Thursday, 31 March 2011

The Ardnamurchan Volcano - 6

For its third outburst, the Ardnamurchan volcano moved northeastwards, the centre for Centre 3 being almost exactly on the abandoned village of Glendrian. The rocks of this phase produced some of West Ardnamurchan's most spectacular wilderness scenery, and show the circular arrangement of the Ring Dykes to perfection.

Glendrian, visible in the middle of the picture, one of the abandoned villages, lies in a bowl of low land which extends westwards to Achnaha. All around it stand a ring of towering hills formed of the Ring Dyke rock called Eucrite, a variety of Gabbro. The picture was taken from the south of the mountain ring, looking north across Centre 3, the high hill in the background being Meall Clach an Daraich.
This view looks southwest to the great ridge, again formed from Ring Dyke material, called Beinn na h-Imeilte, the smaller hill in the middle ground being Sithean Mor. Some sense of the grandeur of this landscape is given by finding our Land Rover in the centre of the picture, parked beside the road to Sanna.

The western section of the ring forms the forbidding hills that Sanna nestles against. This picture is taken from the Sanna road before it reaches Achnaha, looking northwest towards the western side of the Eucrite Ring Dyke, the peak at mid-right being Meall Sanna.

Standing in the broken buildings of Glendrian village, looking in a 360-degree circle at this gaunt ring of hills, one has to imagine oneself as being in the very guts of a volcanic episode frozen in time for us to study and enjoy.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Branault Standing Stone

In the tiny crofting hamlet of Branault, on the road to Ockle, there is a standing stone, or megalith, which may date back some 4,000 years or more. Beside it, lost in the marsh grass, is another stone, half-buried, which may be the stump of a second megalith, broken off and removed from the site.

Many similar standing stones, or megaliths, are associated with the Bronze Age people who inhabited these remote areas of Scotland around 2,000BC, but others may be older, dating to the Neolithic. There are hundreds of Scottish megaliths, many in the Tobermory area just across the Sound of Mull but, as far as the Diary knows, there are relatively few on West Ardnamurchan. The only similar one is that at Camas nan Geall, which was later carved with Christian symbols, while Branault's is plain, cut out of the local rock and stood on its end.

The purpose of such stones is unclear. They may have been way markers, memorials to battles or other events, or - as in the case here, where there were two - they may have astronomical significance. One reference suggests the Branault stones have an alignment, with Ben Hiant to the south and the Cuillin Hills to the north - but the photo at the top, with Ben Hiant in the distance, refutes this, the stones being aligned roughly 30 degrees to the west of north.

Another possibility is that this is a religious site. The stones stand in a dip at the summit of a small, rocky hill, and are surrounded, except on the north, by marshland: it might have been that they stood in the centre of a small pond. The land around the hill is strangely broken, and quite unlike anywhere else on Ardnamurchan. And near them stood a church, Cladh Chatain (the churchyard of St Catan, who died in 710AD). The church, and its associated well, is lost, but it wasn't uncommon for the early Christians to site their places of worship on more ancient ones - as they did at Camas nan Geall.

The stone is on Ardnamurchan Estate land but the best way to reach it is through the Branault Croft farmyard. Please phone the Camerons on 01972 510284 to ask permission before proceeding.

A map is here.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The Ardnamurchan Volcano - 5

Volcanic activity moved to the west for the next phase, producing a second Caldera centred where the small village of Achnaha now stands. Centre 2 produced the great Ring Dykes (red) which form the western tip of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, including the hills around the Lighthouse ('L' on map), Portuairk, and to the north and south of Sanna Bay.

Centre 2 also produced volcanic rocks such as lavas, ashes and agglomerates (purple), but these are not distinguished on the map from those of Centre 1.

A good example of the features produced by the Centre 2 Ring Dyke complex is this hill, Beinn Bhuidhe, which dominates the skyline to the west of Achosnich. Further to the south and east, Beinn na Seilg, the mountain which stands behind Ormsaigbeg, is also part of a Ring Dyke of this phase.

