Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Sanna's Summer Wildflowers

On a late summer walk at Sanna we found the dunes of the machair a mass of bluebells, Campanula rotundifolia, harebell to the English. The dune bluebells seem to have shorter stalks, and most are a washed-out blue, but they vary from almost white to a very pretty pale purple.

To appreciate the beauty of this little flower requires the help of a magnifying glass or macro lens on a camera.  It's eyebright, Euphrasia officialis, and it's everywhere.

Water mint, Mentha aquatica, is to be found growing in the damp ground just to the north of the car park, conveniently placed for those who have access to a leg off one of the many lambs that are running around.
The trouble with being purple is that so many other flowers at this time of year, particularly the heathers, are a similar colour, so the rarer species are likely to get overlooked.  We'd never identified this lovely little flower before.  It's autumn gentian, Gentiana amarella, and we only found it in a few places.

Not all the heathers are white.  This is a white variant of the normal, lilac ling which is having a very good year.  Looking closely, it's not quite white but has touches of colour.

On every walk we come across something we can't identify, and this is a good example.  Part of the trouble may be that it may not yet be in full flower, but perhaps someone could suggest a name.

Monday, 29 September 2014

A Third Standing Stone?

There are two recognised standing stones on West Ardnamurchan.  One is at Branault.  It's one of a pair which stood close together, but the second was broken and removed, though its stump is still visible.  An earlier blog post about it is here.

A much more widely-known standing stone is on the flat land close to the water at Camas nan Geall.  Although the original stone probably dates to the Bronze Age, it has Christian symbols, a cross and a dog, carved on it which may date to around the time of St Columba's visit to the bay.

One of the most frustrating things about having an interest in archaeology is when one stumbles across something like this - a stone standing on its end which might, just might also be a standing stone.  It's right next to a natural outcrop of rock from which it might have been separated but, in these circumstances, one would have expected it to have fallen over.  It stands not far from the cairn of Mhuchdragain, on the old road between Camas nan Geall and Kilchoan.

The location of the new standing stone is shown on a map here.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Beinn nan Losgann

There are few hills on West Ardnamurchan that we haven't climbed but Beinn nan Losgann, the hill of the frog or toad, was one.  It stands between the Kilmory crossroads and Ben Hiant, and the reason we hadn't climbed it was that, although the summit is clear, it's surrounded by a plantation of conifers.

We prefer not to walk through trees, and densely-packed conifers are probably our least favourite.  There's a sense of being hemmed in, of walking through a silent suffocation. Although we could hear some birds singing, any wildlife was difficult to see.  And the views we should have been enjoying as we climbed were obscured.

We've tried to find the summit once before, on a bitter winter's day, and gave up as we couldn't fight our way from the forestry track onto the open summit.  This time, having looked at a satellite image of the area, we entered from the Loch Mudle end, climbing a high metal gate in the deer fence to get in.  The devastation wrought by the winter gales of the last few years was all around; in one place three fallen trees completely blocked the track.  However, just past them we found the one point where it's possible to get from the track....

....onto the more open land that leads up to the summit.

The summit is approached by a series of knolls, each separated by a scattering of pine trees.  As we came to one of them we saw the only serious wildlife of the day, a red deer hind feeding at the edge of the trees.

However, we did find a recently-shed antler, sitting rather forlornly in the middle of a patch of grass.

Once through the trees, the views are good.  This one looks south-westwards towards the Sound of Mull, with Kilchoan Bay visible in the mid-distance on the right and Caliach Point at the northwest tip of Mull away in the left distance.  Despite the grey day, Tiree was just visible along the horizon.

The views to the north are down the valley of the Achateny Water and across the Minches to Eigg, Rum and, in the distance, the Cuillins of Skye.

As we came down the hill there may have been some sense of achievement at having succeeded at the second attempt at reaching the summit, but it's not a hill we'll hurry back to.

Saturday, 27 September 2014


The cairn on the low hill west of the Sanna road just before it reaches Creag an Airgid.

Mallard swimming in the sea near the slipway below the shop.

Greylag geese on the lochan just along from the Ferry Stores.

Kilchoan Bay seen from the road by Ben Hiant croft, with Mull in the distance.

Friday, 26 September 2014

A Concentration of Toadstools

The car boot hadn't been shut properly so we pulled into a passing place to close it, but spent far longer there than expected.

