Clashnessie to Achnacarnin: a cliff walk in February

March 30th 2019

On 17thFebruary 2019, Gwen Richards and I, not having done any fieldwork for a while, decided to take Jess for a walk along the cliffs from Clashnessie to Achnacarnin (NC0531-0532; photo 1).  

We parked at the end of the Laid road, and made our way down the track to Reidh Phort.   Almost at once Gwen spotted an unfamiliar plant on the far side of the ditch, with tiny leaves spaced out along creeping stems.  The leaves were kidney-shaped and arranged, unusually, in opposite pairs below but alternately above (photo 2).  It was later identified as slender speedwell Veronica filiformis, which in a couple of months will have brilliant blue flowers on long slender stems.  It is not common in Assynt and this is the first local record since 2000.

Climbing over a couple of stiles, we then set off north along the rugged coastline, which has 20m high cliffs and a number of steep-sided gullies. Fresh mole hills were conspicuous where their occupants had been re-plumbing their burrow systems, both at the edge of croft in-bye, formerly under crops, and also in a patch of cliff grassland, which looked far too steep ever to have been cultivated.   A little further along, the vertical walls of one of the gullies housed at least three pairs of shags, with dark oily-green plumage enlivened by the yellow streak below their eyes, presumably on their nest sites. 

Coffee was taken looking across the sea to Eilean Chrona, with rock doves passing to and fro.  Shortly afterwards, we reached the first, small, bay at Port Achnancarnan (photo 3), where the valley burn falls down the cliffs.  A large prostrate juniper Juniperus communis nana hugs its north wall (photo 4).  Since this shrub is susceptible to both grazing and burning, it is now most often found in parts of the Assynt landscape out of reach of both, as here.  

We then made our way over to the main bay, which has some of the best vertical sea-cliff woodland in Assynt, with a lot of hazel.   The shingle beach had washed-up bands of the largest of the kelps, cuvie Laminaria hyperborea (photo 5). 

Amongst the kelp I found something odd (photo 6).   It was about 14cm across, brown, with a tapered, solid but light-weight base, bearing a tattered, thin but tough fringe.  It looked like the remains of a large fungal fruiting body, which rang a distant bell.  Back home, I was able to track it down in British Puffballs, Earthstars and Stinkhorns (Pegler et al.,1995) to the Mosaic Puffball Lycoperdon (Handkea) utriformis, second only in size to the Giant Puffball Calvatia gigantea.

The Mosaic Puffball is a nationally local species of unfertilized grasslands, including dunes, on acid to neutral soils.  We presume that it had been growing on the grassy banks of Port Achnancarnan and, after discharging its spores, the old fruiting body had become detached and blown down onto the beach.  John Blunt’s list of Assynt fungi does not mention it and, according to NBN records kindly accessed by Murdo Macdonald of HBRG, the only records for West Sutherland as a whole are in four 10km squares centred around Bettyhill on the north coast.  One record was in fact made by me, at Invernaver on 7thJuly 2003, hence the faint recollection.

We then turned our attention to some attractive grey-green boulders that Gwen had spotted on the north side of the beach (photo 7).  The rock is fine-grained, with occasional reddish streaks and one boulder had been hollowed out by wave-borne shingle into something resembling aNeolithic saddle-quern.  On a later visit (see below), we saw that gales had driven the erosive shingle up into the hollow (photo 8). 

Similar rock was outcropping on the northern and southernsides of the beach (photos 9 and 10).  The geological map sheet 107W,  Point of Stoer, shows a thin dark green band cutting through the Lewisian gneiss just here, a ‘metamorphosed mafic dyke’ composed of a mineral-rich rock called amphibolite.  This is softer than adjacent rocks and erodes more readily.  Swarms of such mafic dykes cut through the gneiss right across Assynt and add greatly to the interest of its plant-life. 

As we climbed up the grassy south-facing cliffs of the bay, I noticed a single early flower of lesser celandine Ficaria verna, our first of the year.  Looking inland we were impressed by the very large clearance cairns from which Achnacarnin (field of the cairns) gets its name (photo 11).  These cairns are composed of stones removed laboriously from ground being cleared for cropping, probably after new croft boundaries were set out in the 1850s, according to local historian Malcolm Bangor-Jones

About a hundred metres to the north of the bay, at the highest point of a cliff-top enclosure, were the ruins of a croft house and other buildings, probably dating back to the same period (photos 12 and 13).  We admired the considerable skills of the masons who had built them, using some huge rocks and what appeared to be clay mortar (photo 14).  Ian Mackenzie (‘Ian the Gate’), who lives at Achnacarnin, told me that the house had once been occupied by Mackenzies, but had been abandoned ‘before his time’, i.e. at some time after WW1, when the local crofting population was shrinking in numbers, as it is again.  Aileen Hall later confirmed that the house was formerly known as that of ‘Uisdean Mac-Uisdean’, i.e. Hugh son of Hugh [Mackenzie].  

This seemed a good spot for lunch since, although completely exposed to easterlies, the site afforded magnificent views, north to the Cape Wrath peninsula, across the Bay to Oldany Island (photo 15), further east  to Quinag and Glas Bheinn and south to Cul Mor.  The eastern hills were at that time hosting parallel layers of threatening cumulus clouds (photo16).

Heavy rain indeed arrived as we finished our lunch, so we made our way back to the car across a rushy valley, up the hill and around a large mire to the south of An Uaile, flushing a common snipe on the way.   Four hours walking, on unfamiliar ground, had afforded us some unexpected discoveries and reminders of the considerable impact of man on parts of this landscape, over several thousand years, which makes it all the more interesting.  What more could one ask of a dampish day in February?           

P.S.  On 6thMarch we paid a second visit to Port Achnancarnan with Pam Mackenzie, who lives nearby.  Our route on that occasion took us a little further east, to another striking feature of this contorted coastline.  It is a shallow pool known locally at Lochan Sal (photo 17, taken on a sunnier day), just south of Rubha Fitheachaig (Point of the Ravens).  It fills at high tide and, although its shores are very rocky, it was once a favourite paddling pool for local children.  The rocks bounding it on the seaward side are jagged, blackened and obviously different from the adjacent gneiss.  A look at the geological map shows them to be part of another mafic dyke, parallel to that cutting through Port Achnancarnan. 

This part of the coast is obviously well-frequented by otters, since we saw fresh spraints on grassy tumps in several places, a washing pool near one of the tumps and several burrows that may serve as temporary holts.  An impertinent, or uncaring, fox had planted a territorial scat on one of the tumps. 

Ian M. Evans

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