All the rock around the Lighthouse is formed of the Ring Dykes of Centre 2. The rocks vary in composition, though all belong to the basalt family; being coarse-grained because they cooled slowly, they are termed Gabbros.

This phase probably produced the most prolific swarms of Cone Sheets, these being particularly well exposed in the hillsides and coast around Ormsaigbeg and Kilchoan ('K' on map). The photograph above shows lines of Cone Sheets picked out by the rising tide along the Ormsaigbeg shore....

....and this sheet, exposed in the coast below Coilum, shows one of the Cone Sheets cutting the Jurassic sedimentary rocks into which it was intruded.

Monday, 28 March 2011


The Diary had never really come across siskins until after the move from Essex - where they are winter visitors - to Ardnamurchan. Even then, it was some time before they registered as, when we lived at The Ferry Stores, they were crowded out by other, more assertive birds. They've become much more evident since we've moved to the quieter, western end of Ormsaigbeg.

The siskin is a small finch, about the same size as a blue tit, the male (there are four in the top picture) having a very distinctive yellow-green plumage and almost black cap. The female (above) is much more subdued in colouring, with more white on her belly, but both have a very distinctive yellowish flash on their wings. Their indigestible habit of eating upside down makes them easily recognisable, even in silhouette, as does their confidence - they don't move until approached quite close- and their forked tail. Most finches are described as seed-eaters, but our siskins seem to prefer peanuts, spending long periods hanging from the peanut feeders.

This winter we saw hardly any until after Christmas, when they suddenly took up residence, some half a dozen or so, enjoying the peanuts put out in our various feeding contraptions. In winter they tend to move around in groups; come the spring we'll see less of them and, when they do arrive, they'll be in breeding pairs.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

First Sea Kayak of the Spring

by Rachael

I arrived back in Kilchoan yesterday for my easter break, and it was lovely coming back to the village in spring sunshine. Today has been overcast with sunny intervals, so we decided to get the sea kayaks out for the first time this year.

The sea was calm, and although the sun was around, the cloudy sky made the sea a grey-blue colour, reminding us that the water is by no means warm enough for a swim yet! We headed west along the coast, hoping to spot some wildlife, but the shores were quiet today. Nontheless, it was nice to get out on the water again! I'm sure the Diary will be jealous, as he recently emailed to say that the sea kayak hire businesses in Vancouver are not open yet. He'll just have to wait until he comes home :)

Saturday, 26 March 2011

The Ardnamurchan Volcano - 4

The Ardnamurchan volcanic event occurred in three phases, each developing around a Centre. The central point of Centre 1, the most easterly of the three, was located in the broken landscape to the west of Meall nan Con, about where Meall Meadhoin now stands. The '1' on the map therefore marks the centre of the first collapsing Caldera, with much of the more westerly evidence destroyed beneath the later Centres 2 and 3.

Centre 1 produced all the classic features: huge emplacements of basaltic rock intruded as Ring Dykes (in red on map), of which Ben Hiant is the most visible, accompanied by agglomerates, lavas and ash flows (purple), and an outer circle of Cone Sheets (orange).

This photograph looking across Kilchoan Bay from Ormsaigbeg clearly shows the huge Ring Dykes that form Ben Hiant itself and the distinctive ridge of Beinn na h-Urchrach to its left. The lump of Maclean's Nose on the right is largely formed of Vent Agglomerates.

The high ridge that runs along the back of Kilchoan village, Glas Bheinn, is part of another Ring Dyke, while the valley to the right, which separates Glas Bheinn from the Ben Hiant complex, is formed of softer rocks which were more deeply eroded by the ice.

The north-south running Ring Dyke, lying immediately to the east of Meall nan Col on the map, forms the heights of Beinn an Leathaid and Cathair Mhic Dhiarmaid, and the ridge which runs along the west of the road from the Cairn down to Kilmory. Lastly, the broken high ground to the west of Fascadale ('F' on map) is also part of a Centre 1 Ring Dyke.

A map of the area is here.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Sgurr nam Meann

After a series of grey winter days it was good to wake to find the sun appearing from behind the clouds, offering the promise of a fine day. The picture looks from the road just east of The Ferry Stores southeastwards across Kilchoan Bay to the distant mountains of Mull.