At this time of year the fungi are coming into their own, but it's rare to find no less than four different species all within a space of the two square metre sheep-cropped area along the side of the tarmac.  The one that caught our eye was this bright yellow one, which may be a yellow wax cap.

Whoever has the privilege of naming these fungi must have great fun.  Names such as scarlet hood, crab scented russula, plums and custard, and stinking parasol may be descriptive, but amethyst deceiver, wood blewit, rusty wood rotter and ear pick fungus are just plain fun.  We have no idea what this one is called.

The people who name fungi doesn't feel that the names have to be short. This one's fleshy pink colour and faded margin suggest it might be an orange-red wax cap.

Fungi are as bad as moths when it comes to trying to identify them - there are hundreds, and they vary a lot within individual species.  This one, with it's neat, parasol shape and lump on its top, should be easily identifiable, but I'm really guessing when I call it a brown rollrim.  If it is, it's described as 'deadly poisonous'.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Damselflies of Loch Caorach

Loch Caorach, the sheep loch, lies to the south of the road that leads to Ardnamurchan Point lighthouse.  It's one of the many stretches of water which is tucked into a valley that's higher than the surrounding landscape, so it's difficult to see unless one comes at it from a higher point - this view, which looks out towards the end of the peninsula, was taken from Beinn nan Ord.

When we visited it in late July the loch's southern shores were crowded with these damselflies.  They're emerald damselflies, Lestes sponsa, though their colour is hardly 'emerald' - the stone is usually a much deeper green - but this doesn't detract from the beauty of these insects.

The startling feature we immediately noticed was their piercing blue eyes.  There were dozens of them flying around, all within quite a confined area along the loch-side, and the reason rapidly became apparent....

....as this seemed to be a gathering place for courting.  And it was only when we started to watch the coupled pairs that we noticed that there were two slightly different colours.

As with many of the damselflies, the female is a distinct colour from the male  It was also noticeable that the females lack the males' startling blue eyes.  Along the banks of Loch Caorach there were far more males than females, which led to some lively competitive flying.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Beinn na h-Imeilte - Again

We've lost count of how many times we've climbed Beinn na h'Imeilte.  It doesn't matter, we never tire of it, because each time is different. When we last climbed it, we walked into the teeth of a strong north-northwesterly with the forecast for heavy showers.  The result was a never-ending succession of light and shadow across the landscape, which made for interesting photography.

From the Sanna road, the approach along the southwest face of the ridge is across open, grassy, rolling hills with scattered outcrops of gabbroic rocks, but....

....if one pokes one's nose over the dark, northeastern face it's very different, with an increasingly steep drop to the low land around Achnaha.  The line of hill sin the distance are those at the back of Sanna, with Meall Sanna the highest peak at the right.

This view looks south, with Lochan na Crannaig and Beinn na Seilg.  The Portuairk and lighthouse road runs just the other side of the lochan, along the edge of the woodland, and we could just see the cars crawling along it, stopping occasionally to let the traffic pass in the opposite direction.

Looking over our left shoulder into the sun, the landscape took on a silvery sheen.  The picture can't do justice to such a panorama, which runs from Glebe Hill at the left to Beinn Tallaidh in the right distance, and includes the often-forgotten Lochan nan Ealachan and the Sound of Mull beyond it.

In the opposite direction, Achnaha is an oasis of green in the centre of the great bowl of land formed by the Ardnamurchan ring dykes.

On most of the local hills, the last section is steep enough to give one a final sense of achievement on reaching the summit, but on Beinn na h-Imeilte one comes across its small cairn rather unexpectedly. It looks like a recently-built cairn, in contrast to the one we passed much nearer the Sanna road which is covered in ancient-looking lichens.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Resident Reptiles

It's been a great year for slow worms in the garden.  They turn up all over the place, but one of their favourite spots is at the base of the step up onto our terrace at the back of the vegetable garden.  We've seen three different individuals basking in the sun in this crack.  They live behind some nearby slates which are propped up against a bank, presumably providing them with warmth and shelter.

It's also been a great year for toads, and this one is by far the prettiest.  Both the slow worms and the toads are good for the garden, being bad for slugs and snails.

