Sunday, 30 September 2012

Druim an Scriodain - 1

Druim an Scriodain, a long ridge that runs north-south between the Achateny and the Swordle valleys, was one of the high points of West Ardnamurchan that we hadn't explored, so we set out to climb it on a cool April morning. We left our car by the bridge across the Achateny Water and walked up the fence that separates Branault township from the rough grazing.

April is now one of the best months for hill walking: for two years now we've had a run of good weather during the month, though the north wind that brings it is cold, and the going underfoot is helped by the fact that the bracken hasn't yet come through.

As we climbed across a first ridge, we looked down on the small township of Branault, and across the Minch to the Isle of Eigg.
At the top of the township's land there was a wall, called a 'head dyke', which separated the good, arable land from the rough 'common' grazing. The wall here would have been impressive in its time, but it is steadily eroding away, and is replaced along part of its route by a barbed wire fence - which, fortunately, has a small gate in it. In this picture, Ben Hiant is seen in the distance.

Near the hill called Tom na Dalach (in the background) is a sheepfold, marked on the 1:25,000 OS map, which is still in a good state of repair. By this time the walking was fairly hard going, through thick heather, and would have been far worse if we'd had recent rain.

This picture shows the summit of Druim an Scriodain, and the strong scarp feature on its eastern side. There's a wide valley below which leads down to Swordle Bay.

Druim in Gaelic means a ridge, but the translation of Scriodain, as spelt by the Ordnance Survey, is a bit of a mystery. Donald MacDiarmid, in his booklet 'Ardnamurchan Place Names', has a Druim an Sgriothail as meaning the ridge of gravel - which, from the scree that has slipped down the scarp slope, would be appropriate, and Moira Fisher says that Scriodain should be Sgriodan, making the meaning 'a stony ravine', 'the track of a mountain torrent', or a place where there are lots of stones on the side of a mountain.

The ridge is well worth the effort for the views further east. This picture shows the tiny township of Ockle, population 1, and, in the distance, the hills of Moidart. Three of the houses visible are available for rent from Ockle Holidays, website here.

The walk is on Ardnamurchan Estate land.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Summer's Butterflies - 2

Early in the summer we were worrying about reports of the decline in numbers of this lovely butterfly, the Small Tortoiseshell - Diary report here - but their numbers seemed to increase as the summer went on.

Along with the Peacock, they're probably the most recognisable of our big butterflies - and there have been plenty of Peacocks around.  One of the joys of both species is that they love sunbathing, so grabbing a picture is much easier.

As the season drew on towards September, the other big butterfly most of us can identify, the Red Admiral, seemed to be missing from West Ardnamurchan.  Then, to our joy, we saw one resting on some bracken along the Ormsaigbeg roadside - and he was good enough to wait around long enough for a picture to be taken.

If we have problems identifying the many white butterflies that flutter across our fields and hills, we have almost as much trouble with 'brown' species, some of which are remarkably similar.  This is a Meadow Brown, pictured back in June.  Since then, we haven't seen any more.

This is probably our most common butterfly, the Scotch Argus.  While they appear in the croft fields in smaller numbers, there are areas of the peninsula where we have seen clouds of them, particularly in the open plateau and to the north of Camas nan Geall during early August.  Unfortunately, they seem allergic to having their picture taken, so this one is slightly blurred....

....but a less nervous individual sat long enough on a thistle for a better picture to be taken of the glorious colours on the undersides of his wing.

This is supposed to be another common butterfly, the Speckled Wood, but we only saw one throughout the summer, and then at a very unexpected time - just after a force 6 blow in late August, when the sky finally cleared and the sun came out.  He was sitting on a blackberry leaf warming himself.

This isn't a butterfly but a day-flying moth.  However, The Diary was so thrilled with finding a little colony of these beautiful Six-Spot Burnets in a meadow above Ormsaigbeg early in July that it couldn't resist publishing another picture.  A full account is here.

UK Butterflies website is here.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Summer's Butterflies - 1

Perhaps it was the unusually long spells of fine weather that brought them out, perhaps it was that the weather enabled us to spend more time in the hills walking, but this has been a good year for spotting butterflies.  The species that follow are not fully representative of West Ardnamurchan's butterfly wealth, as they only include those that sat around long enough to be photographed.  Further, their identification is very tentative, The Diary being an amateur when it comes to insects, and very dependent on an excellent butterfly identification site, UK Butterflies.

