Sunday, 31 January 2010

Meall Mo Chridhe

I had the pleasure yesterday of visiting Meall Mo Chridhe, a grade 2 listed building, which was, until the 1970s, the Kilchoan manse. Sited just below the ruined church of St Congans, the section of the building on the left of the photo is the original manse, built in 1790. In 1829 the front was added, possibly when the parish had money donated by merchants on Mull. This south-facing part, with its splendid view across Kilchoan bay, contains most of the rooms which are used in the present business, the sitting room and dining room on the ground floor, and two of the three bedrooms on the first floor.

On the inside, the Georgian house has been extensively refurbished without losing any of its character - as if it has mellowed with age rather than been suddenly dragged into the 21st century. For example, the windows are the original sash windows, with shutters on the inside, and the slates which had to be replaced are all Ballachulish slates, which are notoriously difficult to source. The two public reception rooms are beautifully proportioned, filled with light when the shutters are thrown back, and tastefully decorated. I particularly liked the warmth of the dining room, shown below, which can seat up to eighteen people.

One of the pleasures of the house are in the antiques which grace every room, many of them bought in Provence. The photo below, of the hall, is a good illustration of the tasteful way in which the furnishing has been done. My favourite small piece was a tray in the sitting room decorated with a picture of a modern nautilus from the Pacific. The sort of thing that would interest visitors are that Kilchoan has its own, rather bigger nautiluses, the 130-million-year old ancestors of the Pacific species, hidden in the rocks below Ormsaigbeg.

Meall Mo Chridhe is is a lovely building. Described on its website as a "restaurant with rooms", its cheerful owners, Stella and Dave Cash, take immense pride in serving food which is sourced from their own fields and from the immediate area.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Sunshine and Snow

A light northerly wind and sunshine almost all day, but the temperature only just managed to climb above zero. By late morning the sun had burnt away all last night's snow except any that lay in the shadows - like, here, in the lee of an old wall. We walked over Maol Buidhe and looked across the Sound to Caliach Point, on Mull, with Tiree almost lost under a snow shower.

Turning eastwards, the midday ferry from Tobermory was nearing Mingary Pier against a backdrop of snow on the hills of Morvern.

Later in the afternoon, walking back past the shop, we found two customers taking advantage of the weather by having a picnic at one of the outside tables while, further along the Ormsaigbeg shore, a heron enjoyed the last of the light in the company of an oystercatcher.

Friday, 29 January 2010


This is the prawn trawler Accord close in to the Ormsaigbeg shore at about nine this morning. UL10 indicates that she's registered in Ullapool but I think her home port is Oban.

With a force 3/4 northerly wind bringing the occasional snow shower, it was bitterly cold. There was no sign of anyone on deck so I guess the crew were warm below, leaving the ship to steam up and down in the lee of the cliffs while they enjoyed a well-earned breakfast.

We went for a brisk walk over the hills at the back and were frozen within minutes. What it must be like working on the exposed deck of a fishing boat in this wind when the temperature is hovering just above zero defies description.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Steading Holidays

Unless people have work, this village will die. Farming, on small acreages and difficult soils, is not enough to support a family, so crofters often have a second or third job. Tourism has become increasingly important, and significant local employment comes through those small businesses which have seized the opportunities this beautiful areas offers.

Scattered across the peninsula, often in breathtaking settings, there are houses for rent. The one above, photo taken from HM Coastguard helicopter, is Grigadale House, on the road to Ardnamurchan Lighthouse.

Steading Holidays is a small business run by Jacqui and John Chapple. They act as letting agents for house owners on the peninsula, and Grigadale House, standing in some 1,800 acres of its own land and sleeping six, is one of the properties on their books.

Ben More, shown below, which sleeps five, is another. Located in Kilchoan village, it's a traditional croft house which has been comfortably refurbished.

