The month of maggots and flies

Tha Ruairidh MacIlleathain a’ mìneachadh mar a fhuair “An t-Iuchar” ainm. Tha eadar-theangachadh Beurla às dèidh na Gàidhlig.

Roddy Maclean tells us about the history behind the Gaelic name for ‘July.’ An English translation follows below the Gaelic.

View over farmland near Rhynd by Perth. ©Lorne Gill

View over farmland near Rhynd by Perth. ©Lorne Gill

Mìos nan Cnuimheag ’s nan Cuileag

Mar as trice bidh blàths an t-samhraidh ann san Iuchar agus air sgàth sin, bidh na cnuimheagan ’s na cuileagan pailt. ’S e sin as coireach ris an fhar-ainm air an Iuchar – Mìos nan Cnuimheag ’s nan Cuileag.

’S ann bho na Ròmanaich a fhuair mìosachan na Beurla ainm airson an t-seachdamh mìos oir chuir Seanadh na Roimhe ainm Julius Caesar air. Bha e airidh air sin oir ’s e a chruthaich a’ chiad mhìosachan dòigheil a bhathar a’ cleachdadh thairis air an Roinn Eòrpa. Anns na seann làithean, cha robh an t-Iuchar co-ionann ri July oir bha e a’ ciallachadh na crìche eadar Ràith na Bealltainne agus Ràith an Fhoghair. B’ e sin an ceala-deug ro Latha an Lùnastail (An t-Iuchar Samhraidh) agus an ceala-deug às a dhèidh (An t-Iuchar Foghair). A-nise tha e co-ionann ri July.

Bhathar a’ gabhail ‘làithean nan con’ air a’ mhìos seo ann am mòran chultaran Eòrpach, a’ tighinn bho dies caniculares nan Ròmanach. Bidh Reul an Iuchair no Reul a’ Choin, an rionnag as soilleire anns an reul-bhad Canis Major, ag èirigh agus a’ dol fodha leis a’ ghrèin aig an àm seo. ’S dòcha gur e an ceangal ri coin as coireach ri ainm eile airson an Iuchair – Mìos Chrochadh nan Con. Ach ’s e am far-ainm as snoige aige Am Mìos Buidhe air sgath solas na grèine agus abachadh an arbhair.

The view west over the Sound of Jura from Crinan. Argyll. ©Lorne Gill.

The view west over the Sound of Jura from Crinan. Argyll. ©Lorne Gill

The month of maggots and flies

The month of July has the slightly dubious nickname in Gaelic of ‘the month of maggots and flies’ and is usually a time of warm weather (but Scotland doesn’t always follow the ‘rules’ with regard to temperature!). While the English name for what is now the seventh month of the year derives from the Roman nomenclature (the Senate named it after Julius Caesar who was responsible for the first great pan-European calendar), the Gaelic name An t-Iuchar probably comes from an old word ochair meaning ‘edge, border’, as it was originally viewed as a border time between two quarters of the year. An t-Iuchar was a fortnight before and a fortnight after the quarter day of Lùnastal (1 August) but is now coterminous with the English July.

July was and is called the ‘dog-days’ in many European cultures, derived from the dies caniculares of the Romans. Sirius, the dog star, the brightest in the constellation Canis Major rises and sets with the sun around this time. Sirius is known in Gaelic as Reul an Iuchair ‘the July star’, Reul a’ Choin and Reul a’ Mhadra (both meaning ‘dog star’). The connection to dogs may give us a strange alternative (and inadequately explained) nickname for the month – Mìos Chrochadh nan Con ‘the month for hanging dogs’. Perhaps the quality of light and the ripening harvest give us its most poetic moniker – Am Mìos Buidhe ‘the yellow month’.

Sunset over Kilmory Glen and the Isle of Skye, Isle of Rum NNR. ©John MacPherson/SNH

Sunset over Kilmory Glen and the Isle of Skye, Isle of Rum NNR. ©John MacPherson/SNH

Posted in Gaelic | Tagged , , ,

The Bog Body of Gunnister Man – an engaging mystery

Peat bogs occasionally reveal artefacts that have remained intact due to the preserving characteristics of wet, acidic, carbon rich (oxygen poor) soil.

Famously these have included ‘bog bodies’ such as Tollund Man, Grauballe Man and Lindow Man.

Closer to home, in Shetland in 1951, two peat cutters revealed the remains of a man now known as ‘The Gunnister Man’ which is believed to date from late 17th or early 18th century. Here Dr Carol Christiansen, Curator and Community Museums Officer of the Shetland Museum and Archives, takes up the story.

The find spot of the Gunnister Man, near Gunnister, Northmavine, Shetland, 1951. Photo: Shetland Museum and Archives.

The find spot of the Gunnister Man, near Gunnister, Northmavine, Shetland, 1951.  Photo: Shetland Museum and Archives.

At the time of Gunnister Man’s death there were few records, there was no census. This one individual offered us an opportunity to learn more about this period.

