Thursday, 31 January 2013

No Change in the Weather

This morning, heavy waves were still breaking against the rocks at the most westerly point on the British mainland, just to the south of Ardnamurchan Point lighthouse.  We're still under the influence of a strong westerly airstream, and there's no sign of it letting up.

Meanwhile, in the shelter of Kilchoan Bay, a grey heron studiously ignores a passing mallard drake and his two ladies.  The seaweed and other flotsam piled up beyond them are the left-overs from recent spring tides driven higher by a following wind.

Courses, Courses, Courses...

The Diary has said this before, and will probably say it many times again - this must be the best educated small community in the world.  It's not simply the number and variety of courses that are currently being run at manager Pat Glenday's Kilchoan Learning Centre, which is part of West Highland College UHI, it's Pat's ability to attract students from all walks of life, some of whom are going away with the first 'academic' certificate they have ever received - and then coming back for more.

A good example of a recent course was welding.  Pat says, "Donald Houston was kind enough to allow us to use his premises, so the course was run in the Ardnamurchan Estate workshop. Ten students joined it, five on each day. All of them reported learning lots of useful things, even those who had done some welding previously. The tutor, Stuart Whyte, also teaches welding at the underwater centre in Fort William, and as he’s a contestant in the forthcoming Scottish strong man championships, he didn’t get any trouble from the participants! If I can find some more funding, everyone wants to do another course and learn some more advanced techniques."

Pat added, "It’s Fruit Growing tonight, and Herbal Remedies is coming in a couple of weeks - and I’ve got so many people signed up I think I’m going to have to run it twice.  And I’m busy trying to organise a Snaring course.

"The latter is interesting, because there is new legislation coming into force on 1st April. This is from the Scottish Government website:

All snaring operators will need to undergo a training course and to use a unique identification number on their snares under new legislation.

The change in legislation applies to all snares and snaring operators who currently use snares as a means of pest and predator control including farmers, crofters, gamekeepers, and greenkeepers on golf courses.

Snare operators have been able to undergo training courses, which are run by Scottish Government approved bodies, since 2010. From today, a snaring operator who has successfully completed the training course can apply to their local police station for a unique identification number which must be attached to all snares set from April 1, 2013.

Successful completion of the one-day training course will provide an indication that the applicant has sufficient knowledge and experience to use snares responsibly and within the legislative requirements. The identification numbers and tags will make snaring operators more accountable for their actions as the identification number and tag will help identify the individual snaring operator.

"If we run the course, it will once again be in partnership with the Estate. I’ve tried to interest BBC Alba in coming back to do a story about it. They said they might, because now I have the satellite link there is no issue with getting the story back to head office quickly!"

There's a list of Kilchoan Learning Centre courses here,
and contact details are on a tab at the same site.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Storm and Aftermath

People living in towns may go out to a cinema, restaurant or night club for their excitement.  For some of us here, a good evening out is a trip down to the CalMac pier when there's a 70mph gale blowing.

These pictures are from Westernshores, who spent some time with a camera recording the waves as they exploded across the pier.

By this time the gale was blowing from the west.  The pier is in the relatively protected waters of the Sound of Mull, and it's in the lee of a small peninsula, Rubha Aird an Iasgaich, so the conditions in exposed locations like the Ardnamurchan Point lighthouse must have been horrendous.

The CalMac sign suggested that the ferry might not be running - but if this was an 'amber' alert, it would be interesting to experience a 'red' alert.

By eight this morning the sky had cleared and a waning moon was setting over Druim na Gearr Leacainn.  With some sunshine promised for the day, we decided to take a walk along the sands at Sanna.

Shortly after we left the car we saw a lone lapwing beside one of the flooded areas.  Lapwings aren't common here in the summer, so we were surprised to see one in the winter.  The RSPB site, here, suggests that some lapwings are visitors from northern Europe, but the wind hasn't been blowing from the NE for some time.