The business was established in 1979 by Jacqui's mother, Pamela Campbell. It now employs some fourteen people in full or part-time jobs, a significant contribution to local employment. Furthermore, by drawing visitors into the area, it supports other small businesses such as the hotels and the shop.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Celtic Spirit

The Celtic Spirit came up the Sound during the mid-afternoon, butting into a stiff northwester which brought a haze across the sea. Registered in the Bahamas, she was built in 1979, and is 2,978 tonnes gross, with a deadweight of 4,001 tonnes. She's owned by the Willie Group, a Welsh company based in Cardiff, and her main trade seems to be with the Baltic, sometimes carrying timber homebound. She left Liverpool yesterday bound for Tallinn in Estonia.

We've seen her before so she tends to use the Sound rather than sail west of Mull. That ships prefer to use the passages through the Lesser Isles, either because it makes a shorter journey or because it's calmer, is one of the reasons why HM Coastguard keep a large tug permanently on station in this area. The Anglian Prince (photograph here) is on duty in these waters at the moment: she's underway, southwest of Ullapool.

The Celtic Spirit had need of the duty tug back in December 2005 when, on her way south to Warren Point in Northern Ireland, her cargo shifted and she developed a 10 degree list to starboard. She was escorted into Stornoway where the cargo was trimmed.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

St Columba's Cave

St Columba, a Celtic missionary born in Ireland, came to Iona in 563 to convert the Scottish Picts to Christianity. There are several 'St Columba's Caves', the best-known of which is at Lochead on Kintyre. He visited Ardnamurchan early in his mission, landing at Camas nan Geall, but our cave, Uamha Thuill, lies at grid reference NM538710, on the north coast between Kilmory and Swordle. It is a wild and bleak coastline, with deep bays separated by sharp, rocky headlands.

One of the entrances to the cave is visible to the left of this photo. The rocks of the area are alternations of sandstones and limestones, into which sills of igneous dolerite have been intruded. The cave has been cut by the sea into a layer of limestone which is protected by an overlying dolerite.

The cave has two entrances which lead into a chamber which can be entered in a stooped position. A smaller cave, accessible by scrambling on ones stomach, lies at the back of this. Just behind the left hand entrance is a small, natural rock pool filled by water dripping from the roof. The saint is supposed to have used this as a font, in which he baptised two robbers. Today, the pool contains the rotting bones of a dead sheep.

Perhaps the hard, lonely life Columba lived in this cave had its compensations in the magnificence of the scenery and the wonderful view north, across the sea to Rhum, Eigg, Muck and Skye.

Monday, 25 January 2010

A Walk up Glas Bheinn

With a coral-pink dawn and hardly a breath of wind, we decided to walk up Glas Bheinn, the hill at centre left of the title photograph at the top of the Diary, which overlooks Kilchoan and stands some 860ft high. We approached it through the old manse, Meall mo Chridhe (Little Hill of my Heart), now a restaurant with rooms specialising in produce from its own garden and fields, as well as seafood from local waters.

By the time we were on the flanks of the hill the weather had already begun to turn, with a freshening southeaster which brought a thin haze across the scene - which was a great pity, as the views down to and across the village were spectacular. The photo above looks southwest, along the length of Ormsaigbeg crofting township, with the hill Maol Buidh standing above it, the village shop in the centre foreground, and the linear arrangement of the croft lands clearly evident.

Half way up we came across these large stones, organised in much the same way as Greadal Fhinn, which made us wonder whether this was another but less well-known Norse burial chamber. It stands in a cup of the hill, a perfect viewpoint for someone who might wish to lie looking out across the seas he had sailed.

From the same point we looked down on Mingary Castle, once the seat of the Clan MacIain, with the Ardnamurchan Estate house, painted white, to its right, and the farm steading buildings in the foreground.