Burials outside kirkyards happened for a variety of reasons: death was from an unusual or potentially contagious disease, the deceased had crossed social or religious mores such as suicide, or if the remains were found some time after death. In addition, bodies washed up on shore would usually be buried where they were found. What was particularly unusual about this body was that nobody knew he was there; generations that had lived nearby knew of no folklore. When the body was uncovered it was a complete surprise.

We know that what remains in a peatbog will vary according to the acidity of the peat. What was left of Gunnister Man was the woollen garments he was wearing, some artefacts and his hair and nails (which are, after all, made from the same substance as wool!). However from this we have – like forensic scientists – been able to tell at least a small part of the Gunnister Man story.

The remnants of Gunnister Man discovered in the peat Photo: Shetland Museum and Archives.

The remnants of Gunnister Man discovered in the peat.  Photo: Shetland Museum and Archives.

First of all we do not believe he was murdered.

None of the fabric shows signs of wounds being inflicted. Indeed the tight stitching together of his clothing to ensure there were no draughty gaps leads us to consider that he was fighting the cold. He more or less tied himself into his clothing. At this time Britain was going through the Little Ice Age, famous for the ice fairs on the frozen Thames. It seems likely that Gunnister Man was the first known ‘fashion victim’. His clothes were quite fashionable, his stockings well made and his whole outfit not as practical as Shetland wear of the time. Certainly from where he was found he would not have been able to see where the next place of shelter might have been – he may simply have lost his way.

In addition he was carefully buried, but not transported to a burial ground. He could have been found after a long period of inclement weather and his body not in a suitable state to be carried the distances to nearby cemeteries.

He was not robbed. A small knitted purse found with him contained Dutch and Swedish coins, not unusual for the time. The purse is the earliest evidence of the patterned knitting Shetland is famous for but we do not think the rest of his clothing is from Shetland. He was wearing short wide breeches which were common in the Netherlands, a woollen cap very similar to those worn by Dutch whalers and carrying a quill and horn; the dark substance in the horn was tested and found to be ink.

The unique knitted purse and the coins. Photo: National Museums Scotland.

The unique knitted purse and the coins.  Photo: National Museums Scotland.

So, although his shoes are rivlins, locally made hide shoes, he may not have been from Shetland. Closeby we know there was a Hanseatic trading place – was he perhaps a travelling merchant or clerk making his way in this remote area from one trading place to another?

In 2009, we made full replicas of all of the finds, which are together displayed in a permanent Gunnister Man display at Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick, Shetland.

We may never answer all the questions about Gunnister Man but reconstructing the evidence from these remarkably well preserved items has given us many clues to his story.

Reconstruction of Gunnister Man at Shetland Museum and Archives. Photo: Shetland Museum and Archives.

Reconstruction of Gunnister Man at Shetland Museum and Archives. Photo: Shetland Museum and Archives.

All objects in the original find went to Edinburgh and are now in the collections of National Museums of Scotland. Some objects are on permanent display in the galleries of the National Museum of Scotland.  Immediately after the burial was discovered, the finds were taken to a local house, where some people knitted replicas of the stockings and purse. These replicas are on display in Tangwick Haa Museum in Northmavine, Shetland.

Read more about The Gunnister Man:

Special thanks to: Shetland Museum and Archives, and the National Museums of Scotland.

If you would like to contribute to the on-going work of Peatland ACTION please contact








Posted in History, peatland restoration, Shetland | Tagged , , , , , ,

Restoring peatlands for Scotland’s wildlife

Peatland ACTION, with the help of project partners and volunteers, are on the road to restoring Scotland’s peatlands in an effort to improve biodiversity and combat climate change.

Here David Hill, Peatland Restoration Project Officer from Butterfly Conservation Scotland’s Bog Squad tells us why peatlands are special places, and how he and his team of volunteers are working together to protect the habitat that some of Scotland’s moths and butterflies rely on for food, shelter and breeding.

Volunteers ditch blocking at Black Moss. © David Hill / Butterfly Conservation Scotland

Volunteers ditch blocking at Black Moss. © David Hill / Butterfly Conservation Scotland

Scotland’s peatlands are host to characteristic species of plants and animals that have adapted to living in harsh conditions. Peat forms in areas of high rainfall and most often where there is low availability of nutrients. Consequently, peatland habitats are waterlogged, acidic and nutrient poor.

Sphagnum moss growing in bog pool. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Sphagnum moss growing in bog pool. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Fussy eaters or natures specialists?

To overcome the challenges of living in conditions where your roots are always wet and there isn’t much by way of nutrients in the surrounding peaty soil, many species have had to devise special strategies to survive. For instance, sundew has developed sticky pads that trap small insects like midges, which then slowly decompose providing the plant with essential nutrients. Sphagnum mosses are key species on peatlands as their unique properties actually drive the formation of peat. Bogs and mosses are also important habitats for insects such as the Large Heath butterfly, which are endemic to peatland habitats as its fussy caterpillars will only eat cottongrass.