This lizard lives in the stone wall that runs along the side of the upper terrace, a place where we enjoy our sundowners on a sunny evening.  He has become very used to us, and quit eased to having his picture taken.  But this hasn't been such a good year for our garden lizards, with relatively few in them around.

We're not sure whether this is a pregnant female - which seems unlikely in the autumn - or a lizard that is stretching out its body to expose as much of it as possible to the early morning sun.

We've looked, but haven't seen the black adder again.  However, the local birds - mostly great tits and blue tits with a few chaffinches watching on - were making a terrible noise in the undergrowth at the back of the next door garden one day, and pointing at something.  Their angry twittering moved steadily towards the upper fence, near where we'd twice seen the adder. It's a behaviour we used to witness in Africa, where snakes were common, and we wondered whether they had seen, and were following the adder.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Single-Track Roads

There are times when single-track roads are frustrating places.  We do a great deal of walking along them, which inconveniences passing cars, so I suppose we shouldn't complain when sheep also use them, particularly as these sheep are in Kilchoan township.  Kilchoan is an open township, in that animals are allowed to roam its unfenced areas, unlike Ormsaigbeg which is closed, meaning that they should either be within a field or out on the common grazings.

So we really can't complain when one of the Kilchoan crofters drives along the road waving an old fertiliser bag out of the car window, followed by a mob of sheep.  The reason her sheep follow an old fertiliser bag is that their food supplement is always brought to them in such a bag so, like Pavlov's dogs, they're conditioned.

However, we can complain when a driver decides that the road is his and won't give way, despite passing several police notices requiring him to use passing places to allow overtaking.  We've all suffered this frustration, and tried to keep our tempers, but there are times I wish we drove something really intimidating, like a Churchill tank.

In this case, we weren't immediately behind him so couldn't do the usual thing of flashing headlights, turning on orange indicators, sounding the horn, and waving out of the window.  The man in between us was far too polite.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Three Colours of Scabious

Devils bit scabious is a common but very pretty flower of the moorlands of West Ardnamurchan, and is one of the few, along with the heathers, that are still blooming in profusion into October.  Its normal colour is a pale purple-blue, but....

....the shade can vary considerably, through to a rather deep purple.  It can also come in completely different colours.  For example....

....we found a rare white scabious near the Caim sheds back in September of last year - see report here.

Now we've found the species' other colour variation, pink.  This plant was growing on the flat land to the northeast of Achnaha.

Both the two colour variations were isolated plants growing near 'normal' coloured scabious.  One does wonder why these rare variants crop up without, apparently, surrounding themselves with young of the same colouration.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

A Different Tick?

As so often happens, it's a chance occurrence that sets one thinking about something which is part of our everyday existence.  We live with ticks, not in the sense that they stay indoors with us but that we often come in from a walk or from picking raspberries in the vegetable garden to find we have a passenger.  Sometimes we don't notice it until we're having a bath - as happened with this tick, which was latched very firmly onto my leg.

Usually, the ticks we pick up are tiny, sometimes no more than a pinhead across, and black, so we wondered whether this one was a different species.  It was much bigger, perhaps 4mm across, and had a dark area on its back, which we now know to be a dorsal shield called the sputum, and seemed to have very long legs.  Some research on the internet gave us the answer - it isn't.  Only one of the twenty British tick species enjoys human company, and that's Ixodes ricinus, the sheep tick.  The one eating me was only different because it was a mature female.

We've not allowed ticks to get this big but the cats have been less lucky.  It's the same type of tick, but the body is swollen with the blood drawn off our unfortunate feline.

We've even taken a tick on board while working in the greenhouse. What intrigued us was how they got there as, presumably, they must have been dropped by a mammal, and not even our cats are allowed to disturb the tomatoes.  We finally worked it out: we use compost, obtained from a friendly crofter, which comes from mucking out the barn in which her sheep have their lambs.

We have these very clever little machines for removing ticks safely, and they work fine with the bigger ones - the large female tick came off a treat.  But even the smaller machine doesn't always work with the tiny ticks.

We're not the only ones who carry the occasional passenger.  Look carefully on this bee's back, and you can see something hitching a ride.  It probably isn't a tick, but it's obviously living off the bee.

Like everything in nature, we may not like them but ticks are fascinating beasts.  The best site for identifying them is here.