The tide was falling, leaving Sanna's beaches swept clean by last night's gale-force winds and a high spring tide.  Flashes of sunlight moved across the sands and the dunes behind them.  The walking was best described as 'invigorating'....

....because the storm hadn't entirely abated.  The wind remained in the west, and was gusting up to force 6, smashing breakers across the offshore islands.  Not that all the chaos around them perturbed the large flocks of local seagulls....

 ....and one or two of them seemed to be enjoying themselves dodging in and out of the waves as they rolled in to the beaches.

Many thanks to Westernshores for the pictures.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Trooper King

Readers of the Diary with long memories will recall a story about a gravestone in the church yard of St Congans (above, photo taken in rather better weather than we have today), the old parish church which stands on the hill overlooking Kilchoan.  It commemorates a Trooper Norman King who was buried there.

Historian David Eason, who lives in Leamington, Trooper King's home town, came across the account in the Diary and has since done considerable, and very successful research, not least in contacting Trooper King's sister-in-law, Beryl King.  She sent a cutting from the Leamington Courier to Catriona MacMillan, who kindly passed it to the Diary.

This exerpt from the Leamington Courier describes the main story.  "Trooper Norman James King of the Warwickshire Yeomanry, Royal Armoured Corps, died on July 2, 1940, aged 21 at sea whilst on board the SS Arandora Star which was sailing from Liverpool to Canada with hundreds of German and Italian prisoners of war and civilian internees.  About 125 miles off the Irish coast it was struck by a torpedo fired from the German submarine U-47. The ship’s master, 12 officers, 42 crewmen, 104 guards, 470 Italians and 243 Germans were lost.

"The majority of those lost were washed ashore by the tide and current at Colonsay in Scotland.
Norman’s body was washed ashore on August 21, 1940 at Kilchoan in Argyllshire, Scotland, and was buried there in the churchyard of St Conan’s the same day."

The article goes on to describe David Eason's search for information, and the background to the small plaque which stands in front of the headstone.  The Leamington Courrier article can be read here.

David Eason is looking for more information about Trooper King.  If anyone can help, please email information to 

The original Diary stories are here and here.
Many thanks to Catriona MacMillan and Gus MacLean.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Continuing Bad Weather

Many thanks to Kilchoan Early Bird for this picture of today's conditions near Ardnamurchan Point Lighthouse.

There is now video footage available of yesterday's RNLI rescue of a fishing boat off Coll - link is here.

Stormy Seas

The MV Raasay, the smaller of the two ferries which Caledonian MacBrayne uses on the Kilchoan - Tobermory run, is shown coming in to Mingary Pier at 7.55 this morning.  It carried two cars and several foot passengers, probably a few more than usual because, although there are two more sailings today, one leaving Tobermory at 11.00am, the other at 3.45pm, the weather is expected to deteriorate through the day.  As it was, the early morning crossing was.... bouncy.

The Tobermory lifeboat was called out in atrocious conditions yesterday morning.  We saw her speeding up the Sound towards the lighthouse but the visibility was too poor for a photo.  She went to the aid of a fishing boat with engine trouble off Coll, and didn't return for almost twelve hours.  See the RNLI press release here.


On wet Sundays, when the hills really aren't much fun but we need some exercise, we walk down the road past the shop and as far through Kilchoan village as we feel - which is what we did yesterday after the deluge during Saturday night.  But, for no particular reason, we diverted to the little beach that runs along the Kilchoan Bay frontage of Ormsaigmore, which gives access to the mouth of the Millburn.  Unsurprisingly, the burn was in flood, but we spotted a small bird hopping around on the rocks by the sea - a dipper.

We were thrilled, on two counts.  Firstly, we'd only seen a dipper once before, almost twenty years ago on a pretty little river near Fort Augustus; and secondly, The Raptor has seen one here on West Ardnamurchan - on the Allt Choire Mhuillinn - and, until yesterday, we hadn't.