Oblong-leaved sundew (Drosera intermedia) growing on the Flows, Scotland. © Lorne Gill/SNH

Oblong-leaved sundew (Drosera intermedia) growing on the Flows, Scotland. © Lorne Gill/SNH

Cotton grass blowing in the wind. © Lorne Gill/SNH

Cotton grass blowing in the wind. © Lorne Gill/SNH

Large heath butterfly. © Alistair Graham/Butterfly Conservation Scotland

Large heath butterfly. © Alistair Graham/Butterfly Conservation Scotland

Peatlands under threat

Much of this biodiversity is under threat however, mostly due to peatland habitats drying out. This often occurs after historical attempts at drainage for forestry or agricultural purposes. Drier conditions lead to changes in vegetation structure with scrubbier species such as heather or birch dominating the habitat to the disadvantage of characteristic bog species. Taller scrub species then intercept rainfall causing more drying which can lead to further losses of bog biodiversity. Additionally it can shade out the vital sphagnum mosses that drive peat formation.

The Bog Squad are go!

With funding from Peatland ACTION a team of volunteers from Butterfly Conservation called the ‘Bog Squad’ has been working hard to improve habitats on degraded bogs and mosses across Scotland. Volunteers work to install ditch-blocking dams that slow the flow of water and help rewet the peat around the ditch. In time sphagnum mosses recolonise the ditch and peat-formation starts again helping to restore the natural hydrological balance of the bog. Dams are either created by installing sheets of plastic piling to form a water-tight seal or, where possible, hand-cut peat dams are formed.

Volunteers employ a variety of methods to clear scrub. Smaller tree seedlings are pulled by hand and larger saplings are removed by using root cutting saws. ‘Tree popping’ tools are also utilised to lever entire small trees out of the peat.


The results

Ditch-blocking and scrub clearance helps to ensure that conditions remain suitable for peatland specialist species. Rewetting the moss is also beneficial in terms of building resilience for future climate changes.

Benefits of the work undertaken by volunteers can often be quickly seen with shallow pools of water forming behind dams. These pools are quickly colonised by sphagnum mosses and insects such as dragonflies. Removal of invasive scrub opens up space for increasingly scarce birds such as Snipe to feed and provides sunny spaces for butterflies to flourish again.

Azure hawker dragonfly (Aeshna caerulea) – male, on sphagnum moss.

Azure hawker dragonfly (Aeshna caerulea) – male, on sphagnum moss.

Fiona Mann, Peatland ACTION Communications Officer concludes:

‘There is so much to be gained by the work the Bog Squad volunteers undertake: fresh air, exercise, camaraderie, learning and sharing knowledge about the wildlife that call peatlands their home, but most importantly helping to safeguard this unique habitat.

This work is also contributing to and maintaining Scotland’s natural carbon storage and resilience to climate change, a key aim of Peatland ACTION – great work everyone thank you’.

Find out more in the following links:

The Bog Squad undertake practical conservation work on peat bogs, to volunteer visit the Butterfly Conservation Scotland Facebook page for regular updates on events or read about the work they do on their blog

If you would like to contribute to the on-going work of Peatland ACTION, we would like to hear from you. For further details please contact

Peatlands are for everyone. Take a look at our collection of FREE to download peatland related images selected for you!


Posted in biodiversity, SNH, Uncategorized | Tagged , , ,

Improving and protecting drinking water quality at Sandy Loch, Shetland

Peatland ACTION Project Officer Lauren Dixon explains the link between healthy peatlands and drinking water by telling us about the restoration work at Sandy Loch, Shetland.

Large bare peat surface contributing to high organic load and colour at the water treatment works (WTW). ©Scottish Water, Sustainable Land Management Team
Large bare peat surface contributing to high organic load and colour at the water treatment works (WTW). ©Scottish Water, Sustainable Land Management Team

Sandy Loch

The restoration site is situated within the Sandy Loch drinking water catchment on Shetland.

Sandy Loch is a 440 hectare catchment, that Scottish Water use to provide around 12,000 customers with drinking water. More than 20% of Scotland is covered by peat; however peatlands make up approximately 70% of Scottish Water’s drinking water catchments.

Land within this catchment is typical rough grazing which has been modified over decades, possibly centuries, from peat cutting for domestic fuel and pasture improvement for livestock.

Large areas of bare unvegetated peat within the Sandy Loch drinking water catchment were contributing to the high organic loading and brown water entering the loch, and ultimately the water treatment works. The peat was likely eroded as a result of a change in land management practices, and made worse by rain and wind erosion which washes the peaty soils into the loch. Although this water is perfectly safe to drink, it can require a lot of treatment before it reaches the quality that customers expect.

Peat Pan Stabilisation

Following consultation and advice from Peatland ACTION, restoration phase 1 took place in March 2017 and involved creating bog-pools over the area of exposed peat right next to the loch. The aim was to slow the flow of water, trap and reduce the loss of peaty sediments into Sandy Loch. This also provides conditions to allow for the re-colonisation of bog plants, particularly sphagnum, a key ingredient in maintaining a healthy peatland habitat. To further encourage the re-colonisation process, sphagnum moss ‘plugs’ were added directly to the areas of bare peat.

