campus beside the Community Centre.

Seonaid's theme is Safety at Sea. For Kilchoan Coastguard, last year was a grim year for call-outs, one it would never wish to repeat, and the team would urge all those who set out on the water to follow simple safety precautions.

Wear an appropriate lifejacket. Check weather, current and tide predictions - for example, don't go out in a light, rowed inflatable with an off-shore wind - and remember that change happens quickly in the waters around Ardnamurchan. If you're going any distance, tell someone where you are going, give them an estimated time of return, and take some form of reliable communication - VHF or mobile phone. Give due consideration to others at sea - like, don't take a speeding motorboat too close to kayakers - and pay particular attention to what children are doing (see HM Coastguard's SeaSmart scheme here). Make sure that what you plan is within your competence and the capabilities of your vessel. And thoroughly check all equipment before setting out.

Kilchoan Coastguard would remind you that, if an accident happens at sea, please use VHF Channel 16 or dial 999 and ask for Coastguard - only HM Coastguard can task a rescue helicopter or RNLI lifeboat to a scene.

Finally - Ardnamurchan is a wonderful place for sea-based activities. Please enjoy this beautiful area safely.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Special Honeybees

As with so much of our wildlife, Ardnamurchan's local honey bees are very special. They are some of the few bee populations in the UK which are free of the varroa mite, a parasite which so weakens its hosts that the colony often dies, usually in late autumn.

I didn't realise how fortunate we were until I read an article in the June issue of our local monthly newspaper De tha Dol? Anyone visiting Ardnamurchan should read this gem of a paper as it's full of interesting news - and you can always tell how good a paper is from the way the local politicians queue up to get their monthly piece into it.

The article was by Kate Atchley who lives at Mingarry, the other side of Acharacle. She had almost caused a disaster by bringing in new, possibly contaminated hives from Edinburgh, so wrote to warn other local bee-keepers against making a similar mistake.

It's good to find our garden flowers a mass of honeybees this summer. Their current favourite is ceanothus, which is one of the plants which, after the unusually cold winter and dry early summer we've just experienced, has thrived. These particular bees probably come from the hive in Trevor Potts' campsite two hundred yards down the road, a hive which - I have personal experience of this - produces excellent honey.

Not all the bees in the village managed to survive the winter. A colony on the Old Golf Course which was thriving in early April was caught by a sudden cold snap and died. And the varroa mite and changes in weather aren't the bees' only adversaries....

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Ducks and Drakes and Things

A few weeks ago, on my morning walk to the shore with my dog Jax, he got there first only to be dive-bombed by two shelducks. I soon saw why - seven tiny babies bobbing in the bay. What a wonderful sight. We made a hasty retreat and stayed away from the area near the jetty, where they were nesting, for a few days. Sadly over the next week, one baby disappeared, then another. Now the family is quite used to Jax and sit happily on a rock and watch his antics in the water. When they take to the water, Mother leads the now five babies, and Father acts as "out-rider". They are brilliant parents and I do hope that they stay around for a while. Jon's photo shows the babies with fluff, but today I saw them looking sleek with adult feathers - miniatures of their parents.

Recently a seal came right in at the mouth of the Millburn, an unusual sight, but it was probably attracted to the little fish which are coming up the burn. They could be salmon or sea-trout, but they are certainly very active in what is left of the water. We are in drought conditions having had no significant rain for many weeks. Despite this, a female mallard with five babies is living up the Millburn. I only see her occasionally through the trees. No sign of the male, maybe he was the one I found dead a while back.

Could not believe my eyes one morning when, at the high tide mark, I saw a beautiful sea-urchin. It was dead of course, so I took it home and cleaned it out. Amazing that such a lovely shell could house such an ugly creature!!

Pat MacPhail

Midsummer's Night

Photo taken at 11pm looking east across Kilchoan Bay towards Ben Hiant. Midsummer's Day lived up to its name, with bright sunshine all day.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Time and Tide Wait for No Man

One of the many great pleasures of living in Kilchoan is visiting the neighbouring islands which all have their own unique character. One of my favourites is Muck, just to the north of Ardnamurchan. At this time of year it has a dreamy quality with meadows full of flowers and stunning views across the other islands. Strolling across the island, it is easy to believe that you are in a completely different country. Everything seems to move at a gentler pace (i.e. walking pace because there are very few cars) and it is easy to get lost in the beauty of the place.

Muck also had an exceptionally fine tea room and it was only as we were heading back for some delicious lamb burgers that we realised that the tide had gone out a little further than I had anticipated. Still that just meant that we had time to enjoy some equally delicious cake and a few more cups of tea while we waited for the tide to return and float us off the sand.