The bird was surprisingly tame, allowing us to approach to within ten metres, even though he seemed a little agitated.  We came to the conclusion that he, like us, wasn't enjoying the weather - the swollen stream covered most of the rocks from which dippers usually hunt.  'Hunt' is the right word, because dippers are an unusual bird in that they feed underwater, 'walking' along the bottom and turning over stones in search of invertebrates and small fish.

There's a very full description of the dipper here, in which it states that there are two races resident in Britain.  Our one, which we share with Ireland, is Cinclus cinclus hibernicus.  There's another good, descriptive website here.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

A Year of Comets

Before anyone gets excited, this picture wasn't taken last night over Kilchoan.  It was taken back in 2007 by 'wonderferret', a resident of Auckland, New Zealand, and it shows comet McNaught, one of the best comet sightings so far in the 21st century.

That is due to change in March of this year, when comet Pan-STARRS is predicted to be a bright object in the sky.  An even better prospect is comet ISON which, it has been suggested, may be a spectacular sight when it nears perigee in November of this year.

All this is good news for those of us who watch the night sky, particularly after the recent frustrations over the aurora: there was another alert last night, but we were busy enjoying the 26mm of rain which fell between four yesterday afternoon and eight this morning.

Many thanks to wonderferret on Flickr, here.
A good way of keeping up with heavenly events is EarthSky.

The Diary's Sponsors

'A Kilchoan Diary' has always been written for pleasure - for my pleasure and, hopefully, for you, its readers.  For the first years of its life writing the blog had the advantage that it cost nothing - Google Blogger is free.  However, Google only offers one gigabyte of memory in which to store the pictures - and the Diary is heavy on pictures.  So, recently, it was necessary to buy additional storage space, which created an ongoing cost.  To cover these costs, I decided to add a few advertisements, but wanted them to benefit local businesses.

As a result, a few local businesses have taken small, discreet adverts in the right-hand column of the blog and along the bottom.  I would like to put on record my thanks for their support, and to urge readers who are thinking of coming up to stay in this beautiful part of the world to give some consideration to the holiday homes and other services that are advertised.

Google Blogger does, however, have its disadvantages.  I would like once again to apologise to readers who have tried to make comments and found that Google loses them.  I am aware of people trying three or four times, and the comment still not appearing.  If the comment system doesn't work, please email it to the address in the right-hand column, and I will post it.


Many thanks to Ben McKeown for the picture of the red deer stag.
Ben's website is here.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

West of Ben Hiant

We've had a fair bit of rain over the last couple of days, brought in by the same, persistent southeasterly wind, and the forecast for the next few days is dire.  But this morning, despite a sunrise obscured by a curtain of what we now know to have been hail, the forecast promised a brief sunny spell, so we grabbed the opportunity and set off for the western slopes of Ben Hiant.

We left the car at the turn just before Caim (see map at bottom of entry), crossed the Allt Choire Mhuillinn, and followed the track that climbs steadily towards the lower slopes of Beinn na h-Urchrach.  But we kept stopping to look back, because the clouds had been cleared by a cheerful southwesterly wind to give us some brilliant sunny intervals.  This view is roughly northwest towards the house at Caim and its backdrop of Glas Bheinn to the left and Meall an Tarmachain to the right.

Looking further round to the west the view was straight back towards Kilchoan.  Mingary Castle is to the left, and the highest point in the distance is Beinn na Seilg.  All the land in the foreground, across which we had walked, belongs to Ardnamurchan Estate, but it was once extensively worked by the people of the clachans of Choire Mhuillinn and Skinnid - look carefully and the evidence of their field systems is still visible.

This picture was taken from the shoulder of Beinn na h-Urchrach looking straight across the valley towards Meall an Tarmachain.  By this time the hollows between the grass tufts were full of the hailstones that had fallen earlier in the morning.