Initial results of phase 1 indicated that these techniques worked well and further stabilisation was completed on a larger scale during phase 2 of the project this summer. 27 hectares have seen restoration activates during phase 1 and 2, with a further 20 hectares planned to complete the project.


Restoration activities also included reprofiling peat hags (overhang of bare peat). If these are left exposed to the elements (wind, rain and frost), the overhang would eventually collapse and large chunks of peat would be washed away. To prevent this, steep hag edges were reprofiled to about a 30 degree angle and vegetation stretched over the reprofiled surface. The vegetation also protects the peat from erosion by acting as a barrier to water, frost and wind.

Peatland ACTION on the road to… improved water quality

The partnership working between Peatland ACTION and Scottish Water means restoration activities at Sandy Loch has improved and protected the drinking water catchment. It is also expected to reduce the requirement for energy and chemicals used to treat the water in the future. Additionally, the work here will contribute to an improved aesthetic environment for those who visit the area. It is also contributing to and maintaining Scotland’s natural carbon storage and resilience to climate change.

Glass filled with clean water, and sphagnum moss being squeezed in the background. ©Fiona Mann/SNH

Find out more in the following links:

If you would like to contribute to the on-going work of Peatland ACTION, we would like to hear from you. For further details please contact

For information about Peatland ACTION including videos and leaflets visit the project webpage

Scottish Water’s Sustainable Land Management (SLM) team is working in collaboration with land owners and developers to protect drinking water sources throughout Scotland. For more information please visit

Find out more about Lauren’s secondment from the Scottish Water SLM Team to in her blog earlier this year.

Posted in peatland restoration | Tagged , ,

Innovative crofting on the West Coast

Kirsten Brewster, from SNH’s Rural Resources Unit, discusses a recent trip to the West Coast to learn more about an innovative croft following holistic farming methods.

Sailean croft blog - Highland cows

The Highland cows beginning to graze a fresh paddock.

On the morning of 5 June, SNH staff were joined by colleagues from Rural Payments and Inspections Division (RPID), National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS) and Scottish Agricultural College to travel the short distance by ferry from Oban to the Isle of Lismore. Here we were met by Roger Dixon-Spain and guided to the croft Sailean that Roger farms holistically with wife Gilly and business partners Dan and Fieke.

As we arrive at Sailean and take in the view down the road towards the skyline of the Ardnamurchan peninsula, we get our first glimpse of this lush corner of Argyll.

Before we rush off to explore, we’re ushered into Gilly’s basket weaving studio which is doubling up as our classroom for the day. It’s here that Roger explains how he and Gilly ended up on this small West coast croft.

Surprisingly, Roger’s first foray into agriculture was very different and saw him running a 1500-acre intensive arable farm in Cambridgeshire, without much education in agriculture or soil issues. In fact, Roger attests that he never wanted to farm but shelved his dream of being an artist to continue the family farm. Many years later, despite having turned the business around and made a success of it, Roger had the chance to sell up and move away from the arable business, while Gilly stepped back from her dental practice. By a stroke of fate, they ended up sailing around the West coast of Scotland and bought Sailean just months later. Because Sailean is a croft, unused land can be utilised by neighbours so it was a natural step for Roger and Gilly to have their own livestock.

Sailean croft blog - herb rich grassland - July 2018

The herb-rich grassland of Sailean in comparison to a silage field.

The real turning point in terms of their beliefs and agricultural practices was watching a film called ‘Farm for the Future’ by Rebecca Hosking. After this the couple began to research the means and ends and came across Allan Savory, Gabe Brown, Joel Salatin and others involved in Holistic Management and regenerative agriculture. At Sailean, Holistic Management means using a mixed herd of sheep and cattle – a #flerd  – to rotationally graze the pastures.

The regular movement of the animals mimics the natural movement of ungulates in a landscape with predators; the underlying principle to all of this is the belief that nature has the answers.  In order to keep a tall sward of grasses and other species, the animals are contained in each small, temporary grazing area for usually around 24 hours only. The pastures are monitored by the team and they move the herd on so that each piece of land receives a short hit of grazing, trampling and natural fertiliser in the form of animal dung.  No chemical inputs such as pesticide or fertiliser are used on the croft and the rich mix of grasses and herbs appear to have regenerated with this grazing.

Sailean croft blog - pastures - July 2018

The thick vegetation that covers Sailean’s pastures include meadow buttercup, cow parsley and common spotted orchid, as well as carpets of Bird’s-foot-trefoil.

Gilly  talks us through the relationship between tall sward height and healthy root systems and reminds us that when we talk about the carbon ‘stored in soil,’ we’re actually talking about the extent and health of plant root systems which are carbon-based. If those roots are attached to a plant which is killed by overgrazing or chemical spraying, then the carbon which comprises the roots will be lost from the soil. A key aspect of regenerative agriculture is that we can increase the carbon stored in soils through healthy, growing plants and no bare soil!

Sailean is grazed intensively but with significant periods of recovery in between, rather than extensively. The animals don’t have time in each paddock to graze out all the palatable species and leave rank grassland.