Geoff Campbell

Saturday, 19 June 2010

The Mists of Time

A high pressure system continues to sit over us. For a time it brought light winds, mist and periods of bright sunshine, but now a bracing northerly breeze has taken over, with gusts, yesterday evening, up to force 7.

This was Camas nan Geall on Thursday evening, with the mist rolling in across the Sound of Mull and billowing around the edges of Ben Hiant. The little bay is a hauntingly beautiful place at the best of times, with its scattering of deserted croft houses, but seemed even more silent and lonely that evening.

Meanwhile, the drought continues. Many of the smaller burns are bone dry and even larger ones, like the Millburn, pictured here at it mouth where it flows into Kilchoan Bay, are running exceptionally low. The crofters are beginning to complain that the grass has stopped growing, even if the fields look green, though some are taking advantage of the weather to cut their first silage crop. But probably the biggest worry is the water supply, already a problem on the north coast where most private supplies rely on the smaller burns. Kilchoan's water supply comes from a tributary of the Millburn!

The West Ardnamurchan Vintage Photograph site is proving a great success. So far over 100 photographs at least 40 years old have been uploaded, and, through the 'comment' system on Flickr, some of the un-named people in the photos have been identified. But others remain: we hardly know a single name in the photograph above of the Ferry Stores one Regatta Day.

In early July a selection of the photos will be on display in Kilchoan Community Centre.

Thanks to Mary Khan for the Ferry Stores photo.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Sea Slugs and Squirts

The village is very fortunate in having a resident who is an expert on the local flora, fauna and geology. During the winter Trevor Potts takes his skills south, far south, to work as a guide on cruise ships in the Antarctic, while in the summer he runs the Study Centre and Campsite along the Ormsaigbeg road. Although it's a small site, it has won praise in recent editions of both The Guardian and The Times, as well as featuring in, who described it as 'inexplicably special'.

The campsite, as well as enjoying panoramic views down the Sound of Mull, overlooks an unusual, T-shaped coastal feature which is only visible at low tide - Bogha Caol Ard.

The other day, taking advantage of a spring tide, Trevor took time away from his busy campsite to survey some of the sea creatures which live amongst the rocks and kelp. The wealth and variety of life he found amazed him. Here are two photographs he took:

In this picture, a sea star squirt sits on top of an unidentified species with, on the right, a breadcrumb sponge....

...and here a sea slug which gives off a vivid purple dye sits on an exposed rock, it's gills visible along its back.

Visitors to the campsite not only enjoy a unique camping experience, they can also take advantage of Trevor's expertise. During the summer he runs expeditions which are wonderful for children as well as adults, and gives lectures at the study centre he runs on the site.

Trevor's website is here.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Still Waters

Two yachts pass Ardmore Light on their way south down the Sound of Mull. This is the sort of very still weather we've been having the last few days, with low cloud, mist across the water, and an occasional thin drizzle.

Then, suddenly, the sun comes out and the Sound opens before us, its mirror surface patterned by an aimless breeze.

This fishermen has been active at the Kilchoan jetty working on his boat in preparation for the brief salmon season....

...while another takes advantage of the calm to lay creels beyond the perch at the entrance to the bay.

The mackerel have yet to appear in any numbers, and there's been little sign of the bait fish which draw them in, but some fine pollock, up to three pounds in weight, have been caught off the point below Coilum.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The Chelsea Kayak Club

Last weekend was the inaugural outing for the Chelsea Kayak Club and what better place to choose for getting on the sea than Kilchoan. Seven club members set off from London by train, 'plane and automobile to arrive in Kilchoan in time for a Friday evening paddle around Glas Eilean with a full escort from the inquisitive seal population.

On Saturday we set off up Loch Sunart pushed along by a brisk westerly wind with some fairly exciting paddling around Maclean's Nose and Ardslignish Point (Rubha Aird Shlignich).

We stopped off at some beautiful deserted beaches on the way that are only accessible by sea. Once past Ardslignish Point, things became a little calmer and we had a leisurely paddle to the Nature Centre at Glenmore for a well deserved tea.

On Sunday we returned to Kilchoan, this time going into the wind and waves which proved to be a demanding exercise. Just to make things a little more interesting we crossed over Loch Sunart to Oronsay and a quick look into Loch Na Droma Buidhe before heading back across Loch Sunart and along the coast to Kilchoan. On the way we stopped for lunch at Port a Chamais, a deserted settlement at the foot of Ben Hiant. A couple of ruined crofter's cottages on the shore front made a beautiful picnic spot.