With the wind increasingly bitter, we did not linger at the summit but, as we hurried down, a peregrine passed us, working its way along the ridge line. Later he passed again, high over us as we walked home along the Ormsaigbeg road, his sickle-shaped outline sending the small birds scattering for cover.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Kilmory to Swordle

Dawn broke with a sleety drizzle which cleared to reveal a dusting of snow across the mountains on Mull. This ship, the Norwegian registered Lysfoss, came up the Sound early: she is pictured passing the entrance to Bloody Bay. Back in May 2001, Lysfoss rammed herself hard ashore on Auliston Point, on the opposite side of Loch Sunart from Kichoan, holing herself and causing some pollution. The full MAIB accident report is here but, in brief, the officer on watch fell asleep and missed his waypoint. She's a fine little ship so it's good to see her back at work.

By ten the sun was out, so we drove to the north coast. Passing through Branault we followed the pale, flitting shape of a male hen harrier as far as Kilmory, where the air lay so still that the smoke from the MacLachlan's house rose vertically into the air; and, looking north....

....the mountaintops of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides were quite clearly visible beyond Muck.

The main purpose of our walk was to visit St Columba's Cave. We then walked eastwards along the coast towards Ockle, as far as the Bay House at Swordle, one of Ardnamurchan Estate's most spectacular letting houses, sited on a lonely bay with magnificent views northwards.

In the field by the house a flock of greylag geese were feeding. With the end of the temporary ban on wildfowl shooting, they were justifiably nervous and weren't prepared to pose for the camera.

Then home to a bowl of home-made lentil soup.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Cliff Rescue Exercise

A hard frost in the village and black ice along the road out, creating very nasty driving conditions, the gritters having not been called out until nine this morning. As the sun broke through a mist or haar appeared across the Sound, veiling the hillside and running out in thicker banks across the sea. This picture shows the Tobermory ferry setting off from the CalMac pier and turning into it.

A big day for Kilchoan Coastguard, with the Sector Officer sliding down the road to assess five members of the team for their Technician certificates, which allow them to descend on the cliff rescue ropes. The exercise was carried out on the hill on the road approach to Sanna, sadly with the sun hidden behind Meall Sanna, but with a wonderful view across a sparkling Minch to Eigg, Muck, Rhum and Canna.

The test involved a controlled descent - an abseil - followed by a manual ascent using a z-drag, which effectively means hauling oneself up with the help of a small pulley. The former is fun, the latter hard work.

All five members passed the test, which means that Kilchoan now has nine Technicians. Well done the team!

Friday, 22 January 2010


It seems more that we are suffering Global Wobbling than Global Warming for, after two grey, chilling days, today dawned almost as warm as Monday. In bright sunshine, we took a long walk through the village as a flock of greylag geese wheeled noisily over the marshes at the back of Kilchoan Bay.

A group of oystercatchers were feeding in the field below Griannan, sharing the turf with a small herd of highland cattle and a plover. The oystercatchers were quite happy to ignore us until we stopped, when they rose and, emitting their high, piping cry, flew away from us.

The oystercatchers were in the field because the mudflats where they usually forage for worms and shellfish such as cockles were covered by a high tide. Grass can't be their favourite place to feed: look carefully and notice the dirt on their usually spotless orange bills.

The European oystercatcher is reported to be a migratory species but we have them here all the year round, and very welcome they are. Whatever the season, their plumage is immaculate, their bills always bright, their legs a smart pink, and they move in cheerful chattering groups in fast, low flight. In spring they split into pairs. If we approach the spot where they have chosen to lay their eggs, usually no more than a crude scrape in the shingle just above the tide line, they are fierce in its defence. More than once, despite our care, we have almost trodden on the two, beautifully camouflaged eggs.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Underwater Mountains

Looking out on a tranquil scene like this, the photo taken at dawn on a mid-December day, we tend to forget that the flat surface of the sea hides a mountain landscape: the underwater terrain beneath this view of the north end of the Sound of Mull drops to depths of over 60m and rises again so it breaks the surface.