This is tentatively identified as a Dark Green Fritillary, one of several we saw through the summer.  There's a large family of Fritillaries, which look much alike to a non-expert, but....

....the beautiful markings on the underside of the wings seems to support the identification.

We saw this individual on the shores of the beautiful Lochan an Dobhrian when we walked there in mid-July.

This may also be a Dark Green Fritillary, though it might as well be either the Pearl-Bordered or High Brown Fritillaries.  It was spotted in a meadow at the top of one of the Ormsaigbeg crofts in July.

This small butterfly is an absolute gem, with its spectacular range of colours - but it was the devil to photograph.  It's a Common Blue, and the species seemed to be most visible during the earlier part of the summer.  Again, this individual was photographed in a meadow at the top of one of the Ormsaigbeg crofts.

When a white butterfly flutters by, it's easy to dismiss it as a 'Cabbage White' and then start worrying about whether its going to land in our vegetable garden, but The Diary is at last beginning to differentiate a few of this broad family.  This one looks like a male Small White,....

....while this may be a Green-Veined White.

Summer's Butterflies - 2, follows later.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Lochan a' Mhadaidh Riabhaich

Lochan a' Mhadaidh Riabhaich lies just over a kilometre to the east of Loch Mudle, just inside the forestry fence.  Since Mhadaidh means dog, fox or wolf, and Riabhaich brindled, grey or brown, the name might mean the lochan of the brindled wolf.

The lochan is about 500m across and slightly longer north-south, and is tucked into a fold in the ground, with the land falling away beyond it towards Loch Mudle.  It's also a beautiful little loch, so very different in its woodland setting from the many we have previously visited, most of which lie in bleak mountain terrain.

The lochan has a low-lying island covered in bracken, at the eastern end of which....

....there are the broken walls of what may have been a small house, with what looks like a stone wall running along the shore.  It would have been an ideal place to live in troubled times, with a natural defensive moat, enough land to grow crops, and plenty of fish - mainly trout - to be taken from the loch.

The lochan lies on Ardnamurchan Estate land, and permits to fish it can be obtained from the Estate or from local outlets such as The Ferry Stores.

Just to the west are the remains of another small farm.  The house, of which little remains but its broken stone walls, lies to the left, sitting on a platform overlooking its fields.  These extended into the area which is now forestry, so a considerable area was worked; the field to lower right shows the characteristic ridges and furrows of lazy bed cultivation.  The best land, as always, is covered in bracken, a sure sign of its fertility.

This view from the southeast shows that the lucky owner would have looked out across his land to another loch, Lochan na Gruagaich, the lochan of the damsel.  To the right is a stream which ran down into his land and into the lochan.

It comes down through a pretty glen in a series of small, stepped waterfalls.  When we were there, in mid-August, the water levels were low: it would be much more impressive at times of heavy rainfall.

Looking at it on a fine summer's day, the place seemed the perfect idyll.  However, it must have been a hard life working the land in West Ardnamurchan's fairly unforgiving climate, so it's not surprising that the farm was finally, and probably very reluctantly abandoned.

There's a map of the area here.  The arrow points to the location of the farm building.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Forgotten Bumblebee

Quite rightly, there's been a huge fuss recently over the decline of the honey bee, which has suffered both from pesticide over-use, the varroa mite, and other ills.  Without the honey bee, so the argument went, our crops wouldn't be pollinated, our fruit trees would become barren, and nice things like the countryside's flowers would join the general extinction.  It's a worrying scenario.

But something has been forgotten in all this: the humble bumblebee.  Fortunately, this has been rectified recently in an excellent article in the 11th August edition of the New Scientist, The Plight of the Bumblebee, which sets out to put the position straight.

There are 250 species of bumblebee, compared to one honey bee, and twenty-five of these are found in the UK.  Bumblebees inhabit a huge range of environments - one even lives in the Arctic.  Their colony numbers are small compared to a typical honey bee colony of over 10,000, but they operate in much worse weather than honey bees, they pollinate in a quite different way and, therefore, deal with many wild plants the honey bee doesn't touch, so they are now said to pollinate something like two-thirds of our cultivated crops.

