A walk up the Allt na Doire Cuilinn, Quinag
The Allt na Doire Cuilinn (burn of the grove of hollies) drains Lochan an Duibhe (lochan of darkness) on the south side of Quinag (NC2125). Its headwaters, and those of a large tributary, rise in Coire Riabhach, higher up that hill. The burn drops down to pass under the Lochinver-Inchnadamph road (A837) and drains into Loch Assynt north of Rubha an Doire Chuilinn. Running parallel to the upper part of the burn is a section of an old track, which pre-dates the former single-track road built in the late 1820s.
Last October a preliminary study was made of the lichens up this burn (see JMT Staff Blog by Romany Garnett, under Articles). On 29th April 2016 we returned to see what a spring visit might yield, and were not disappointed. The focus of our attention was a wooded crag above the track, which has examples of six species of native trees and shrubs, including some large old hollies, almost out of reach of the local red deer population (Photo 1). The first surprise was a barn owl, which lifted off a shelf high on the crag, and floated silently away; this is probably just a roost site, but within reach of potential prey.
As we got closer to the crag, our eyes were caught by masses of primroses on steep slopes around the bases of the trees (Photo 2). In Assynt, such a sight indicates patches of richer soil, often quite localised, as in this mainly rocky/peaty landscape. The underlying rocks here appear to be sandstones towards the base of the Torridonian, which are generally rather acidic, so the explanation is probably glacial till banked between the crag and boulder scree below it. Damp, shady, vertical parts of these banks were plastered with interwoven, broad, bronzy thalli of the great scented liverwort Conocephalum salebrosum, bearing small areas of bright-green new growth (Photo 3).
Scrambling up to get some photographs, we were pleased to find about ten flowering spikes of pyramidal bugle, which typically occurs in stony areas on south-facing slopes like this, but is rare on the Torridonian (Photo 4). This was a useful update of the only other record for NC22, made hereabouts on 26th August 1992. We collected from below the crags a few silvery fallen holly leaves, covered in small black spots, which later proved to be the discharged fruiting bodies of two characteristic ascomycete fungi Phacidiostroma multivalve and Trochila ilicina.
On descending from the crag, our attention was drawn by Pip, a neighbour’s terrier that Gwen was looking after, to the banks of the burn (Photo 5). The tussocky purple moor-grass fringing the watercourse was full of fissures and holes, and although some were the product of natural erosion, others were signs of an active water vole colony, whose presence was confirmed by the discovery of bright green droppings.
Gwen also collected, from the burn, some filamentous algae that seemed a bit unusual. And so they proved to be, when we later put them under a microscope. The stems look in outline like a string of toad spawn, each unit resolving itself, at higher magnification, into a spherical tuft of branched filaments, the unmistakable jizz of one of very few red algae that occurs in freshwater, the aptly-named Batrachospermum species, probably B. vagum. This alga is recorded in an old manual on the group (West and Fritsch, 1932) as typically ‘found attached to stones in fast streams’ and also ‘frequently in bogs’, so this landscape will suit it, although records from Assynt are few.
A little further up the track, a scurry across the top of a boulder revealed itself as a common lizard, which had been basking in some shelter from the rather cold wind (Photo 6). It stayed put long enough for a photograph and was the first we have seen this year. Lunch was taken shortly afterwards on a couple of track-side boulders in a similarly sheltered spot. A quick search afterwards, under mats of purple moor-grass and ling amongst the boulders, uncovered the runs, bitten-off grass stems and droppings of field voles, the main prey of barn owls in this sort of landscape. We also came across an adult frog, which had resumed a terrestrial life style after the earlier frenzies of spawning
After lunch we walked on up to a viewpoint, on the banks of Lochan an Duibhe (NC217255), where the track levels out before dropping down to the valley of the Allt Sgiathaig, and then retraced our steps. A search of another likely-looking area of purple moor-grass along the burn did not yield any further evidence of water voles, but the watercourse itself, up to a metre wide, was spanned by spiders’ webs, trapping small insects. In a silken refuge on the ling to which each of the webs was anchored was a large female orb-web spider of the widespread species Larinioides cornutus.
A last surprise, as we walked back along the track past the wooded crag, was finding a fragile old bird skull (Photo 7). It was about 4cm long and, from its large orbits, hooked mandible and a round foramen in that mandible, we have identified it as that of a kestrel; how it came to be lying there we have no idea.
Looking west, we could pick out the line of the track continuing along the hill, until it drops down to the line of the modern road, somewhere near Tumore. It skirts the upper edge of one of a pair of old sheilings, with a substantial boundary dyke (Photo 8), and higher up the hill is an odd-looking circular grassy patch with what appears to be a clump of hollies in its centre (Photo 9). There is obviously lots more to explore in this area. In the meantime, during an enjoyable spring walk taking some three hours, with a dog in tow, we had sightings or other evidence of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, spiders, flowering plants, liverworts, fungi and algae; not a bad haul for the time of year.
Ian Evans and Gwen Richards
All photographs by Ian Evans