We drove to the centre of the known universe - otherwise known as Portuairk - a tiny crofting village on Ardnamurchan's northwest coast, parked in the village, and set off up the valley of the small burn that comes in to the village at its west end.

The walk as far as Bay MacNeil is a popular walk - not that we saw another human all day - but our objective was the summit of this great lump of rock, Sgurr nam Meann, the rocky peak of the young deer. Formed of a igneous rock called eucrite, a coarse variety of basalt, it stands like a great, impregnable fortress frowning out across the Atlantic Ocean.

From its western slopes we looked down onto one of West Ardnamurchan's many beautiful, deserted, white-sand beaches washed by glassy-clear water. The inlet to the right, a small cove, is Bay MacNeil, and the small island joined to the mainland by the beach is Eilean Carrach, the carrach probably being carraig, meaning the rocky island.

As we climbed higher a small bulk carrier passed Ardnamurchan Point Lighthouse, on a course north into the Minches. The low land in the distance is the island of Coll.

The climb isn't an easy one, the last few metres being up steep, bare rock with an almost vertical drop on the western side. We were fortunate that it had been dry so the rock offered safe footholds, but the wind as we neared the summit became increasingly fierce. This is not a climb to be undertaken without good equipment and a steady nerve.

A difficult climb, but worth it - this is what we were looking for, the view from the summit on a near-perfect winter's day.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Ardnamurchan Volcano - 3

The original 1930 British Geological Survey Memoir on Ardnamurchan described the volcanic event as occurring in three phases, each consisting of a broadly similar sequence of events. The plume of magma rising from the Earth's mantle created a huge basaltic magma chamber into which a 'plug' (1) - roughly the shape of an inverted cork - sank to allow the collapse of a circular, steep-faced Caldera (4). This allowed magma to intrude (2) upward in sheets (3) and across the top of the 'plug'. The magma subsequently cooled to form a coarse igneous rock of a broadly basaltic composition called Eucrite. These massive, circular, concentric sheets are called Ring Dykes.

Where the magma reached the surface it formed volcanic vents (5) which erupted, sometimes producing lava flows and ash clouds, sometimes collapsing upon themselves to form masses of smashed rock which blocked the vents, called Agglomerates.

Stresses within the overlying crust also allowed magma to inject into the existing rock along cracks which were circular (6), with their centres in the centre of the Caldera. These are termed Cone Sheets.
Erosion in the subsequent 60 million years has been intense, not least because the landscape of Scotland has several times been covered by ice sheets. This erosion stripped off the original volcanoes and destroyed the calderas, but erosion works differentially, leaving areas underlain by harder rock - the Ring Dykes and Cone Sheets - protruding. These give Ardnamurchan's volcanic centres their characteristic, present-day landscapes, with the Ring Dykes (1) forming the highest and most rugged hills, and the Cone Sheets (2) forming distinctive ridges around and outside them. Within this ring-structure, and around it, lie the remains of the volcanic events, lava flows, solidified ash and Agglomerates, marked in purple (3).

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The Kilchoan Fire Service

The Kilchoan Fire & Rescue team, which has its station near the Sanna turn, is short of members - to the extent that Highlands & Islands Fire & Rescue sent an officer across from Inverness the other day to do some door-to-door recruiting. He even gave The Diary a leaflet but looked relieved when he was assured it would be passed on to someone who was a little fitter.

Quite seriously, The Diary does wish it was a little fitter, and a little younger, as the deal with the Fire Brigade is a good one. The job, while part-time, is salaried, with additional allowances for training. The training is rigorous, dealing with the breathing apparatus is particularly hard work, but there's a great team spirit and the job is well worth doing, particularly in such a remote community as this one.

