Sanna beach
photograph credits - michael macgregor


While the origins of the word Ardnamurchan are disputed, the name probably refers to the peninsula’s western point: ‘Point of the Great Seas’ and ‘Height of the Great Headland’ are two suggested translations.  It is a wild, spectacular landscape of open hills, inaccessible, rocky cliffs and stunning white-sand beaches. This craggy beauty comes from its geology: it is formed from one of Britain’s last volcanoes, which erupted some 60 million years ago.  This was then so deeply eroded by glaciers that the central area of West Ardnamurchan has the volcano’s internal structures laid out for all to see.

Visitors have been coming to West Ardamurchan since Mesolithic times, some ten thousand years ago, soon after the glaciers retreated.  These ancient people left shell middens and the flakes of flint they used as tools.  The Neolithic farmers who succeeded them cleared the forests for fields and built chambered cairns, examples of which can be seen at Greadal Fhinn in Ormsaigmore, Camas nan Geall, and at Swordle Farm.  Bronze Age remains have been found exposed from the machair at Sanna, and there is ample evidence of Iron Age settlement.  

After St Columba founded his monastery on Iona in the 6th century, his travels brought him to West Ardnamurchan.  He is said to have landed at Camas nan Geall, where a fresh spring on the hillside is named after him, while a cave on the north coast, near Swordle, was his place of retreat.  At the time the peninsula was inhabited by Picts, but it was steadily colonized by Scots who came from Ireland.  They created the Kingdom of Dalriada, and brought their language, Gaelic.
Two centuries later the Vikings pulled their longships onto Ardnamurchan’s beaches, named many of the coastal features, and buried a chief in a secluded bay – the only Viking boat burial on mainland Scotland was excavated at Swordle Farm in 2010 by the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project.  The norsemen settled, intermarried with the local population, and were united under the great leader Sommerled in the Kingdom of the Isles.

From the fourteenth century the area became the stronghold of Clan MacIain, a sept of Clan MacDonald.  Their chiefs held Mingary Castle near Kilchoan, a fortress which controlled the Sound of Mull, and they became major players in the politics of the Lordship of the Isles.  Yet by the end of the 17th century the clan was totally destroyed, its people hunted and slaughtered, the survivors scattered.  Ardnamurchan then became part of the extensive estates of the Dukes of Argyll.

By the beginning of the 18th century the people of West Ardnamurchan lived in small, communally-run villages, each with an area of intensively-worked arable land surrounded by large areas of ‘common grazings’.  After the area had been sold to private landlords, some of these ‘clachans’ were, in a drive for ‘improvement’, cleared to make way for sheep farms.  The displaced inhabitants either emigrated, to Scotland’s growing industrial centres or abroad to Canada, the US and New Zealand, or were reorganized into crofting communities.  The abandoned lazy-beds and the broken walls of the cleared villages – Bourblaige, Corrievullin, Skinnid – are there to be found.  Many of today’s residents still follow the crofting way of life, their small farms organized into self-regulating townships such as Kilchoan, Portuairk, and Kilmory.  Most of the land outwith these communities remains in the hands of the privately owned Ardnamurchan Estate.

The sparse population – there are about 250 permanent residents on West Ardnamurchan – and the remote location have ensured that much of the area remains a wilderness with unrivalled wildlife.  Sea and golden eagles, Scottish wildcat, pine marten, and large herds of red deer are to be found; for those keen to see and photograph them, wildlife safaris are available.  Ardnamurchan’s seas have minke whales, basking sharks, orcas, dolphins, seals and sea otters. The lighthouse at Ardnamurchan Point, an ideal place to watch the seas, stands at the most westerly point on the British mainland.  Whale and dolphin-watching boat trips to places like Staffa are available, boats can be hired, sailing and kayaking are popular sports based at the Kilchoan slipway, and there is good fishing – for wild brown trout in the lochans as well as sea fishing.

Under Scottish law, everyone has a right to roam responsibly across open land.  On West Ardnamurchan, the lack of fences, the grandeur of the scenery, the generosity of landowners such as the crofting townships and the Estate, mean that visitors can walk freely across some 150 km2 of mountains, valleys and moorland.  The best-known beaches are at Sanna, where protected bays make ideal places for families, but many beaches are much more remote and can only be reached by walking.  Rock-climbing on the steep outcrops of volcanic rock is an increasingly popular sport, while for hikers mountains like Ben Hiant and Meall nan Con offer spectacular views.  The crystal-clear Atlantic air is wonderful for photography and for those who enjoy the night skies: this area is far enough north to see the aurora borealis.

Cottages and caravans are available for rent, there are hotels, guest houses and B&Bs, camp sites for tents and motor homes, cafés and restaurants, and two visitors’ centres.  A single-track road, the B8007, connects the area to civilisation, while a vehicle ferry runs between Kilchoan and Tobermory on Mull.  A visit to Tobermory offers an opportunity to watch sea life and makes a pleasant day out.

Kilchoan is the largest settlement on West Ardnamurchan, boasting two churches, a primary school, a pub/hotel, a well-stocked shop, a very active Learning Centre where visitors are welcomed, fire and coastguard stations, a telephone exchange, and a Community Centre which has a medical facility, tourist information and a football pitch.  By comparison, the other villages of West Ardnamurchan are small, the smallest having a population of one.

As those who have visited West Ardnamurchan well know, there is only one warning: come to West Ardnamurchan, and you will want to come again, and again….

written for the ATA by Jonathan Haylett -