There are so many aspects of Sailean that feel extremely well thought out – exactly the point of managing holistically but the fact remains that to survive into the future this business has to pay. Here is where Dan and Fieke step in: they met Roger and Gilly just a short while ago on Lismore and have since become indispensable. They have become a team of four, managing Sailean through moving stock, scything, working in the no-dig vegetable garden and rearing pasture-fed chickens for both eggs and poultry. Fieke has been working hard to grow the business by working on the digital platforms to increase engagement and promote the produce sold directly to customers..

Sailen croft blog - sheep - July 2018

Sheep belonging to Sailean’s mixed #flerd.

In the near future, the team hope to enter into a business arrangement whereby Roger and Gilly can hand on the business to Dan and Fieke and continue to live in their home on Sailean. This is succession planning in action and it is really impressive to see the next generation coming into the croft and sharing their own experience while being taught the skills they will need to manage this place in the future. As well as producing pasture-fed beef, lamb, chicken and eggs, the business will continue to provide courses, such as the one we attended, and also offer accommodation.

On the ferry ride home under blue skies, we discuss what is unusual about this place.  The innovation here is using people on the land, rather than technology or chemicals, to improve soil quality and produce healthy food. The grazing system is innovative but it relies on human effort rather than expensive inputs.

Across Scotland, there is an ageing population employed in the agricultural sector and often stock can be lost to poor health and unknown causes or even predation, so moving them daily is a useful way of checking condition and numbers while simultaneously creating a ‘scaring’ effect. There is much here to consider for the future. If you would like to visit Sailean, you can find more details on their website.

For more information, see these videos on YouTube:

Roger discusses his farming revolution with Richard Perkins –

One of a series of videos filmed at Sailean showing how the croft is managed over the seasons –



Posted in Uncategorized

What’s the connection between peat and fish?

The answer is not about smoking the fish over a peat fire!  Peatland Action officer Rachel Coyle from the Tweed Forum can answer this question.

I’ve been involved in an interesting project at Dryhope Farm on the Philiphaugh Estate in the Scottish Borders which links upland peatland restoration with the salmon fishing on the River Tweed….from catchment to catching fish!


The blanket bog at Dryhope retains, releases and filters the water that flows down the Kirkstead burn into St Mary’s Loch and from there into the Yarrow Water – a tributary of the Tweed. Visiting the site I could see that damaged, bare peat (a result of historic sheep management on the bog) and drainage channels were reducing the capacity of the peatland to stay wet and regulate the water flow. Restoring the ‘sponge’ effect in the top of the catchment can help to reduce flash flooding events in the lower catchment which (particularly in the winter months) can mobilise gravels to such an extent that fish ova are swept away and become unviable.  In addition, increasing the water storage capacity of the uplands will reduce incidents of rivers drying up during periods of drought, increasing resilience of fish populations.

Aerial view of Dryhope, shows extensive area of peat ‘hags’ undercut and eroding peat banks ©Tweed Forum

Aerial view of Dryhope, shows extensive area of peat ‘hags’ undercut and eroding peat banks ©Tweed Forum

Philiphaugh Estate recognised the need for restoration of the site at Dryhope, to bring about wider benefits within the Tweed catchment .The Kirkstead burn is one of many vital spawning burns for trout and salmon in the upper Tweed (and in particular the rare spring salmon component).  As Salmon fishing contributes £24m per year to the local economy and supports over 500 jobs, keeping the river and its tributaries in a healthy condition is important to businesses and the local community.

Gullied areas before re-profiling works ©Tweed Forum

Gullied areas before re-profiling works ©Tweed Forum

Peatland Action and Forest Carbon supported the ‘reprofiling’ of these areas of bare peat (known as hags) and SRDP funding allowed for the blocking of a network of drainage ditches. It’s remarkable to see the difference. This work at Dryhope will not only improve water flow regulation in the Tweed Catchment but will also increase carbon storage (by ‘locking’ the carbon rich peatland soil under a layer of vegetation), improve water quality and create better habitats for upland wildlife, such as Black grouse and Hen harriers. This work builds on other complimentary habitat restoration work carried out at Dryhope over the last 20 years, including 70ha of native riparian tree planting, which will provide shade for upland streams, vital due to the threats brought by climate change.

Glendinnings Ground Works Ltd carrying out hag reprofiling at Dryhope ©Tweed Forum

Glendinnings Ground Works Ltd carrying out hag reprofiling at Dryhope ©Tweed Forum

I look forward to visiting the site again in the future to see the impact of this restoration work.

For further details please contact

Re-profiled peat hags ©Tweed Forum

Re-profiled peat hags ©Tweed Forum

Special thanks to:

Sir Michael Strang Steel  (Philiphaugh Estate)

Glendinnings Ground Works Ltd (contractors)

Derek Robeson – SRDP planning and application works (Tweed Forum)

Forest Carbon – Carbon Finance

Alasdair McDonald & Hugh Chalmers -Project Planning and management (Tweed Forum)

Posted in Uncategorized

Surveying Scotland’s marine mammals: life as an ORCA surveyor

On 11-12 June, SNH Marine Operations Officer Dr. Jane Dodd began her Team Leader training while taking part in her 3rd ORCA survey on Caledonian MacBrayne ferries out of Oban. Here, she shares her experience as an Onboard ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyor sailing from Oban to Castlebay.