We then crossed the saddle between Beinn na h-Urchrach and Ben Hiant.  This picture looks up towards the summit of Ben Hiant, its slopes cut by innumerable little burns.  Although the 'usual' way up Ben Hiant is from the east, there would be no difficulty in reaching the top of the mountain from this side.

From the most southerly point of our walk we stopped to take in the view along the coast towards the distant headland of Maol Buidhe.  Mingary Castle is to the right, and on the point beyond is the slipway from which the CalMac ferry sails for Tobermory.  The houses in the distance are Ormsaigbeg.

By the time we began to descend the hill high clouds were beginning to obscure the sun and, although the wind was no stronger, it seemed much colder.  But we felt pleased with ourselves: by seizing an opportunity we had enjoyed memorable views, some lovely winter sunshine, and a walk across beautiful countryside.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Collared Dove

 The Eurasian collared dove was originally a bird which ranged from Turkey to southern China, but something about its behaviour and ability to adapt to new conditions has made it one of the avian success stories of the last century.  From about 1830 it began an amazing expansion, crossing Europe and finally arrived in Britain in 1953.  It has now reached the Faroe Islands, Norway and the Ural mountains.  It was then introduced into the Bahamas in the 1970s, from where it has spread across North America, reaching California, Alaska and Nova Scotia.  While it's common in most parts of the UK, it has only arrived in this area over the last few years - we don't remember them coming to the bird table when we first had the shop.

As one would expect of a dove, it's a peaceable bird, feeding quite happily with smaller birds, but it's shy, flying away as soon as it is approached.  Yet its success seems to have come from exploiting a close relationship with humans - it comes to bird tables close to houses, and nests close too.

While it can be found in groups of six or so - for example near the Ferry Stores - it doesn't build large flocks like pigeons, so isn't such a threat to farmers' fields.  It's usually found in pairs, particularly through the summer, and very loving they are.  Its call, cu-coooo-coo, is usually heard when pairs communicate.  We had two pairs in the garden throughout last summer, but three of the birds disappeared, leaving the one in the top two pictures to survive a lonely winter.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Ships in the Sound

The last 'Ships in the Sound' was posted on Christmas Eve, and since then the Sound of Mull has been remarkably empty of shipping.  One explanation may be that the last days of the old year were stormy, but things haven't picked up much during the finer weather in January.

This picture shows the Fure Sun passing in stormy weather on the 30th December.  There were times when she was moving, and times when she seemed stationary - the AIS plot described her as 'moored' and doing six knots alternately.  She's a 'Hazard A' tanker, which means she carries dangerous cargoes such as petroleum spirits, a type of ship which we don't often see.  So either she was routed through the Sound to avoid the worst of the weather, or she was in some sort of difficulty, or the crew had started their new year celebrations early.

This is exactly the sort of ship we really don't want in these confined waters, even though she's in ballast.  The Coastguard tug which used to be stationed off NW Scotland has been removed, so if something untoward did happen to one of these ships we would have to sit and watch her go ashore.

The Dutch cargo vessel BBS Star has been in a bit of trouble recently. She suffered a rudder failure in the Kiel Canal on 29th August and hit another Dutch ship, the heavy-lift Snoekgracht. The BBS Star suffered hull damage portside with resulting water ingress, and was directed to Brunsbuettel to offloading a cargo of grain destined for Avonmouth.  Happily, she passed us without incident.

She's described as a 'dry cargo ship', 3,211t dwt, and was built in 1999.  Some photographs (eg: here) show her with her old name of Arklow Star, and the colour of her hull is typical of other Arklow ships we've seen going through the Sound.

The Cemluna passed us on the last day of 2012.  She's a 3,828t dwt cement carrier registered in Cyprus.  What look like white containers loaded amidships are part of the ship, perhaps related to her pneumatic loading and selfdischarging equipment - her description (.pdf file here) suggests that she loads and unloads by blowing the cement into and out of her two holds.

