On 21st October 2017 we were listing plants around Loch Kirkaig, as a contribution to an ongoing update of Assynt records. The target square (NC0719) takes in the mouth of the River Kirkaig, the head of the bay, and the north coast of the Loch for some 400m west of the last house on the side road. There is a lot more land in the southern half of this square, but that, regrettably, is over the county boundary into West Ross, and not our concern.
The weather looked unfriendly, so we parked near where the road turns up to Achins Bookshop, and almost immediately made the best find of the day. In the remains of an old wall, not far from the southernmost house, were a few unfamiliar, rounded, downy leaves, springing from a runner. This was ground ivy Glechoma hederacea, a low creeping perennial, only previously known in Assynt from near houses at Glenleraig, Recharn and Rientraid, but only in small amounts.
We had made a bee-line for this area because there was an old record of tansy Tanacetum vulgare, which we were able to confirm. Most of the stems of this aromatic perennial had been well grazed by sheep, but there was one stem in flower. The location of this plant has been known to Mary Bangor-Jones, and possibly other local people, for many decades; she refers to it as ‘ginger fern’. Tansy has been found in just four other places in Assynt, again all near habitation.
Both of these plants were well known to our forebears, with a great range of culinary and medicinal uses. One alternative name for ground ivy was alehoof, relating to its use to ‘clarify beer’ before hops were available, both it and tansy were drunk as ‘teas’, and tansy was also used both as a flavouring for puddings and omelettes and, rather alarmingly, as a vermifuge.
Returning to the present day, after checking out some salt-marsh at the mouth of the river and the oakwoods on its bank, we sought refuge from a shower in the car and ate our sandwiches. Afterwards, a short sortie across the burn at the northern end of the beach took us down on to a shingly shore, where we, again, came across ground ivy, this time in quantity, in beds of common nettle and yellow flag just above high tide mark. We then made for some wilder ground along the cliffs beyond the end of the side road. The score for the day was a respectable 145 species, but the highlights were, without doubt, two ancient garden escapes or throw-outs.
Ian Evans and Gwen Richards