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The loch with the unpronounceable name

by Malcolm Ogilvie

Everyone has favourite localities, their local patch or somewhere special that they may not visit very often, but enjoy on the occasions when they do. One of mine is a freshwater loch known locally as Loch Nig. It is about 400 metres by 150 metres, so about 6 hectares in extent. It is nowhere more than 2 metres deep and supports a rich growth of aquatic vegetation. Nearly all Islay's very many freshwater lochs are on acid soils such as peat, but Loch Nig is more fertile, as much of the surrounding land is alluvium.

Loch NigThe loch is situated close to the end of a bumpy track about 3.5 kilometres long, so to get there either entails a fair walk or requires a 4-wheel drive vehicle with good ground clearance. Fortunately the regular goose counts that I undertake for Scottish Natural Heritage means that I visit it on average about once a fortnight. And I look forward to each visit, usually trying to reach it at about the time I would normally have a short break for a mid-morning cup of coffee!

Whooper Swans winter on Loch Nig, one of the few places on the island where they do so. Although there is a large autumn passage, for example over 400 were seen on one day in late October, almost all these birds pass on south to Ireland, leaving only a handful behind, and nearly all on this one loch. This year, there were about 50 in early November, dropping to 30 at the beginning of December, the majority of which are likely to stay through to the spring. As well as the swans, the loch supports a nice mixture of ducks, including Mallard, Teal, Wigeon and Goldeneye, while Snipe, Redshank, Curlew and Lapwing feed in the adjacent marshy ground.

On my last visit, I spotted a bird bathing on the far side of the loch. As the bird was facing directly towards me all I could see was a gleaming white breast and a darker crown and back. It appeared quite large, perhaps 30 cm or more, but I found it difficult to be certain about either the size or any markings because of the very vigorous splashing going on, the bird ducking into the water and flapping its wings and throwing curtains of water up into the air. I was about 400 metres away and had just switched from binoculars to telescope to get a better view, when the bird ceased bathing and walked out of the water and on to the bank. It then turned side-on to me and revealed itself as an adult male Peregrine! I confess that I had not even considered that as a possible species. As I continued to watch, it flapped its wings several times and began to preen its by now well-washed plumage. Another five minutes of this activity and then it launched itself into the air and flew steadily away.

Those of you who have read this far might yet be wondering why I have called this piece 'The loch with the unpronounceable name' and, in particular, what is difficult about the word 'Nig'. Well, nothing, but that is merely the local name used in preference to its full name, which is Lochan na Nigheadaireachd.

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Dr Ogilvie is a natural history writer and editor, formerly a research scientist with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and resident on the island of Islay since 1986. Until 1997, a member of the 'British Birds' editorial board and also one of the editorial team which produced 'Birds of the Western Palearctic'.