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.

Welcome to "Man with two dogs" - the family website for dog owners and dog walkers.

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

Spiritual salute

October 13th, 2012

LOCH SHIEL, where I spent several teenage holidays with an uncle and aunt, is one of Scotland’s longest lochs – seventeen miles from Acharacle at its foot to Glenfinnan at the 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 like similar lochs such as Maree, Morar, Awe and of course Loch Ness, is reputed to have a monster lurking in its depths. Nonsense, of course, but good for tourism, which helps put meat on the table.

More to the point is its justifiable reputation as a true wilderness area where places and distances 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 golden eagles and red deer and, if you are lucky and it’s the right season, rare black throated divers that come to breed by our northern lochs.

I’ve seen divers on Loch Maree where heather-covered platforms are moored out on the water to encourage them to stay and nest. The first I saw was on one of the dozens of small lochs north of Lochinver, in Assynt, when we were holidaying near Scourie. For its size the diver has a carrying voice and we heard its wailing, mournful call before we got the glasses on it to confirm the identification.

Last week I wrote about the sea eagles above Castle Tioram, and you’ll see them on Loch Shiel too. They may, of course, be the same 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 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.

When I was last on the island as a teenager 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’s 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 of Loch Shiel Cruises, who I introduced last week, 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 round 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, not a living soul was on the island.

In that haunted atmosphere, even with her mind focused on the rest of the swim ahead of her, Morag Hughes heard the uncanny pealing, as did her husband in the support boat with Jim.

Was it the old saint’s spirit saluting the swimmer’s spirit with a ghostly benediction?

Written on Saturday, October 13th, 2012 at 10:50 am for Weekly.