Ardnamurchan is a peninsula on the west coast of Scotland. The modern English translation of the name is the title of this post. I have recently spent some time at the western tip of Ardnamurchan, where there is a lighthouse and a couple of very tiny communities.
Ardnamurchan has the remote feel of an island. It has nothing by way of tourist attractions, and the ferry-accessed road into its best parts is long and narrow. The interior is hilly and partially covered in ancient oak forests, lovely and lonely woodlands that peter out into peaty moorlands. However, it is the coast line that is most strikingly to-die-for beautiful.
This is not a piece of travelogue writing and I am not going to paste in any of the photos I took (have no fear). Instead of a conventional map of the area I just want to include a geological map.
Even without knowing any of the technicalities, there are few images as gorgeous as a geological map…and Ardnamurchan makes for an especially fine example.
This was one of the planet’s most powerful volcanos.
The Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) consists of eight categories, with 1 the lowest and 8 the highest in terms of the volume and spread of pyroclastic material. The most powerful eruption in modern history was Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815, which is rated at 6.5 on the VEI. The most recent example of an 8 was the Yellowstone eruption 600,000 years ago. Every so often a supervolcano is formed and its power has a huge impact on life on the planet for centuries afterwards.
Six million years ago, Ardnamurchan was a supervolcano, and the evidence suggests that today it would be rated at 8 on the VEI. Its last eruption, a mere 6, was around one million years ago.
To arrive at the wonderfully isolated and stunning western fringe that runs from Fascadale on the northern rim, round through Sanna Bay and on to Corrachadh Mor (the most westerly tip of the UK mainland) the traveller has to cross the vast plug of rock, earth and sediment that now fills the extinct caldera of the supervolcano.
You traverse this fascinating landscape for some 4 hours on foot, describing a diameter line across the tussocky skin of this fossilised cauldron, surrounded by a low 360° sill of volcanic rock, a gap-toothed rim of cold magma and lava.
The rock is gabbro. Gabbro makes up much of the ocean floor across the Earth and is formed when volcanic magma meets water. The Big Headland of the Great Seas is one of the few places in the UK where it intrudes above the surface. Nearby Skye is another place.
Gabbro is great to clamber and scramble around on. Its coarse-grain and its generously curved formations make it sheer pleasure to hold, hug and heave around on.
Gabbro also has a neat trick up its bouldery sleeves: its magnetic attractions completely mess up the workings of a compass. Compasses are over-rated anyway.
I spent a ‘day in the life’ following the crest of the gabbro cliff sill that overlooks both the volcanic caldera and the turquoise sea above Sanna. On the one side I could see as far as Ben Nevis and the Mamores. On the other side I could see the Outer Hebrides, the coast of Labrador and right across the Plains to the Rockies (ok, scrub out the words after ‘Outer Hebrides’ but that’s what it felt like…).
The highest point on Ardnamurchan is Ben Hiant. It is not a Munro (3000ft+) or even a Corbett (2500ft+) and all the better for it in that many list-inclined walkers don’t bother with it. It is, however, thought that ‘Hiant’ is a corruption of ‘Giant’. All things are relative. The Gaelic name is Beinn Sheunta, which means the Enchanted Mountain.
I spent a waking night on the top of the Enchanted Mountain, moonbathing in the dark silence with the only sign of humanity the pinprick lights of Tobermory on Mull, some fifteen miles away at sea level.
Of course there is also human history in every hidden corner. A deserted, mouldered croft in a trackless cleft between gabbro outcrops prompted the poem below.
Rules For Exploring an Abandoned Croft
Bow down, just enough, as you cross the doorless threshold.
Do not remove your shoes.
If there is anything yet unbroken, do not break it.
Allow your eyes to adjust to the thick-wall small-window light.
You may touch the rich layer of powdery dirt on the mantelpiece.
Picture the ghost-images in pale ovals and rectangles on the walls.
Trust the base of the fireplace, but not the floorboards.
Do not tousle the moss in the leaked-on kitchen sink.
Tack carefully around the Haversham cobwebs.
Test each stair-tread as you ascend: go by the feel not the creaking.
Do not look for symmetry in the daylight patches in the roof.
Do marvel at the presence of what remains of a single bed.
Gaze for a lengthy moment at the survival of a dank pillow.
Sense the weight of the head that left such heft-shape.
Hurry away. Seek company.
For at least one hour, leave your life unexamined.