By Rosie McKechnie
If I’d been told beforehand a boat trip in the rain was on the itinerary for my weekend away, I’d probably have cancelled. Who wants to spend hours puttering about in dreich drizzle when there’s a roaring log fire to be curled up in front of with a good book? Fortunately for me, bone idleness wasn’t on the agenda for my short break in Ardnamurchan. Otherwise I’d have missed the thrilling sail around Loch Sunart – rain and all.
Andy Jackson is one of the few local boatmen skilled enough to safely steer around the rocky shoreline of Carna island and the wilderness of Morvern peninsula. With him safely at the wheel, we set off from Laga bay, then five minutes later promptly came to a stop. Porpoises had been spotted in the distance and with a bit of patience and plenty of luck we managed to drift close enough to get a good look.
By the time the rain was easing off we’d squeezed round the side of Carna and were surrounded by seals with scores of inquisitive little faces popping out of the water, their silky bodies splashing and rolling in the water. A little further along, with wings madly flapping, a squadron of eiderdown ducks raced by at high speed, just inches from the water, and herons stood, knee-deep, in the marshy shoreline watching us, watching them. I won’t say I wasn’t glad of the fire and hearty meal in the Salen Inn by the time we got back to dry land, but I’d happily have gone back out and done it all again – even in monsoon conditions.
There’s no escaping the harshness of life in this remote corner of Scotland . The most westerly tip on the mainland, Ardnamurchan is the dividing line between the northern and southern Hebrides, surrounded by the islands of Mull , Coll, Muck and Eigg. The landscape is stark, yet stunning, with everything from forested hills to expanses of rocky terrain in the 50 square miles of long, narrow peninsula.
The Highland Clearances saw off the majority of crofters who weren’t beaten by the harshness of the elements. These days most locals make their money from tourists, providing accommodation, transport and expert guided tours of the land and waterways. There are no towns – or villages for that matter – just a string of settlements dotted along the single track roads with follow the coastline and cross the peninsula. But there’s a warm welcome and a wonderful sense of community you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the country.
Oh, and there’s the wildlife. Apart from the seals and porpoises, over the weekend we managed to get a closer look at otters, herds of stag and red deer, even golden eagles – some so close we could almost touch them. To get a feel for Ardnamurchan’s past, we drove to Castle Tioram, a ruin sitting on a rocky cliff where the water of Loch Moidart and the River Shiel meet. Once the seat of the MacDonalds, it was burned down during the Jacobite Uprising. Now it’s a crumbling shell, yet still an awe-inspiring sight.
It might be a long time since anyone has ventured inside Castle Tioram, but the steps to the top of the lighthouse at Ardnamurchan point are a well-trodden path in the summer months. The former lighthouse keeper’s quarters are now used as holiday accommodation and there’s a visitor centre. Apart from the views to the surrounding Hebridean islands, most people come here to see the Egyptian-style lighthouse tower, built in 1849 by the Stevenson family, and to watch for whales.
If it’s a good day, sit under the massive old fog horn and look out to sea. A shelter has been built for wilder weather and offers decent protection against the elements. Forget what the weather’s like, for minke and sometimes even killer whales can be seen heading north. That’s a sight you won’t see from many other spots on the west coast.
With bed and breakfast and self-catering cottages scatted all over the peninsula, there’s no shortage of accommodation. Deciding on the location is the most difficult part and we finally chose to base ourselves at Ardshealach Lodge in Salen. It also serves dinner and is one of the most popular places to eat out for both locals and visitors. The menu is crammed with local produce, from scallops and duck to lamb and beef, served with vegetables straight from the garden outside.
A full Scottish breakfast served in the dining room overlooking Loch Shiel set us up for the day ahead – a wildlife walk from Sanna Bay to Portuaick in glorious sunshine.
The forested hills on the eastern side of the peninsula give way to sparse moorland this far east. Battered by salty winds, it’s a wonder anything grows. The light and the ever-changing shades of blue as the sky meets the sea are enchanting and generations of artists have tried again and again to capture the scene.
It’s almost impossible to take a bad photograph, but I wonder what turn of the century snapper M.E.M. Donaldson would make of today’s digital cameras. She lived on Sanna Bay and travelled around the peninsula, taking photographs of crofters, fisherman and snapshots of local life, lugging her camera gear with her in a baby’s pram. So much for technology.
Ardnamurchan meets the modern age at the Natural History Centre in Glenmore. An interactive Living Building permanent exhibition looks at life on the peninsula with a focus on wildlife.
The latest attraction is Ardnamurchan’s unique take on reality TV. The live pictures of golden eagles in the wild, from a hidden camera, are fed back to birdwatchers, giving them a very rare opportunity to see the birds of prey up close.
It’s also a great place to while away a few hours when the prospect of a boat trip is too much – even in the rain.
For details of Ardnamurchan Tourist Association see ardnamurchan.com
Boat trips with West Scotland Marine. See west-scotland-marine.com
Wilderness walks with Activities Outdoors. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Bed and breakfast accommodation at Ardshealach Lodge from £25, call 01967 431 399.