But the bumblebee, just like the honey bee, is under threat.  Their problem seems to come from the loss of variety in our habitats, as we move to more and more intensively cultivated land.  As a result, only four or five of our native bumblebee species are still common.

Ever since reading the article, The Diary has been out trying to photograph bumblebees.  There are plenty around as we move towards autumn, especially on the knapweed.  We found three species, which are shown above.  The top picture is of the bumblebee which gets most notice as it is large, dopey, rather bad at flying, and tends to fall into things like one's beer.  The second looks exactly the same but is much smaller, and the third has a very smart orangey coat.

The article also points out that much of the pollinating is done by even less acknowledged insects such as the hover fly, of which there are some 6,000 species worldwide.

Finally, it reports that someone has done a study which has calculated that pollinators, of whichever sort, contributed about £510 million to the UK agricultural economy in 2009 by doing the pollination of our vital crops for us.  In southwest China pesticides have ruined the countryside to such an extent that fruit trees now have to be pollinated by human hand.  If we had to do that in this country, it would, so the report somehow calculated, cost £1.8 billion.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Lights in the Sky

On 21st September, the three us were on the terrace watching
the night sky. The sky was very clear and we had turned off all the house
lights in order to see the fainter stars.

At 1055 pm we saw a bright yellow light, low on the horizon to the East,
over Loch Sunart. It initially resembled the landing light of an aircraft
and moved Westwards at about the speed of a low-flying jet. As it passed
to the South of us it was at an elevation of about 30-45 degrees with the
colour of a sodium street light and lit up the whole sky. It left a trail
of connected smaller orange lights, as if beads on a thread.

As it passed to the West, the brilliant leading main light began to dim
but we could still see the trailing lights as it passed out of sight near
the Western horizon.

We viewed its passage for about 120 degrees horizontally, with a maximum
elevation of 30-45 degrees. From first sighting to its disappearance was
approximately 10-12 seconds. It was completely silent.

Our interpretation was that this was a piece of satellite debris
re-entering the atmosphere. We did not think it was a meteor as it moved
far too slowly. However, BBC News did publish this article the following day.

Many thanks to Nicky, Tony and Nick for the story (house-sitting at the Diary residence) 

The Insects of Beinn Bhreac

We climbed Beinn Bhreac, to the east of Ockle, on a morning in mid-August.  It was perfect weather for insects: it had rained recently, but the warmth, the bright sunshine and a light breeze had dried the land.  We didn't go looking for insects, they made their presence felt.

This dragonfly is a female Black Darter.  She was quite unafraid of our approach, and was happy enough to pose on the tip of a bracken frond for a portrait.

Particularly in the wooded valleys lower down, the air was full of Crane Flies - otherwise known as Daddy Longlegs.  They are all legs, which sometimes break off, have a haphazard flight and, when they land, manage to get tangled up in everything.  They are objects of horror when they fly indoors, but they're nothing more complicated than an overgrown fly.  One wonders what Nature designed them for, yet they must very successful at whatever it is they do as there are no less than 4,250 different species.

This Meadow Grasshopper - very appropriately - took a liking to Mrs Diary's jumper, and was quite happy to hitch a ride to wherever we were going.  Grasshoppers always look as if they have a smile on their faces.

This beautiful creature is a Magpie Moth, Abraxas grossulariata, a moth that used to be very common throughout southern Britain but is now in decline.  At the same time, it seems to be moving north, as it is increasingly found both along the west coast and in the Hebrides.

This spectacular little spider goes by several aliases, including Cross Spider, Diadem Spider, Cross Orbweaver, or just plain European Garden Spider. His smart colouration would be spectacular in any other insect, but on a spider it seems to spell out 'Danger'.  Spiders aren't insects but first cousins, belonging in the same Phylum, the Arthropoda.

There were parts of our walk where Scotch Arguses rose in clouds around our feet.  They don't look particularly special when in flight, but the minute they land the beauty of their wing pattern becomes visible.  This has been the most abundant butterfly this summer.

