Take to the hills – the Rahoy Hills in Morvern!

The entrance to the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Ardtornish Estate reserve in the Rahoy Hills in Morvern

The ferry ride from Corran to Ardgour lasts only a matter of minutes. But those few minutes take you to the rugged and little-known Morvern Peninsula in south-west Lochaber on the dramatic west coast of Scotland. The name Morvern comes from the Gaelic A’Mhorbhairne, meaning the Sea-Gap. Head due west and you’ll reach Ardnamurchan, regarded as the most westerly point of the British mainland. Head south from Ardgour and you come to Morvern.

On a first visit to somewhere new it’s not alway seasy to know where to begin. Checking the map we thought the Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve in the Rahoy Hills might be worth a visit. And we weren’t wrong. Leaving the car at the small and rough Black Water car park on the Ardtornish Estate, we set out for Loch Arienas. This unusual sounding name derives from the Gaelic for Angus’ Shieling, or summer pasture. The natural beauty of the loch and the surrounding area were immediately clear to see.

Loch Arienas

Rich in plant- and wildlife, the track through the woods wends its way up and down and roundabout, sometimes boggy, sometimes narrow and twisty, but all the while giving splendid views onto the loch and its unusual sandy beaches. It’s also thanks to Morvern’s geology that the soil here is home to so many rare plants.

This reserve is particularly important as it contains rare surviving remnants of the historic native Atlantic oakwoods, once found along much of the Atlantic seaboard all the way from Norway to Portugal. Established in 1975 the Rahoy Hills Reserve is not only an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), but parts of it, as here at Loch Arienas, have been given extra protection as Special Areas of Conservation. And with good reason.

The bridge over the Arienas Burn

By allowing the trees to self-seed, a genuinely natural regeneration of the woodland is taking place and with that comes the accompanying natural growth of habitats for many other flora and fauna. A variety of native Scottish trees, such as hazel, ash, rowan and birch, intermingle with the oak, and under and around them an array of mosses, pure-air-loving lichen, ferns and the primitive – and often rather damp, slimy and strange looking! – liverworts are much in evidence. Add to this primroses, violets, bluebells and other small and delicate spring flora with their lovely yellow, blue, pink and lilac colours, and the setting is perfect.

Some of the ruins of Arienas village

But there is more here. Beautiful as the scenery may be and rich the flora and fauna, the glen has another story to tell. Like so many parts of Scotland the land seems empty now – empty of people that is. Yet like so many places in Scotland this glen was once home to many families. Continuing along the track we came to Arienas Point and the remains of the deserted township of Arienas.

This former settlement of seven houses, barns and a corn-drying kiln was built around 1755, but its inhabitants were ‘cleared’ in the 19th century to make way for sheep. These sad reminders of past lives aren’t the only indications of previous human habitation in this lovely glen. Archaeologically rich Bronze and Iron Age sites also lie nearby. Evidence that this has long been a place where people could, and did, live and call home.

Cairn memorial to the naturalist Brian Brookes

We also came across a cairn-memorial to the naturalist Brian Brookes, best-known now for the British Naturalists’ Association Guide to Mountain and Moorland. Perhaps it was a special place to him. It was without doubt a special place to many in the past and is here for us all today thanks to the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Ardtornish Estate.

More on Handa Island

An oystercatcher keeps a watchful eye out for humans

As winter sets in and the nights get longer, it can be pleasant to sit and think about places to visit when spring comes round again and the days start to lengthen once more.  Somewhere that’s well worth a visit is Handa Island, which I’ve mentioned in two previous posts: Handa Island – Puffins Galore and Island Going – Robert Atkinson.

Access to Handa Island today is still seasonal (April to September) and weather dependent, but visitors get there in far greater numbers than when we first visited over thirty years ago.  To get on and off Handa back then, you reached the small ferry by scrambling along a rather shoogly pontoon of upturned plastic milk crates.  Getting onto the ferry today is definitely a rather more staid affair!  And facilities on Handa have moved forward with the installation in 2012 of one of the best public eco-toilets in the world!

I recently came across this lovely little ‘Scotland on Screen’ film about Handa’s past history and present status as a bird and wildlife sanctuary.  Filmed in the 1970s, it captures the island as it was when I first saw it. But don’t believe everything you read in the ‘Scotland on Screen’ preamble!!   It may say that the film highlights birds like “… puffins, guillemots, herring gulls, cormorants and ‘dive-bombing’ skewers”, and while it’s certainly true you could well be dive-bombed by protective nesting birds, it will be by skuas – not skewers!!   Enjoy the film!

Handa Island Summer.

BBC News – in pictures: The Loo with a View on Handa

Scottish Wildlife Trust

Handa Island – Puffins Galore!

My first visit to Handa Island was in 1977, more than thirty years ago now.  Two things in particular fascinated me about Handa’s history. One was that long ago families from the mainland brought their dead to be buried on Handa to keep the graves safe from scavenging wolves.  The other that the island had had its own ‘parliament’ presided over by the eldest widow, the ‘Queen of Handa’, and that the islanders held daily consultations to decide the work to be done that day. It seemed wholly appropriate that the people who lived there were the ones who took the decisions that most closely effected their lives.  And took those decisions as a community. Sadly, like so many Scottish islands and so much of the Scottish Highlands, Handa ‘lost’ its people in the mid-19th century and has been uninhabited since.

But its wildlife still flourishes!  I remember vividly that sense of amazement on experiencing at first-hand the sight – and sounds – of the soaring sea-cliffs with their thousand upon thousand of nesting birds: the reality exceeding anything we’d imagined.  In particular the unforgettable puffins, who seemed far more sedate than many of their more raucous neighbours!  Handa is well-managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, with more than 5,000 visitors a year.  And there was good news for all those visitors: to help cope with such an annual influx a new eco-toilet has been built on the island, aptly named “The loo with a view”