As you would expect we experienced the full range of weather and sea conditions which was just what we were looking for. A special thanks to Jon Haylett and Trevor Potts for the loan of equipment and to John Chapple for the taxi service.

Geoff Campbell

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

A Mobile Beast

Fossils are supposed to be dead and fixed in the rock but this lovely pecten, found at one spot along the shores of Kilchoan Bay, seems constantly on the move. We find him, then, for months, we lose him. The other day we set out to hunt him down to take his portrait but it took two thorough searches before we nailed him.

He's as mobile as his living relatives, the scallops, the empty shells of which are to be found along our beaches, shells often used as ashtrays.

Scallops are one of the few bivalves with the ability to swim, which they achieve by taking water into at the front of their shells then, by clapping the two shells together, expelling it at the back. This sort of progress isn't much good unless you can see where you're going, so another of the scallop's wonderful inventions is a line of primitive eyes running along the front edge of his shell, which can be seen in this US Government photo.

Sadly, too many of these beasts are moving out of the sea and down our throats. Most are being removed by dredgers, which rely on the scallop's ability to swim. As they drag a heavy chain along the sea bottom the scallops jump up and fall into the net that follows it. This removes scallops of all ages as well as other bottom-feeding fish, and does immense damage to sea floor ecology.

Pegasus, a boat that operates out of Tobermory and was in Kilchoan Bay only yesterday, catches scallops the traditional way, by sending divers down to pick up the choicest individuals. This does no damage to the environment and ensures that only select scallops end up on our dinner tables.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Another Beautiful June Day

We had some useful rain yesterday morning - 5mm according to my new rain gauge - enough to please the garden plants and encourage the fodder growing in the fields but not to set the burns running again, so the problems with water supply over on the north coast are likely to continue. Today has been another quite beautiful day, with the sun out from dawn to dusk, though the wind, settling into the northwest, has had a chill to it.

All this sunshine has also pleased our local thrush. We don't think we have ever heard one sing as long and as cheerfully as this character. He has various vantage points from which he performs, mostly the tops of fir trees in our two neighbouring crofts, but he also stops by our window on this steel post to give us a quick rendition of his latest ballad. Perhaps it's to thank us for the food we put out for him.

The basking sharks are reported to have arrived, unusually early. No fewer than six were seen together from the top of Ardnamurchan lighthouse the other day, feeding on a large bloom of plankton; and the first minke whale made an appearance in the Sound of Mull over a month ago. We've had the usual sightings of sea otters and grey seals, and we've seen a sea eagle soaring over the Sound of Mull in the last couple of days.

A reminder that wildlife sightings can be reported on Kilchoan Community Centre's website, here, as well as by writing them on the whiteboard in the Centre.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

RAF Low Flying

The RAF has been busy in the skies over Kilchoan during the last few days. The most common aircraft over us is the Tornado GR4, flying out of RAF Lossiemouth, and the Tornado F3 out of RAF Leuchars- it was one of these that crashed while negotiating the Rest and be Thankful pass last July. GR4s are attack aircraft, while F3s are mainly used in the defence of UK airspace. We may also see some aircraft from RAF Marham near Kings Lynn in Norfolk.

While there is some controversy about low flying, most people seem to accept that it has to happen, and that the best place is sparsely populated areas such as ours. But nobody can deny that it does cause problems: the noise from two Rolls Royce engines, each producing 16,000lbs of thrust, passing within 300ft, can hardly fail to. Livestock are affected, though it seems that most have become accustomed to the noise. For humans, having one of those jets roar suddenly over a hilltop and pass immediately overhead can be alarming, although there are some of us who are more bothered by envy of the young men and women who get to fly such machines - and are paid for it.

We also see other RAF planes. Hercules C130 transports lumber along, often on their way up Loch Sunart. Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft were infrequent visitors, but have recently been withdrawn from service. We have benefitted from the help of Lossiemouth's 202 Squadron helicopters in emergency medical evacuations. I once witnessed an RAF machine land on a postage stamp sized area at Portuairk. And recently we saw the first of the new Eurofighters, the Typhoon, over Ardnamurchan's north coast, though these are all based at RAF Coningby in Lincolnshire.

Ardnamurchan is part of the RAF's low flying area 14, which takes in most of the Highlands. There is a timetable to show when training is taking place here, but the area is so huge that we probably see only a fraction the planes that use it. On the same Ministry of Defence website you can complain about low flying, here.