Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

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This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

Memories Revisited – The Scottish Banner

January 31st, 2013

Sea EagleLAST OCTOBER my wife and I took a holiday in a cottage at Dorlin, on the north side of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula.

The light, the views, the scent on the air, the mood of the landscape – even simple pleasures like running a bath with brown, peaty water – all brought back teenage memories of times spent with an uncle and aunt who, for over twenty years, took their holidays at the Acharacle Hotel at the foot of nearby Loch Shiel.

Loch Shiel, in Moidart, is one of Scotland’s longest lochs – seventeen miles from Acharacle to Glenfinnan at its head. Never more than half a mile at its widest, it has a dog-leg about a third of the way up where its east-west axis takes a bend to the north-east.

It is deep – very deep in parts – and is reputed, like similar lochs such as Maree, Morar, Awe and of course Loch Ness, to have a monster lurking in its depths. Could that be true? – best way to find out is to visit the area which is steeped in legends of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the birth of the ’45 Uprising which ended in bloody failure eight months later on Culloden Moor.

You need to take the stories of a Loch Shiel monster with a generous pinch of St Monans salt. But if you are out on the water at the right moment you’ll see the true-life Harry Potter Hogwarts Express steaming across the famous Glenfinnan Railway Viaduct, leaving a trail of smoke behind it on the enchanted air. A steam train – there’s another of those 1950s memories!

For ten years I have written a weekly countryside diary for the Dundee Courier entitled Man with Two Dogs and for me the enchantment of revisiting the loch and the surrounding district is its justifiable reputation as a true wilderness area. Places and distances on the loch are measured as the crow flies, for practically no roads run along its shores.

The benefit is that the local wildlife lives relatively undisturbed from direct human contact. You have a sporting chance of seeing red deer and golden eagles and, if you are lucky and it’s the right season, rare black throated divers that come to breed by our northern lochs.

A mile or so from the holiday cottage, at the foot of the brae, Macdonald stronghold Castle Tioram (pronounced Tirrim or Cheerum) sits on a lump of rocky island where the waters of Loch Moidart and the estuary of the River Shiel meet. If you want to keep your feet dry it can only be reached by a spit of sand at low tide. It was a great place to scramble and explore but the public are barred from it now because of its dangerous state.

Aged fifteen, I saw my first golden eagle circling in the thermals above high cliffs protecting the castle from the east. Lying in bed on the first morning of our holiday I heard a yelping cry I didn’t recognise. My first thought was that it must be some four-footed animal, but flying over quite low was a pair of white-tailed, or sea eagles.

They circled round the cliff top for about a minute, calling to each other. To be sure I’d identified them correctly we logged on to the British Library sound archive and compared the calls of the golden and sea eagles – and I was right.

The 1950s were still the glory days of fishing on Loch Shiel which was what attracted my uncle and aunt there, and much of their holidays were spent out on the loch in their boat hunting the brown trout, sea trout and salmon.

To allow them at least one day’s respite I was usually packed off, with a piece in my pocket, on the Macbrayne steamer (this was pre-CalMac days) which sailed from Acharacle to Glenfinnan. You disembarked at the head of the loch below the Bonnie Prince Charlie monument, re-enacting the defining moment of the prince’s life when he stepped ashore from a small rowing boat on 19th August 1745 and was greeted by fifty Macdonald Highlanders.

At a time when communications were nowhere as good as they are today the Macbrayne service was a lifeline for isolated communities along the shores of the loch. It provided a postal as well as a passenger service and also carried light cargo and, from recollection, called at Polloch and Dalilea piers and doubtless others I’ve forgotten.

Today, Jim Michie of Loch Shiel Cruises ( ) carries on the ferry tradition with wildlife and bird watching safaris from the Glenfinnan pier in his converted ex-Admiralty launch MV Sileas (pronounced Sheelas).

A knowledgeable countryman with fifteen years experience of the local wildlife and history of the loch, his job gives him ideal opportunities for photography. He sees sea eagles on Loch Shiel which, as likely as not, are the Castle Tioram birds. Winged hunters like eagles and ospreys think nothing of flying twenty miles if the food supply at the other end is reliable.

The Green Isle, or Eilean Fhianain, sits in that dog-leg in the loch. My uncle and aunt called it St Finan’s Isle and it was a handy spot to land for picnics and natural breaks during the fishing.

Castle Tioram and St Finan’s Isle are linked by indissoluble clan ties as ancestral seat and burial ground of the Clanranald chiefs. On death, their coffins were carried on clansmen’s shoulders along a track on the north shore of the loch to Dalilea pier for the final step to the island. Funeral cairns mark the resting places of the coffins where the mourners paused for a sustaining dram.

I was last on the island as a teenager and little remained of the chapel dedicated to the saint than the outline of the walls and the old altar stone. An ancient brass bell sat on the altar and, so far as I am aware, still does. It is reputed to have been cast in Ireland and to be at least 1200 years old – which is quite within the historical time frame as St Finan’s dates are circa 520-600AD.

There’s a legend that a Redcoat soldier stole the bell which did not stop ringing until he returned it to its rightful place. I remember clearly my aunt forbidding me to so much as touch it, let alone ring it, for fear of the bad luck it would bring.

In August 2004 long distance swimmer, Mrs Morag Hughes, was the first woman to swim Loch Shiel. Jim Michie provided the support boat which accompanied her. He told me a strange story.

Classic west coast weather greeted Morag as she stepped into the water at Acharacle on the morning of the swim and set off in thick, impenetrable mist. As St Finan’s Isle loomed out of the mirk, Jim heard the bell being vigorously rung.

He took a turn around the island but could see no boat drawn up on its beaches to say who the bell ringer might be. Further local enquiries drew a blank – on the face of it, there was no living soul on the island responsible for the uncanny pealing.

Was it the old saint’s spirit honouring the swimmer’s spirit with a ghostly salutation?

Written on Thursday, January 31st, 2013 at 4:59 pm for Claivers.