Even Sparrows... Bird watchers


Posted: 04.07.24 in Articles category


Kilmalieu is the name given to a new Christian retreat centre in the Scottish Highlands. It is in a beautiful location 20 miles south of Fort William on the western shore of Loch Linnhe – a sea loch which stretches along the line of the Great Glen Fault. Although there is a public road along the shoreline, there is very little passing traffic and the place is delightfully quiet – apart from birdsong and the occasional sounds of livestock. Kilmalieu sits at the heart of a 3000-acre estate with a rich diversity of habitats which includes mountain plateau, moorland, mixed woodland, marsh, grazing pasture and coastline.

I say Kilmalieu is ‘new’, but the centre has been managed by the Abernethy Trust since 1991 and operated under the name ‘Abernethy Ardgour’ when it housed their outdoor adventure training school. However, the building lay dormant during the years of the Covid pandemic. As part of a wider review, the trust prayerfully took the decision to re-purpose the centre as a retreat facility, offering a place of prayer, hospitality and focus on nature. Hence, we were invited to run an Even Sparrows retreat in June 2024 as something ‘new’ for Kilmalieu – the very first Christian retreat at the centre with our focus on prayer and biblical reflection as well as watching birds.

Our retreat ran from the evening of Monday 10th until the morning of Friday 14th June. We were a total of 6 retreatants plus 2 leaders and we followed the typical format of Even Sparrows with evening sessions devoted to biblical reflection and Celtic-style worship, while morning and afternoon sessions were devoted in the main to guide-led birdwatching. Our first full day was spent in the immediate grounds around the centre, and it proved very productive with great views and sounds of male Redpoll, Spotted Flycatcher, Greenfinch, Song Thrush, Willow Warbler, Whitethroat and Stonechat. Red-breasted Merganser, Eider Duck, Razorbill and one Great Northern Diver in summer plumage swam offshore, while Common Sandpiper, Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover Meadow Pipit and Pied Wagtail fed along the beach. On our second day we split into two groups with most opting to ascend the mountain plateau in the company of an experienced mountain guide, while a smaller group took the ‘low road’ to the tiny village of Kingairloch and watched a trio of Harbour Porpoises on the way. It proved our best day for good weather, enabling everyone to enjoy sunshine, light winds and clear visibility – especially important for those on the tops who were rewarded with panoramic views across to Mull and to Skye in the opposite direction. By contrast, it rained on our third full day. Nevertheless, we drove offsite as planned and had sufficient time in dry conditions to walk around Ariundle Oakwood and enjoy watching Pearl-bordered Fritillary butterflies, finding a pair of Wood Warblers carrying food for their young and marvelling at the mix of mosses, liverworts and lichens growing on old oak trees. Afterwards, we tried without success to observe Otters or eagles at Garbh Eilean Wildlife Hide as the rain set in, despite clearly seeing a White-tailed Eagle eyrie. Yet the best that day was still to come. We were finishing our evening meal back at the centre when someone shouted “Pine Martin!” We scrambled to look through the large windows and thankfully everyone saw the animal only metres from where we had been sitting.

We closed that evening with an Agape celebration when we prayed, listened to scripture and recalled our favourite retreat memories, as well as sharing bread and wine to remember the sacrifice Jesus made for us all. These occasions always seem poignant as a fitting finale to a retreat and so it proved at Kilmalieu. The written feedback revealed just how much our retreatants clearly appreciated the mix of worship, teaching and birdwatching in a wonderful location, being well fed and looked after by a very welcoming team of staff. All in all, the first retreat at Kilmalieu was a special, God-focused experience, and we are keen to return. It comes as no surprise that Even Sparrows will be back again next May 2025, but let’s hope we see some eagles!      

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