Ardnamurchan’s volcano

Ardnamurchan volcano (1)When you drive along the wild and lonely road from Kilchoan to Sanna on the Ardnamurchan peninsula, you find yourself passing through a low-lying, almost moon-like terrain that is fringed on all sides by lumpy black hills.

There are no trees or landmarks to break up the flatness, and even the burn which cuts a shallow groove through the landscape seems to be unsure about its sense of direction.

You are, in fact, travelling through the magma chamber of an extinct volcano – or what remains of it.

Ardnamurchan volcanoArdnamurchan volcano (3)About 60 million years ago, during the Palaeogene period, “things were far from quiet across the landscape that had just emerged from the bottom of the Cretaceous sea.”   The Atlantic was being stretched as America and Europe drifted further apart, and a line of volcanoes emerged along the western seaboard of Scotland, reaching right up to Iceland and Greenland.

Today, the mountains of Skye, Rum, Mull and Arran all stand as silent witnesses to the formidable power of volcanoes.   But what we are looking at in Ardnamurchan is slightly different, because during the ice ages the top part of this volcano was effectively scoured away by the ice.  It’s barely recognisable from the ground, but from space the picture is much clearer.

NASA Landsat 7 image, via Wikimedia
Ardnamurchan peninsula – NASA Landsat 7 image, via Wikimedia

“From the air, rings of once molten magma can be seen to define a series of almost perfect circles.   We are looking at the lower reaches of a volcano after the superstructure has been planed off by erosion.”

(‘Land of Mountain and Flood – the Geology and Landforms of Scotland’)

A short distance away, at Sanna, outflows of dark basalt punctuate the white sands, while throughout the peninsula, exposed rocky outcrops glitter with silvery mica.  For geology students, Ardnamurchan is like a textbook on a colossal scale, offering features such as ring dykes, cone sheets, ash flows, and even examples of ‘air-fall’ rocks which were formed from lava that was spat out of the heart of the volcano.

Volcanic rocks showing glacial striations
Volcanic rocks showing glacial striations
Sanna Bay
Sanna Bay

Ardnamurchan volcano (6)

The islands of Rum (left), Eigg (centre) and the Cuillin mountains of Skye (right)
Seen from Ardnamurchan, the islands of Rum (left), Eigg (centre) and the Cuillin mountains of Skye (right)

How to get there

Corran ferry
Corran ferry

From the Corran ferry across Loch Linnhe, follow the A861 along Loch Sunart to Strontian and Salen.  At Salen, take the B8007, a minor road with passing places, which leads through spectacular scenery to Kilchoan.  A short distance after Kilchoan, look out for the signpost to Sanna, which takes you on an even more minor road (if that’s possible!)   The last stretch of the road before Sanna, around Achnaha, runs through the middle of the volcano.

Quotes from:  

  • Land of Mountain and Flood – the Geology and Landforms of Scotland’ by Alan McKirdy, John Gordon and Roger Crofts

Other sources:

Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf

No Comments

    • Jo Woolf

      Very true, Viv. It’s being pulled apart as we speak, and added to in other places! Yes, I was fascinated to see Ardnamurchan from the air – how amazing!

  • Caroline

    Ardnamurchan is definitely a part of Scotland that I’m itching to explore – I spent a fair amount of time gazing over at it when I was on Mull last year! Partly due to its remoteness but also partly because it’s one of the last places where wildcats live. I was aware of the peninsula’s volcanic history but I had no idea that the landscape is still so…, well, volcanic. It reminds me a bit of Iceland.

    • Jo Woolf

      It’s certainly remote, Caroline, and by the time we’d got past Kilchoan I was wondering where on earth we were going. I had read somewhere about the wild cats – they must have this place all to themselves. I would love to see one. I also came across a burial chamber which I’ll write about soon. The whole drive, along Loch Sunart and then across country to Sanna, is bewitching.

  • david

    How interesting Jo. I’ve learned something new today. Prior to that my only knowledge of Ardnamurchan was that it possessed a thriving midge community.

    • Jo Woolf

      I know, David, I was fascinated to drive through it, although unless you’re a geologist you wouldn’t immediately pick out the formations for what they are. Oh dear, sounds like you have had a bad time with the midges! Luckily we were a bit too early for them.

  • blosslyn

    Wonderful landscape through the remains of an extinct volcano mmm, would I have noticed, doubt it…. will just have to visit and see if I do 🙂 Great photos with wonderful blue skies.

    • Jo Woolf

      I’m not sure it would have struck me either, Lynne, but I read about it before I went! (Which doesn’t always happen!) 🙂 Yes, we were very lucky indeed with the wonderful weather and skies. When that happens and you’re on a west coast beach, you feel like you’ve found paradise.

  • dancingbeastie

    I so enjoy your voracious enthusiasm for the world about you! We never know what we are going to get at The Hazel Tree: folklore, geology, history, botany or a bit of everything and more. Thank you for teaching me a little about Ardnamurchan, one of those famously remote corners of Scotland which I’ve not yet been to but hope to visit some day.

    • Jo Woolf

      Haha, thank you, that’s lovely! No, I never really know what I’m going to write about, either! 🙂 Sometimes I feel as if I should restrict the scope a bit more, but I think that’s what keeps it different. I really hope you can get over to Ardnamurchan sometime – it’s a long drive but well worth it. I’d love to see a wild cat, too, but I imagine the chances are pretty slim.

    • Jo Woolf

      It’s a curious place, Lorna, you wonder where on earth you’re going – and then finally you get to the white sands at Sanna. That certainly is somewhere to let your cares drift away.

  • DianaW

    How funny to learn this here. I was driven along that road many times, by a father who (like his children) spent all his childhood summers at the far end of Ardnamurchan, but he ever told us that bit of its geological history. I’d always associated the well-known geological attractions of the area with the hills, not that flat and oddly boring road….

    • Jo Woolf

      Haha, I’m glad that you found this, in that case, Diana! What a lovely place to spend childhood holidays. That part of Ardnamurchan certainly is a very strange landscape – but when you realise what you’re looking at it all makes sense.

    • Jo Woolf

      That sounds amazing, Kerry, I am envious! Such a fabulous place for a holiday, and the beaches are out of this world. Hoping you have great weather, too.

  • Alan Inder

    Dear Jo,
    I really appreciated your article and photos of the Ardnamurchan volcano. I realised when poring over a 1/25000 OS map of the area that there is a volcano crater on the peninsula and we will visit it in June, staying at Meall mo Chridhe for a couple of nights. Really looking forward to it (if not to the midges!). Alan

    • Jo Woolf

      That sounds wonderful! Thank you very much for your comment, Alan, glad to know you found the article useful! I’m sure you’ll love Ardnamurchan. I hope the midges aren’t too hungry. But the beaches, at Sanna especially, should make up for it! Have a great time, best wishes, Jo

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