If anyone is interested - and The Diary hopes that people will step forward - the Fire Officer can be contacted on 07920 478 943, or you can talk to someone at Fire Service HQ on 01463 227 000. An information pack and application form is available here - select Lochaber and Kilchoan, which displays a PDF document which can be downloaded.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The Ardnamurchan Volcano - 2

The Ardnamurchan volcanic complex is one of a line of igneous centres which runs from Skye and Rhum in the north through Mull, Arran, the Mourne Mountains and Carlingford in Ireland and down to Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel. They all date from roughly the same time, between about 65 million years ago and 50 million years for Lundy.

The cause of this extensive activity was the breaking away of Greenland from the northwest of continental Europe. It started with great rift valleys forming along the line of rupture, into which vast amounts of basaltic lava bled out to smother the ancient landscape. These lavas are marked in purple in the map. While layer upon layer of these 70-million year old lavas are visible in Skye and Mull (photo shows lava flows on the north coast of Mull, opposite Kilchoan), they are best seen in Northern Ireland, where they form the famous Giant's Causeway.

The volcanoes, marked in red on the map, punched their way through these recently-cooled lavas. They were probably the surface expression of a great plume of magma rising in the mantle which migrated as the overlying continental material moved. As a result, each of the volcanoes is slightly different. Ardnamurchan is, in many ways, the simplest in structure and, being compact and well-exposed, is relatively easy to study. The plume is still active today, pouring out lavas from Iceland's volcanoes.

Monday, 21 March 2011

The Jetty - 3

By the early 1980s the slipway below The Ferry Stores was in a sorry state, broken into several sections which, as the tide came in, resembled a line of islands.

During the winter of 1983/84 it was repaired by a local, co-operative effort, the volunteers working at weekends. Roddy MacLeod provided cement to mortar the existing stonework, and Highland Council tarmacked the access road. These repairs encouraged a small group to restart the annual Kilchoan Regatta, a traditional event which goes back many years but had lapsed in 1962. The first 'new' regatta took place in the summer of 1984.

However, the sea continued to erode the structure until, in 1996/97, a substantial grant was obtained by the West Ardnamurchan Jetty Association to restore the jetty. The work resulted in the much more substantial structure we see today, with a well-formed concrete wall running down the seaward side. At the same time, the two stone buildings which had been part of the salmon fishery were refurbished, the one between the shop store room and the Ferry House was converted into a shower block and the other, Shore Cottage, above, made into a premise available for local use, such as boat storage, and the office for the Regatta.

Since then WAJA, now a company limited by guarantee, has struggled to raise funds to maintain the facilities, its only sources of income being the four moorings it provides for passing yachts, a '100 Club' which it runs, the takings from the shower block, and an annual payment from the Regatta Committee. Thus, when storms recently damaged the jetty, it was repaired by volunteers. A recent inspection showed that parts of the concrete surface of the jetty are, once again, showing signs of wear.

Despite this, the jetty continues to provide a centre for the village's many maritime activities. The two local creel-fishing boats use it for repairs. Numerous craft, from kayaks to keel yachts, rowing boats to RIBs, launch from it, and visiting yachtsmen land at it. And, as summer approaches, a crew of crabs assembles in eager anticipation of the annual bacon feast - provided on the ends of orange crab lines by groups of laughing youngsters.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Ardnamurchan Volcano - 1

Google the word 'Ardnamurchan' and the links immediately offered are those for which the peninsula is now best known - as a wonderful place for visitors to find relaxation and enjoyment in some of the most wild and spectacular scenery that mainland Scotland has to offer. But in amongst these are links to the geology of the area for which the peninsula has been famous for nearly a hundred years. As a geology student in the 1960s it was how The Diary first heard of the place as it occurs in almost every text book about the igneous and geological history of the British Isles.

The secrets of Ardnamurchan's ancient rocks were first fully explained by work done in the 1920s by that venerable institution, the British Geological Survey, which, in 1930, produced a splendid Memoir, The Geology of Ardnamurchan, North-west Mull and Coll. While much work has been done on the peninsula since, the main premise of that Memoir hasn't been changed - that the western end of the peninsula is best understood by imagining not one but three volcanic centres which erupted at the beginning of the Tertiary, between about 65 and 55 million years ago.