The areas of shallow water are often formed by harder rock which, when sea level was lower, were left sticking up by the processes of erosion. The coast which runs from Kilchoan westwards to the end of Ormsaigbeg illustrates this well. Anyone walking along it will have noticed that the rocks form ridges parallel to the shore, most of which are igneous dykes, part of the cone sheets associated with the great Ardnamurchan volcano.

Unfortunately, one of these sheets rises near the surface in the middle of the entrance to Kilchoan Bay. This reef, which is visible from mid-tide, isn't at all clearly marked on the 1:150,000 marine chart, but members of the village, one of whom is Alasdair MacColl, have erected a steel pole with a radar reflector on top to warn ships and boats of the danger. In the time we have been here, this has been hit at least twice, probably by fishing boats, the first time nearly knocking it over.

Similar underwater 'mountains' rise in the middle of the entrance to Loch Sunart, reaching the surface to form a group of small islets and shoals, the New and Red Rocks: two of the small islands are just visible in the above photo. One of the New Rocks is marked by a light buoy which flashes green every 6 seconds.

The miserable southeaster continues to blow. With a westerly gale forecast for tonight, we were down in the bay this morning checking the lashings on the kayaks. The shore is thick with kelp torn from its roots. The only creatures who seem to enjoy this weather are the gulls.

The deteriorating weather has cause the Tobermory schoolchildren to be brought home early. CalMac rang the school to say that a special boat was being provided to bring them across at midday, and that it would be the last sailing of the day.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010


The first month of the year always seems to be best for sightings of sea eagles. This one was seen flying into Kilchoan Bay on Tuesday, his white rump quite clearly visible. That we see so many more than we used to isn't surprising. Recent reports from Mull state that the island now has about twenty breeding pairs, which managed to produce ten fledglings last year. We look forward to the day the first sea eagles nest on Ardnamurchan.

This is also a good time of year for rumours. We took over the village shop in January 1996, and one of the first questions we had to field was when the manager from Oban was arriving to run it for us. We have no idea where the story originated: we knew no-one in Oban other than our accountant, and we never had any intention of appointing a manager.

So it is no surprise that a rumour has been abroad that Cliff and Debbie Isherwood are giving up the Kilchoan House Hotel - except that this one appears to be true: they are leaving the business at the end of February. Rumour has it that the hotel has been sold to someone from 'down south', that Alan Mews will be returning to run it until the new owner takes over, and that Cliff is to become manager of The Ferry Stores.

A new Ice Age has arrived to follow Monday's Global warming. We're back to a miserable southeaster which gusted overnight to 55 kph, rattling the slates on the roof. It brought a thin, sleety rain to cheer us this morning so, in disgust, we went to the rainfall capital of the UK, Fort William, for the day. When our daughter boarded at the High School in Fort William she took Higher Geography, and used to chide us when we complained at Fort William's perpetual rain: Glenfinnan, apparently, is even wetter.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Stones - 3

The best pieces of rock were used for the croft houses. The walls of this house, on the path down to Bay MacNeil, is a beautiful example of the seemingly random way in which the rocks were assembled to form a strong, lasting structure.

The stones remain but the roof is long gone. This bothy, at Achnaha, was restored as part of the Achnaha Township Restoration Project, funded by a Heritage Grant. The work was carried out by volunteers, supervised by conservation and technical staff, over a number of years after 2003, but the weather is already getting the better of the structure. The problem seems to be that the outer, thatched layer has been lost, revealing the peat turfs beneath. In traditional crofts, this was prevented by covering the roof with old nets. The building also shows the neat, curved ends to the walls, built as if to shrug off the Atlantic gales.

This photograph, from Mary Khan's collection, give an idea of what a crofting village looked like. It shows the main street of Kilmory, with Eigg in the distance to the right, and Rhum to the left. All but one of the buildings are thatched, and look to be in very good condition.

An increasing collection of these super photos can be seen at West Ardnamurchan Vintage Photographs.

