Headland Of The Great Seas, The Ardnamurchan Peninsula
Volcanic rocks at Sanna Bay, North West Ardnamurchan.
Born of fire and ice, first volcanic action then shifting glaciers during the last ice age, Ardnamurchan Peninsula, is a long, narrow strip of land stretching out into the Atlantic. measuring 50 sq. mls, ( 130 sq kms). Part of Scotland’s Sea Kingdom, it is surrounded by several Southern Hebridean islands, many of which are visible on clear days including Coll, and Mull, most of the Small Isles – Rum, Muck and Eigg, as well as The Isle of Skye.
The Isles of Eigg and Rum with Skye in the far background from Sanna Bay
Historically, Ardnamurchan ( Gaelic translation: ‘headland of the great seas’) referred to the northern tip of the peninsula, known in past modern times as part of Argyll. Today, it is taken to mean the entire peninsula and beyond, as far as Moidart and is now part of Lochaber, administered by the Highland council. The area is mostly wilderness and is reknowned for its wild, unspoiled beauty. Lack of accessibility preserves the pristine nature of the place. Roads are few and extremely narrow with large areas having not even a footpath.
North West Ardnamurchan’s only road as it winds through the volcano’s crater
The photo above shows the road running through the crater of an extinct volcano in North West Ardnamurchan, one of six on the peninsula, and the volcano last active in the U.K., 60 million years ago.
View from inside the crater of the volcano
This volcano, like the others in the region, erupted 60 million years ago. Around 10 million years ago, during the last, or to be more precise, the present, ice age, glaciers moved through the highlands carving out glens, (Glencoe is a good example) and sheering off the tops of mountains as happened here. This crater, or cauldron, was once far underground until the edges of the volcano were sheered off by moving ice. Only sharp rims remain. These internal structures of this and other volcanoes can be seen all over the peninsula.
Some of the black, volcanic rock ended up littered around the coast, as evidenced on the beach at Sanna Bay.
Waves breaking on Sanna Bay
The coastline around the north-western tip of this peninsula is spectacularly wild and delightfully pristine. A 118 ft. (36 metre) lighthouse marks the most westerly point of mainland Britain and serves to warn seafarers of the rocky shore. Built in 1849 and designed by Alan Stevenson, Robert Stevenson’s eldest son and Robert Louis Stevenson’s uncle, the light was tended by keepers who lived in cottages adjoining the lighthouse. It was automated in 1988 and is now operated remotely from Edinburgh. Former keepers’ cottages now house a visitors center and a museum called ‘ Kingdom of Light‘ which details the history of the lighthouse.
It is reputed to be the only Egyptian style lighthouse in the U.K. but I have been unable to find a definition for this designation other than a description of lighthouses in Egypt and one that draws attention to the Egyptian-style design carved at the top of the Ardnamurchan stone tower.
Computer game enthusiasts may be interested to know that part of ‘Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened’ takes place in this lighthouse.
Egyptian style motif carved at top of lighthouse
Coastline near Ardnamurchan Point
North Ardnamurchan has only about 250 permanent residents, although there are many homes owned by summer visitors. During the summer season, the population of Ardnamurchan increases temporarily to 2,000. The locals mostly live a crofting lifestyle and live in self governing communities such as Kilchoan in the vicinity of Ardnamurchan Point. The Isle of Mull is less than a mile away and, from there, a small car ferry plies back and forth between Tobermory and Kilchoan.
Ferry dock at Kilchoan, Ardnamurchan
Ardnamurchan is the wettest place in the U.K., closely followed by the Isle of Mull. Surprisingly, the Isle of Coll which, on rare clear days, is visible from the peninsula, is the sunniest place in the country. The remnants of a 500-year-old rain forest survive today.
Rain forest on Ardnamurchan
Rowan tree berries at edge of rain forest
Low Tide At The Edge Of The Rain Forest
The whole of what is now known as Ardnamurchan is rich in rare fauna. Wild cats, pine marten and red deer are not uncommon, while the coast near the rain forest and beyond is home to sea otters and seals. Other larger sea mammals such as dolphins, whales and basking sharks are often visible from shore. The forest itself is home to both golden and white-tailed or sea eagles. These two species nest peaceably in the same area only because they keep out of each other’s hunting grounds. Man could learn from this natural cooperation.
A golden eagle high above the rain forest
Ardnamurchan has a rich history. Evidence of visitors to the peninsula suggest people were coming here 10 thousand years ago. Ancient shell middens as well as pieces of flint from tools have been found. Much later, in the 6th century, St. Columba brought monks from Ireland to teach the local Picts about Christianity. Other Irish settlers followed, bringing their Gaelic language with them. Today, Ardnamurchan has the most concentrated number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland. These newcomers from Ireland created a kingdom named ‘Dalriada‘.
After two hundred years, the Vikings came calling.
Martyr’s Bay, Isle of Iona where, in 806, Viking Raiders murdered 68 monks from St. Columba’s abbey.
While they are known to have attacked the monastery on the Isle of Iona in the early 9th century where they murdered every monk they could find, I found no record of such attacks in this area, though I suspect there were plenty. What is reported is that, by the 12th century, many of the Viking raiders had settled, intermarried and become part of the fabric of life in what had evolved into ‘The Kingdom of the Isles’, peacefully united under King Somerled, believed to be of Norse/Gaelic origin.
In 2011, a Viking boat burial site, believed to be 1,000 years old, was discovered at Swordle Bay located at the North East side of Ardnamurchan.
Site of Viking ship burial, Ardnamurchan, 2011(Photo by Pintarest.com)
Artifacts, including a sword with decorated hilt, buried with the boat and body, signify these are the remains of a Viking warrior. The fact that the boat is buried instead of being burned at sea is evidence of the influence of the Gaelic members of the community. Many other ancient objects have been unearthed on the peninsula, with excavations and searches ever ongoing.
Today there are fewer residents here than of yore, but the crofting lifestyle and self-managing communities still echo ancient times. Architecture of the homes is mostly simple, functional, no frills, like the crofting lifestyle that persists.
Three photos of homes near Sanna Bay
How to get there: From Tobermory on the Isle of Mull take the ferry to Kilchoan
Where to stay: For holiday accommodation on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula visit:
Day trips from Tobermory or Oban are run by MacBrayne’s Ferries. An all-day guided tour by minibus is a boon for those with limited time or transport. Contact MacBrayne’s to reserve seat on bus. Only eight places so book ahead.
The Lochaber area, which includes Ardnamurchan, is an archeological and geological wonderland and has been given European Geopark status, the 31st to be so designated. It is a fascinating treasure trove of fossils, ancient remains, incredible rock formations and various varieties of uncovered, yet to be discovered geological and anthropological delights. The subject is too big to allow me to even begin do it justice here, but I urge readers to visit the following site.
Most of the information contained in this post was either learned from a local guide or obtained from Wikipedia which provides a comprehensive bibliography of its sources. I only used part of the data provided. For the complete Wikipedia offering, visit:
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