Ferry in Castlebay, ©Lucy Babey/ORCA

Ferry in Castlebay, ©Lucy Babey/ORCA

ORCA survey for whales and dolphins on regular ferry routes around the UK. Since the ferry routes are always the same, it provides a long term record of occurrence of these animals in specific areas around our coasts. The collaboration between ORCA and CalMac began in 2015 but these regular, ferry-based scientific surveys are new for 2018 and started in the spring.  Several ferry routes were selected (based on the likelihood of sightings and logistics for volunteers taking part) and a survey takes place on each of the chosen routes once a month, weather permitting.  Anyone can join ORCA and volunteer – they just need to take a one day training course to join a survey team.

I’ve participated in three ORCA surveys so far: one in April Coll, Tiree and Colonsay; a second in May for the same route; and a third in June between Oban and Castlebay to the Isle of Barra. This latest survey was definitely the best!

The weather was glorious as the MV Isle of Lewis left Oban and we were given permission to go up to the bridge.  It is a privilege to be allowed up there, as most members of the public do not get that opportunity. It certainly feels like a special place: it’s quieter than everywhere else on the ship, it’s bright and airy and the view is fabulous!

Dr. Jane Dodd surveying while ORCA volunteer Alastair MacDonald records data, ©Lucy Babey/ORCA

Dr. Jane Dodd surveying while ORCA volunteer Alastair MacDonald records data, ©Lucy Babey/ORCA

Surveys are carried out in teams of 4. One team member watches on the port (left) side while another watches on the starboard (right) side. A third records environmental data like rain, the state of the sea, and any sightings on the electronic logger. The fourth team member is on break: we rotate roles every 30 minutes to keep our eyes from getting too tired.

On this trip there were several sightings at the same time on a couple of occasions, which is exciting! We record the species and number of animals, their position relative to the ship and any behaviour we can identify such as resting or fast swimming. It can be difficult to do this all at once when there are multiple sightings, but the electronic data collection system ORCA uses means the recorder is able to log the position of the sighting and come back to it later to fill in the detail.

On the way to Barra we were treated to sightings of minke whales, groups of common dolphins and breaching basking sharks!  We arrived in beautiful but slightly chilly Castlebay and stayed the night in the cosy Dunard Hostel and Lodge.

Common dolphins, ©Andy Gilbert/ORCA

Common dolphins, ©Andy Gilbert/ORCA

The following morning we got up bright and early, not really daring to hope that our return trip would be as good. The watch started very well, with bacon butties delivered by Captain George Campbell. We thought it couldn’t get better than that but, incredibly, we were spoiled with the same show as the previous day but in reverse: lots of common dolphins and basking sharks, a couple of minke whales, 2 harbour porpoise and a grey seal!

Map of survey route, with animal sightings highlighted, ©ORCA

Map of survey route, with animal sightings highlighted, ©ORCA

Lots of sightings meant we were kept busy but I was able to start my Team Leader training with Lucy, the Head of Science and Conservation from ORCA who joined us for the trip. Once I complete my training, I’ll be responsible for the team during the survey: I will interact with the CalMac staff, make sure the survey is carried out correctly and write a short report on our return.

I have to say I was daunted by the prospect of leading a team but CalMac have been very welcoming, the volunteers I have met so far have been really knowledgeable and professional, and the support I have had from ORCA has been so good that I’m sure with a few more trips I will be ready. I look forward to leading my own team on more surveys, and to spotting more of the special wildlife around Scotland’s coasts!

Posted in coastal, Marine, Research, sea life, Volunteering | Tagged , , , , ,

Peatland ACTION – changing the landscapes of Scotland!

Peatland ACTION are working to restore degraded peatlands and breathe life back into this habitat, as Project Manager Andrew McBride explains…

Dubh lochans on the blanket bog at Forsinard Flows National Nature Reserve. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Dubh lochans on the blanket bog at Forsinard Flows National Nature Reserve ©Lorne Gill/SNH

In your mind…picture Scotland’s peatlands. No doubt a vision of a large, expansive, remote brown coloured landscape. The image of peatlands as vast wastelands waiting to become productive or to be avoided as ‘bottomless dangerous pits’ is strongly ingrained in our culture. However, in the last few years in Scotland there has been the start of a ‘cultural revolution’ in the perception of peatlands.

Peatlands are closer than we think; literally on our doorsteps, even in cities. There’s a peatland within 5 miles of us all. Part of this cultural change is the acknowledgement in Scotland by the Government, its agencies, researchers and Non-Governmental Organisations that peatlands have so much more to offer when in a good condition and working for us.

It never ceases to amaze me the wonderment of all ages when a peat core containing 1000 years of history is pulled from the bog or the fascination with the specialised plants that inhabit peatlands. Understanding the link between our peatlands and people is paramount to the role peatlands have in our society and their management.