Monday, 18 January 2010


This tiny village, with its collection of neat, white houses, sits in a bowl in the centre of the great Ardnamurchan volcano, surrounded by the eroded wall of the Great Eucrite. Its name is Gallic, ach being a field and ath being a ford, so Acha-na-h-atha means 'the field of the ford'. The ford referred to is, presumably, across the burn called Allt Uamha na Muice which runs to the west of the village, becoming, further down its course, the Allt Sanna, the small river which runs into the sea at Sanna.
For a place with a permanent population of ten, Achnaha is a remarkably busy little village. Its land is divided between several crofts whose main business is sheep, though one croft, Hillview, also keeps pigs as well as offering Bed & Breakfast and a caravan to let. In addition, there are three home-based businesses. A relative newcomer, occupying the agricultural shed to the left of the photo, is Stewart Pote's Over the Garden Wall, which stocks a wide variety of garden items. Geosec Slides, run by Rob Gill, is a highly specialist business preparing microscope thin sections from rock samples. Finally, Nigel and Jenny Chapman run MacAvon Media Productions, which offers a range of services related to computing, from website design to text books on a range of subjects including HTML, graphics and Photoshop, as well as some very beautiful miniature watercolours. All three demonstrate how modern communications have made it possible to run efficient and successful small businesses from a beautiful location far from today's centres of population.

Global warming reached us today in the form of a sudden rise in temperature. At lunchtime this afternoon, the thermometer stood at 13.5C. Hardly a breath of wind disturbed Kilchoan Bay, and the area was bathed in bright sunshine.

View of Kilchoan Bay from the road running down into the village,
with Kilchoan House Hotel on the right.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Portuairk to Bay MacNeil

On a day of sharp, sleety showers carried in by a stiff southwesterly breeze, we walked west from Portuairk, over the hill to Bay MacNeil. A scramble up a rough path brought us to a cairn and the old coastguard lookout which dates from the Second World War, to the days when Loch Sunart was a gathering place for Atlantic convoys and the entrance to the Sound of Mull needed 24-hour vigilance. As the sky cleared to give some wintery sunshine, we had fine views north across the Minch to the isles of Rhum, Muck and Eigg.
Then down the other side to one of our favourite spots, a secluded valley with the broken remains of a stone croft house. Whoever lived here had a natural harbour in Bay MacNeil for his fishing boat and some good ground upon which to grow crops, as well as plenty of rough land for his sheep - to say nothing of the view across the bay to Ardnamurchan Lighthouse.
Bay MacNeil is a natural cove, with a narrow entrance and, to the south, an enclosed beach which rises, then drops down to the bay. Coming out onto the sand, with another shower clearing, we were welcomed by a young otter hunting in the shallows, who brought a crab onto a rock and lay eating it and watching us - probably the first humans he'd seen in weeks.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Vintage Photographs

Thanks to Iain MacDonald, Morag's son and the grandson of Iain and Chrissy MacLachlan at Kilmory, we now have a Flickr 'Group' site for vintage photographs of West Ardnamurchan. You'll find it here.

We're asking anyone who has photographs of West Ardnamurchan which are pre-1970 to share their pictures by joining the group - it costs nothing - and uploading them to the site. We're also asking you to add information to a photograph - we know very little about some of those that are already on the site. For example, we know that this photograph shows the front of The Ferry Stores, and we think it's taken on a regatta day, but we don't know much else.

Mary Khan at Kilmory has given us access to a wonderful archive of about 30 pictures which we'll be steadily uploading: the Ferry Stores picture is one of them. Some are of groups of people. While she recognises many faces, we'll need help with the rest.

The weather has reverted to a 'normal' Kilchoan winter, with the wind coming round into the southwest last night and building itself up to a full gale by 9pm. The strongest gust, measured near ground level, so it was probably much stronger, reached 66 kph, about 40mph. That I can give the speed so accurately is thanks to a Christmas present, a "remote cup anemometer" which relays readings to a small unit indoors.