BGS surveyors also produced a detailed map which, like all geological maps, is as much as work of art as of science. That map has only recently (2010) be updated and reissued and, like most of the original work, the modern BGS has felt the need to make remarkably few changes. A copy of the map can be seen in the geology exhibition room at Ardnamurchan Lighthouse, where a full description of Ardnamurchan's two billion-year geological history can be viewed.

This is the first of a series of seven posts
about the Ardnamurchan Volcano

Top photo looks from Glendrian to the flanks of Meall Meadhoin.
Second photo taken along the track between Ockle and Eilagadale.
Bottom photo courtesy Ardnamurchan Lighthouse Trust.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

The Great Kilchoan Pram Race

An event which last happened many decades ago - judging by the photograph of the winner, see below - is being resurrected: Kilchoan will, once again, have a Pram Race this summer. The date for your diaries is Friday 29th July, neatly placed between Sports Day on 22nd July and Regatta on 5th August.

As you would expect of any Kilchoan event, its organisation is impeccable. The route last time ran from the pier to the Kilchoan House Hotel; this time, it's from the end of Ormsaigbeg downhill to the hotel. There are very strict rules, very precise timing for the start of the race and, most important of all, some fabulous prizes to be won. Full details are available on a leaflet which can be downloaded here.

Some of you will enjoy identifying the people who took part in the last race - and this is the photograph of its winner. Anyone recognise him?

More information on the West Ardnamurchan News & Information site here.

Many thanks to Cliff Isherwood for pictures and background

Friday, 18 March 2011

Another Sign of Spring

The first pied wagtail of the year struts his stuff on the wall of the jetty below the shop. Wagtails are resident throughout the year in most of Britain but not in the Highlands. Our wagtails move south, most of them spending the cold months in England but some preferring France.

The Pigs - Fame Comes Closer

As predicted in a recent Diary exclusive here, the Kilchoan pigs are set to become TV personalities after a team from the BBC drove all the way up to Ardnamurchan today to film and interview them.

The weather could have been better, with sleety rain and a stiff wind blowing which must have made filming difficult but didn't bother the pigs who are quite used to being left outside in all weathers.

Some time was spent up Ormsaigbeg, where five of the pigs have recently cleared a plot of land, so the BBC was able to film land before and after the pigs had cleared it.

The team from the BBC were fortunate in having Hughie MacLachlan to supervise their work and give them advice on how to take the best shots.

As one would expect of budding media personalities, the pigs behaved wonderfully, coming up to the camera and offering their view on all aspects of world and local affairs - as personalities do. One, Pig X - The Diary was shocked to discover that, despite all the excitement about their coming celebrity, they still haven't been given names - complained on camera that the pig nuts they were getting no longer seemed appropriate to their new status, and they wanted caviar and champagne at all meals in future.

The BBC team left in very good spirits, full of admiration for the work the pigs were doing on clearing bracken. Holly Booth, assistant producer, promised that the pigs would be on the Landward programme, BBC Scotland, on a Friday evening in mid to late April.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Sanna Landing

When Rosie and Dave Curtis drove their children to Sanna the other day to do what we all love to do at that beautiful place - take a long walk along the sands, with not another soul to be seen and the sun bright across the water - their peace was disturbed by a light aircraft which, having circled a couple of times, suddenly landed on the beach.

The pilot was lucky to get down safely. As many of us know, the sand can be unpredictable: only recently, West Ardnamurchan Community Council finally succeeded in getting a notice put up by the car park warning visitors to take care, particularly where small burns cross the beach.

But fortune favours the brave, and this pilot, a man from Oban who has, for many years, wanted to land on Sanna beach, made both a perfect landing and take-off.

Remember then - next time you take a stroll at Sanna, look left and right along the runway before crossing.

Many thanks to Rosie & Dave for the photos

Spring Sunshine

It's Spring, the sun's come out after a shower, and the first celandines of the year are showing their faces.

But there's still snow on the higher hills and mountains. Here, a greylag goose, silhouetted against Ben Talla on Mull, circles above Kilchoan Bay before landing on the foreshore near The Ferry Stores.