Peatlands are more than visually dramatic landscapes; over 20% of Scotland is covered in peat and they provide us with a wide range of benefits such as carbon storage, filtering water, reducing flood risk and supporting internationally important wildlife! These peatlands are wild spaces where nature and people can thrive.

In some areas, due to historical management, the peat has become bare, eroded and denuded of vegetation.  At the PeatlandACTION  project we work closely with land managers, awarding funding for restoration activities. These activities reduce water run-off from the peat bog and encourage the bog forming plant, sphagnum, to grow.


Area of bare peat has been ‘rewetted’ through ditch damming. The multi coloured Sphagnum Moss is recolonising ©A McBride

Area of bare peat has been ‘rewetted’ through ditch damming. The multi coloured Sphagnum Moss is recolonising ©A McBride

Peat grows very slowly – 1mm a year at most – so it can take thousands of years for peatlands to develop. We measure the depth of peat at our restoration sites using a peat probe and take a deep soil sample using a peat core. Measurements tell us what impact our ‘rewetting’ techniques are having and land owners are often surprised at the depth of peat formed on their land. Peat cores are an amazing snapshot of history; close analysis can indicate, for example, plants that thrived in the area centuries ago.

Peat core taken from the blanket bogs above Cromar, Loch Lomond ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Peat core taken from the blanket bogs above Cromar, Loch Lomond ©Lorne Gill/SNH

You can see how dark the soil is in a peat core. Peatlands store significant quantities of carbon – 25 times more carbon than all the vegetation of the UK. This carbon is essentially ‘locked in’ to the peat soil and helps to reduce the impact of climate change.

Peatlands in poor and eroding condition contribute to global warming by accelerating the loss of peat and the release of the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide. PeatlandACTION projects are working to ‘re wet’ and vegetate bare peat, restoring the natural peatland ecosystem.

Peat erosion Auchencorth ©A McBride

Peat erosion at Auchencorth ©A McBride

With further funding to deliver restoration activities in 2018 we continue to forge positive partnerships working with a range of land managers – including those in the forestry, sporting and farming sectors – to demonstrate the benefits of healthy peatlands.

For further information, or to get involved with PeatlandACTION go to

Posted in peatland restoration | Tagged , , ,

Astonishing facts about place names – folklore of the Gaels.

This blog explores part of the rich folklore of the Gaels and the importance of the Gaelic heroines of Scotland and Ireland in the naming of places.  A must read.

Loch Etive from Dun Leigh near Inverawe,Taynuilt. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Loch Etive from Dun Leigh near Inverawe,Taynuilt. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

An English translation is below Gaelic text.

Na Dùin a bh’ aig Deirdre

’S iomadh ainm-àite a dh’èirich bho thachartas ann am beul-aithris nan Gàidheal, agus tha deagh eisimpleir de a leithid anns na trì cnuic air a bheil Dùn Deardail (no Dearduil). Tha iad uile ainmichte airson Deirdre, a’ bhana-ghaisgeach ainmeil agus, chanadh cuid, an tè a bu bhòidhche a tharraing anail riamh ann an tìrean nan Gàidheal.

Bha am faoinsgeul Deirdre agus Clann Uisnich aithnichte air feadh Gàidhealtachd na h-Alba ’s na h-Èireann fad linntean mòra, agus bidh feadhainn ga aithris fhathast. Chaidh dreach dheth a chruinneachadh ann am Barraigh ann an 1867 le Alasdair MacIlle Mhìcheil, a fhuair cuideachd dreach de Laoidh Chlann Uisnich anns an dearbh eilean.

Anns an sgeulachd, tha Righ Uladh – dom b’ ainm Conachar – ag iarraidh Deirdre a phòsadh. Tha i a’ diùltadh agus tha i a’ gabhail gaol air Naois mac Uisnich a tha ga toirt air falbh o Èirinn. Tha iad a’ teicheadh a dh’Alba cuide ri dithis bràithrean Naoise – Aillean agus Àrdan – agus tha iad a’ togail tùr air mullach cnuic – an ‘Dùn’. Tha gràdh mòr aig Deirdre air Alba agus tha luchd-sgrìobhadh sheann làmh-sgrìobhainnean a’ cur faclan milis na beul, agus i a’ moladh coltas a’ chreamha agus gug-gùg na cuthaig.

Mu dheireadh, tha an ceathrar a’ tilleadh a dh’Èirinn far a bheil iad uile a’ faighinn bàs. Ach tha craobhan a’ fàs às na h-uaighean aca, agus tha na geugan gam filleadh fhèin am measg a chèile, a’ sealltainn mar a tha an gaol eadar Naois is Deirdre beò eadhon an dèidh bàs nan daoine. ’S e a th’ ann ach tè de na sàr-sgeulachdan againn – faoinsgeul de dhìoghras domhainn agus ìomhaigheachd iongantach.