By this afternoon we had a brisk breeze and some sunshine, warm enough for some of the small birds to become quite excited. If they think spring has arrived, I fear they may be in for a nasty shock.


Friday, 15 January 2010

A Thousand Visitors

The site has just had its 1,000th visitor. They come from 25 different countries.

Many, many thanks for all your support.


Our Health Service

When we first came to Kilchoan we had a young daughter, so the quality of health provision in this beautiful, remote village caused us some concern. We needn't have worried. Over the years, the care we have enjoyed here has been wonderful. In fact, we often tell people that Kilchoan is the model upon which the whole of the NHS primary care should be based. Where else could one go for a walk at 11 on a Sunday morning, fall down a slope and cut a hand deeply, yet have it cleaned and dressed by a qualified nurse and be back walking an hour later?

It takes the Strontian ambulance upward of an hour to reach us, and the nearest hospital with A&E is in Fort William. The nearest doctor is an hour away, and there are only two surgeries a week in the village. But all these matter so much less when we have two excellent District Nurses living in the village. It is the dedicated service that Jessie Colquhoun and Carolyn Ellis give which is so fundamental to the quality of our care.

What they can offer has changed. Until recently, one of them, or a relief nurse, was available at the end of a phone at all hours of day or night. Now, they work 9am to 5pm seven days a week - but they will still attend out-of-hours if called out by NHS24.

But one thing has not changed. Jessie and Carolyn are District Nurses, and are paid to do the work any other District Nurse does. Where else do District Nurses take on the additional responsibility of emergency aid, attending heart attacks, or ministering to stroke patients? It is a terrible responsibility so far from other medical support, yet Jessie and Carolyn do it willingly - and voluntarily.

With Jessie away on sick leave our privileged system, which so depends on these two ladies' good will, crashed. At least twice in the last week, the nearest nurse has been in Strontian, an hour away down treacherous roads. This is bad enough, particularly as a nasty accident occurred during one of these gaps when someone slipped and fell on ice, cutting her head, but the failure of the local NHS managers to provide cover has undermined a further change which they are urging the village to accept.

This change is the training of a group of residents as unpaid First Responders. A number of people have, very generously, volunteered for this responsible task. But, as I understand it, the condition has been that there would always be a full-time nurse available near-at-hand to give them support. Events in the last few days seem to have proved that they cannot rely on that promise.


Thursday, 14 January 2010


With the snow confined to the hills and long gone from the land along the coasts, there are signs that the cold weather is coming to an end. The biting southeaster that has been harassing us for the last three days has moderated, and the wind come more into the south. Warm rain, coming in from the west, is forecast for tonight. Some birds, particularly the small ones in our garden, will be relieved by this news, but there are others which might not be so pleased.

We've noticed that, walking anywhere around Kilchoan, we've been putting up unusually large numbers of woodcock. They also have a habit of sitting on or beside roads at night, taking off in front of the car suddenly and vertically, usually at the last minute, sometimes with fatal consequences. This morning alone, walking along the Ormsaigbeg road, we put up three, one of which became entangled in brambles.

Ricky Clarke, who lives in the village and has worked for the RSPB, tells us that woodcock and other shore birds have been driven to areas like this by the severe winter weather inland and on the continent. Their plight has been so bad that the government, for the first time in 13 years, has issued a temporary ban on the shooting of wildfowl, as reported by the BBC here. The ban usually lasts for an initial period of fourteen days, but can be extended. Ricky also explains the woodcock's habit of sitting by roads: the vibrations of passing cars drive worms to the surface where, with the ground so hard, they can be more easily caught.

Woodcock are a medium sized, striped brown bird with a long bill. That they fly fast and low, and zig-zag as they go, makes them a popular quarry for the wildfowlers who come to shoot on Ardnamurchan Estate, particularly the Italians.