This is the Cameron, on her way to Kyle.  The Briggs Marine company website (here) describes her as a "trials support vessel in open anchorage in UK waters and as mooring vessel, transporting laying and recovery moorings, servicing mooring buoys and operating with an attendant diving team in UK harbours and estuaries".  We've seen Briggs Marine vessels often before, a Scottish company which registers their vessels in the UK, and is based in Burntisland, Fife.  It's a company which, judging by their smart appearance, takes a pride in its ships.

In contrast to the stormy conditions the Fure Sun enjoyed at the beginning of the past month, the Yeoman Bontrup passed down the Sound on 23rd January in winter weather, on her way to the superquarry at Glensanda.  We haven't seen any of these large bulk carriers over the last few weeks, so either they have been working elsewhere, or the crews have had a long holiday.

On a related matter, The Diary has been using the website to identify passing ships, but an alternative, the, has been recommended by Alasdair Hughson - see Diary post here.  It certainly seems to offer improved features.

Judy Pote

Please see the West Ardnamurchan News site, here.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

North Coast

With the forecast promising us some sun, but with a cool southeaster still blowing, we took ourselves to Ardnamurchan's north coast this morning, leaving the car near Achnaha and following the old track to the village of Plocaig.  We've walked this route a number of times before, but there is still one section where the old road seems to plunge into a bog, and there seems no way round it.  Little wonder the population steadily abandoned their homes - we know the village was deserted by the early 1930s.

While the isle of Rum to the north lay in bright sunshine, the old houses were, perhaps appropriately, still shadowed.

As we crested a rise beyond Plocaig the sun came out and a wide bay opened before us - sadly with no name on the OS 1:25,000 map.  This is the view to the northeast, to the Isle of Eigg and, just visible in the distance, the mountains of Skye....

 ....while this picture looks northwest, to the beach we call the shelley beach because of its deposits of coarse shell sand, one of the best place to find the tiny local cowrie.  The OS map marks a fort on top of the headland, and there is evidence there of broken walls: we have no idea what age it might be.

The coastline at the back of the bay is jagged and rocky, and broken into innumerable smaller inlets, some of which have accumulate sandy beaches.  We arrived about an hour after low water, but the tides are at neaps today so little of the beach was exposed.

For the last week the wind has blown consistently, and sometimes strongly from the southeast, yet quite large breakers were coming in from the opposite direction, the northwest.  Waves refract round obstacles, so these could have come from the south to be bent around Ardnamurchan Point, or they could have come from a storm system way out in the northern North Atlantic.  The Isle of Muck is seen along the horizon.

The fine weather brings out the RAF.  This Tornado was one of four practising low flying above us, frightening our only company, a few sheep and couple of seagulls.

We walked back to Achnaha through a gap in the hill to the east of Plocaig.  At one point we looked across the village's extensive fields to another deserted village, Glendrian, its broken houses surrounded by grass close-cropped by sheep.  Beyond it stands the highest point on the steep eastern face of the ring dyke, Meall nan Con.

A map of the area is here.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

An AIS Life Saver

We often watch fishing boats working or passing in the Sound of Mull, or heading towards Mingary Pier to land their catch, but we don't often get a chance to learn something of those who work in them.  It was therefore with great pleasure that The Diary received an email from Alasdair Hughson whose small business owns and operates this scallop boat, UL62, Atlantia, photographed here in April 2012.

Alasdair writes, "Atlantia is registered in Ullapool since we purchased her in 2008.  Ours is a family run business owned by my sister and I. We became fully involved in 2003 on the death of our father, Eddie Hughson. We have three scallop diving vessels, Atlantia UL62, Auk UL554 and Darien BRD652 crewed by eight full time divers including myself. All of these guys have worked with us for minimum five years now and some as long as fifteen years. All of them are HSE qualifed divers and also inshore skipper ticket holders. Between my father and ourselves we have been fishing in the Ardnamurchan area for over 25 years now, as well as the rest of the Scottish coastline from Orkney to the Mull of Kintyre.