Tha na trì cnuic ainmichte mar Dùn Deardail rin lorg taobh Loch Nis aig Inbhir Fharragaig (comharra-clèithe NH 527239), ann an Gleann Nibheis (NN 127701) agus ri taobh Loch Èite faisg air Taigh an Uillt (NN 018324). ’S e Dùn Lèigh a th’ air na mapaichean airson an fhir mu dheireadh, ach bidh muinntir an àite ga cheangal ri Deirdre agus Clann Uisne. ’S iad dà àite eile le ceangal làidir don sgeulachd – Gleann Masain agus Gleann Dà Ruadhail ann an Comhghall.

Loch Etive from Dun Leigh near Inverawe,Taynuilt. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Loch Etive ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Deirdre’s Forts in Scotland’s Landscape

It sometimes surprises non Gaelic-speakers to find out how many places in Scotland are named for people and events which might only ever have existed in the collective imagination but which became part of the rich folklore of the Gaels. Among them are at least three hills called Dùn Deardail (or Dearduil) ‘the fort of Deirdre’, named for perhaps the greatest, and certainly the most beautiful, of the Gaelic heroines of Scotland and Ireland. Deardail is a Scottish form of Deirdre (or Deirdire).

The great legend Deirdre and the Sons of Uisne was recounted in homes the length and breadth of the Gaelic lands for centuries, and is still told today. A version was collected on the Isle of Barra in 1867 by the avid folk-collector Alexander Carmichael, as was a version of the Lay of the Children of Uisne.

In the story, the beautiful young Deirdre comes to the attention of the King of Ulster who seeks her hand. She rebuffs him and falls in love with the handsome Naois, son of Uisne, who agrees to take her away from her native Ireland. Along with his brothers Aillean and Àrdan, Naois and Deirdre flee to Scotland and build a tower on a hill (the Dùn). Deirdre loves Scotland, and writers of ancient manuscripts have her praising the wild garlic and the sweet voice of the cuckoo. But she and the young men are convinced to return home by a messenger from the King of Ulster. There they suffer tragic deaths, although trees growing from their graves demonstrate, by their branches intertwining, the love of Naois and Deirdre that even death could not destroy. It is one of our great legends – a story of terrific passion and powerful imagery.

The three locations where a Dùn Deardail is to be found are on Loch Ness-side near Inverfarigaig (grid reference NH 527239), in Glen Nevis (NN 127701) and on Loch Etive-side near Taynuilt (NN 018324). The last is given on the map as Dùn Lèigh but is known locally for its connection to Deirdre. Other places in the Loch Etive area are also linked to Deirdre and the Sons of Uisne, as are Glen Massan and Glendaruel in Cowal.

Posted in Folklore, Gaelic, SNH, Uncategorized | Tagged , ,

Celebrating the achievements of the Inner Forth Landscape Initiative

On 27 June, SNH Operations Officer Neville Makan attended an event in Stirling celebrating the Inner Forth Landscape Initiative. This partnership between local authorities, agencies, and charities has spent nearly 4 years working to conserve habitats and footpaths and provide training to local volunteers. Here, he talks about the work this initiative has done and the importance of working together to achieve these successes.

IFLI celebratory event in Stirling, 28 June 2018 (c)Neville Makan/SNH

IFLI celebratory event in Stirling, 27 June 2018 (c)Neville Makan/SNH

Celebrations were in order last night at the Engine Shed in Stirling to recognise the achievements of the Inner Forth Landscape Initiative (IFLI).  By September, this landscape scale initiative will have been at work for four years and will have delivered 50 interlinked projects within the inner Firth of Forth estuary, from Stirling to Blackness, centred around the river Forth itself.

Since 2012, we at SNH have teamed up with a partnership of eight Local Authorities, agencies and charities who have been working successfully together with local community groups, individuals and organisations to deliver an ambitious £4 million Heritage Lottery Fund funded programme of work.  Over 6 years an effective partnership has developed and a strong ethos of collaborative working has been an important outcome.  In 2014 we made our partnership official to become the Inner Forth Landscape Initiative.

This landscape scale partnership has delivered projects from habitat creation, path installation and historic building conservation projects, to the provision of traineeships, volunteering schemes and a wide range of skills training opportunities.  By combining these with interpretation, events and promotion, IFLI has gone a long way to leave a positive legacy in this area.

IFLI Celebratory event - Engine Shed - Image 4 - 28 June 2018 (A2664265)

IFLI display at the end, (c)Neville Makan/SNH

Partnership working isn’t always easy, and we’ve learned many lessons.  We’ve learned to have patience when some projects took longer than expected; developed the perseverance needed to drive forward the trickier projects; and became more pragmatic when managing decision-making and budgets of over 50 interrelated projects with tight deadlines.

But without mutual trust and respect, without working together, none of our successes would have been possible.

Last night we celebrated IFLI’s successes and thanked those who have played a part in making it happen.  We also talked about opportunities for new and stronger partnerships to develop between individuals and organisations whose work may continue to contribute to achieving IFLI’s aims.  So watch this space, as there may well be more successes for people and nature within the inner Forth still to come!

Find out more and join in the celebrations by visiting the IFLI website.




Posted in Community engagement, Projects | Tagged , , ,