The mysteries of Ardnamurchan

What’s the most westerly place on the British mainland? No – it’s not Land’s End; it’s Ardnamurchan Point, half a degree further over at 6.2°W. This small fact is like the area itself: it ought to be well known, but isn’t.

It’s the most prominent part of the peninsula south-west of Fort William. The easiest way to get there is to take the short ferry ride across Loch Linnhe, just north of Glencoe. Although the journey is less than half a mile, it takes one to a land that feels more like the Outer Hebrides than mainland Scotland.

The area is remote – and spectacularly beautiful. It was only mildly surprising to discover that the reclusive wildlife writer, Mike Tomkies, lived here, on the shore of Loch Shiel, a long lake with limited access by road. The area is a stronghold for the Scottish wildcat – with which Tomkies was intimately involved (here).

Loch Doile

Loch Doile

The main village, Strontian, houses about 350 people (similar to Wichenford). This might make it seem like any other small and inconspicuous village – but it is one of only two sites in the world to have a naturally occurring element named after it (strontium). This is another fact about the area that one feels should be better known.

My main motivation for the trip was to see the local wildlife, and it was good to be joined by Dave Doughty for it. One of the highlights was a dawn trip around Loch Sunart. Driving on the road west of Strontian at 5.30, we chanced upon an animal trying to cross the road… it wasn’t an otter, as we’d first thought, but with a white bib and bounding gait it could only be a pine marten. It took a while for it to find a way through, but it entertained us for a couple of minutes before doing so. (I was so excited to see it I completely forgot to take any photographs! Duh!)

Cloudy morning at Loch Sunart

Cloudy morning at Loch Sunart

Shortly after we arrived at the Garbh Eilean wildlife hide, Dave spotted an otter swimming along, nose just above the water line, diving a couple of times as well. We hoped  it would land on one of the islands in front of the hide – instead of which it swam behind and we lost sight of it.

Towards the end of the week we went on a widlife safari, guided by the irrepressible Hamza Yassin of West Highland Tours. He’s a professional wildlife photographer who is partly employed as a tour guide by the local laird. We soon regretted not doing the safari earlier in the week, such was his detailed knowledge of the local area.

I enthused about seeing the pine marten. Hamza was unsurprised by the sighting. He explained that here they are as common as the fox would be down south – and are doing so well that they threaten the survival of the wildcat. Wildlife conservation isn’t always straightforward…

My own attempts at photography were much more limited than I had expected – partly due to the weather, partly because the birdlife was much less obliging than I’d hoped. There was an abundance of herons, which is not exactly an unusual species further south! However, they are usually quite difficult to photograph as they are very alert to human presence, so when I saw one on the lakeside from the car I stopped to take a snap. But the heron had other things in mind than standing and posing…

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