Monday, 24 September 2012

A History of Ormsaigmore

The Diary has the ambition to write short histories of as many places on West Ardmamurchan as possible.  So far, two have been published, an introduction called 'Clachans, Clearances and Crofts, and a second on the township of Ormsaigbeg.  They can be accessed from the right hand column of this site, under the heading "W. Ardnamurchan Histories".

The third in the series is about Ormsaigmore.  Most of the work for this was done as an assignment, part of a module from the University of the Highlands and Island's Archaeology course, taken through Kilchoan Learning Centre.

A History of Ormsaigmore is here.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Cross-Leaved Heath

Cross-leaved Heath, Erica tetralix, is one of several wildflowers which have had a very good summer.  It's common across most of West Ardnamurchan, prefers wetter ground, but is absent from high, exposed areas.  In places it's prolific, so it's not one of the area's rarer plants.

It comes in a range of colours, from bright pinks with shades of lilac/purple through to....

....much paler shades, though some of these pale flowers may be the brighter ones fading in late life.

Only in two locations on West Ardnamurchan have we found a white variety.  The first one, which we found a couple of years ago, we have since lost, though we know fairly accurately where it was, so we were thrilled while walking during this summer to find an even larger, thriving patch of white flowers.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

A Walk near Sanna

On a beautiful July day we walked in the hills to the north of Sanna.  Sanna is famous for its white-sand beaches, but this is our favourite, a small, secluded cove which is covered at high tide and, therefore, always swept clean twice a day.  The low-lying island in the distance is Coll.

Walking eastwards, we looked down onto the abandoned village of Plocaig, with its neat houses all in a row.  The air was wonderfully clear, so the high hills around Meall Meadoin and Meall nan Con seemed to tower over the village, yet they are some five kilometres away.

We then cut down to the Sanna Burn, which runs between Sanna village and Plocaig, something we couldn't normally do as the area is so boggy, but with the recent, prolonged dry spell the land was dry and crunchy underfoot.  The wreckage to the right is the remains of the bridge which connected the villages.  When we first came to the area sixteen years ago, it was still possible to scramble across it.

Suspended between this boulder and the bank is an old steel plough.  It's a thought that this was once someone's pride, a simple piece of machinery that made a hard job that much easier.  Now, along with other odd pieces of farm machinery, a broken plate, various glass jars, an old boot, and sundry pieces of plastic piping, it lies neglected in the burn.

As we headed back to Sanna, we looked north towards the last building in Plocaig to be inhabited.  Beyond lay the bright blue waters of the Minch and the high hills of Rum.

A map of the area is here.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Wildlife of the Beinn Bhuidhe Plateau

We walked recently across the area of rolling, open grasslands around Ben Bhuidhe, just to the north of Camas nan Geall.  Each time we go into the area we disturb small groups of red deer.  This one consisted of hinds with some young at heel, accompanied by two stags, one of which lagged behind, watching us, as the herd moved away.  At this time of year the stags are collecting hinds ready for the annual rut, but it's early for that: the stags' antlers are still covered in velvet.

This young stag was alone when we came across him.  Unfortunately, he was close to a new section of fence: in his anxiety to get away, he charged into it, before finally escaping along the wire.

There were plenty of wildflowers amongst the grasses.  Specimens of this Scabious, which may be Devilsbit Scabious, were just coming into flower.

In the damper areas near Lochan Mhadaidh Riabhaich we came across this wildflower, which we identified, rather uncertainly, as Grass of Parnassus.

The single flower stood on the end of a long, thin stalk, with only a few, small leaves curled around it.

While Bell heather and Cross-leaved Heath had been in flower for some months, the Ling, Calluna vulgaris, was only just coming into flower.  Its flowers are tiny, yet they appear in such masses that, within a few weeks, the hillsides are covered in pale purple.

The orchids should have been coming to the end of their flowering season, yet some of the slopes still had groups of them in full flower.  Most of them were closer to Common Spotted than Heath Spotted.

We also saw two birds, one a Kestrel.  The other we took to be a female Hen Harrier, but, if it was, she had an entirely white tail, not the single bar across her rump, so we may have been mistaken in our identification.  Sadly, she flew off before we could take a photograph.