"All of our product is marketed by our processing and sales business, Keltic Seafare ( based in Dingwall."

It was good to hear from him, but the reason Alasdair originally wrote related to an event in January 2012 (Diary report here) when one of his divers from the Atlantia was lost in the Sound of Mull for a number of hours before being located at Macleans Nose.

Alasdair writes, "This incident was a terribly worrying time for myself and all of the guys who work with us and not an experience which we would like to repeat. As a result I went on the hunt for some means whereby our divers could alert the vessel should this happen again.  I came across a new product from McMurdo, a company which specialise in locator beacons and the like. It is the Smartfind S10 AIS beacon.

"The Smartfind works by sending out an AIS signal when activated, relaying its GPS co-ordinates and a man overboard distress signal to any vessel or shore station within 4 miles with AIS receive capability. The main feature which attracted me to this product was the fact that it is waterproof and can withstand pressure down to sixty metres seawater. This means that our divers can carry the beacon at all times unlike all other personal devices like EPIRBs which would need a cumbersome protective case.

"It is a small unit and has worked well in all the tests which we have done at sea. When the diver activates it an icon appears on our plotter in the boat and an alarm sounds. There is the extra cost of fitting the boats out with AIS receivers but I reckon most boats will eventually be required to fit them anyway. If it helps us to avoid that situation again then the cost is not important.

"I can see how this product would be attractive to sea users such as fishermen, yachties and kayakers.

"It would be good if you could mention that these AIS based beacons are out there for about £150. Not many people know that they are available yet, but I think they could be a real life saver. More and more vessels are being fitted with AIS so the coverage is improving all the time."

Many thanks to Alasdair for writing.

Details of the Smartfind S10 AIS beacon are here.

The Diary welcomes contributions.  An email address is in the right-hand column of the blog.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Winter Walking

While the news from much of the UK is of heavy snow and grim transport problems, we continue - as we did last summer - to have our own weather, a stiff wind that has backed into the east, bringing a grey overcast, temperatures hovering just above zero, occasional flurries of snow, and flashes of bright sunshine.  While these don't make ideal walking conditions, we've managed to get out into the hills each day, if only for a couple of hours.

Today we drove to the forestry on the B8007, and walked north, following the Allt Rath a' Bheulain.  Most of the surface of the burn is covered with ice, much of it beautifully patterned, but a thin trickle of water continues to run underneath, witness to the very dry conditions we've had for the last couple of weeks.

This picture gives some idea of the ground we were walking across.  Wherever puddles had collected after the last rainfall, or where water was seeping from the peaty ground, there are now glassy sheets of ice.  Mounds of once-soft sphagnum moss are solid, and the earth itself is as hard as rock.  The worst walking is downhill, when it's all too easy to slip.

When we reached this icefall on the Allt Rath a' Bheulain we left the stream and bore away to the west, towards a low hill that hides....

....this lochan, Lochan Tom Mhic Iain, with the hill after which it is named standing behind it.  The MacIain clan dominated this peninsula for over three hundred years, but it isn't clear why this particular hill should have been named after them.  Mingary Castle, which was their seat, lies near the point where the valley we had followed reaches the sea and, judging by the number of ditches and dykes that criss-cross the land around this knoll, it was once extensively worked and supported a big population.

From MacIain's lochan we recrossed the valley and climbed Beinn an Leathaid, from where we could look back at the lochan and hill, and beyond to a Sound of Mull obscured by falling snow.  The small cairn in the foreground is about half-way up the hill, and is evidently man-made, another pile of rocks whose purpose has been forgotten.

The cairn at Beinn an Leathaid's summit is a substantial one, perhaps reflecting the fact that it isn't a difficult hill to climb and also that, unlike many summits, it has a convenient pile of stones right beside it. Like so many summits in this area, it also has a small pool at the top, frozen solid.

Perhaps if next summer is really, really hot, we'll climb here again and swim in it.

A map of the area is here.