Pollan and Pollantobair: an April walk in the hinterland

June 17th 2019

Just north of Strone Brae, at the eastern end of Loch an Ordain (NC0726), there is a steep track leading up to a solitary white house, Pollan.  The track was reputedly built, single-handed, by a former occupant, George Watson, in the early 1920s (or he may have had the help of his four sons, according to another source), and the house has belonged for many years to two families who visit it regularly.  I first visited Pollan on 6th August 1993, when I learned something of its history from botanist Susan Murray.  The settlement there once housed a smith, tailor and weaver, and its water supply was, and still is, a nearby well, in which palmate newts occur from time to time.

This was the starting point for an exploration of the hinterland by Gordon Rothero, Gwen Richards and myself on 8th April 2019.  Gwen and I had walked up to the house with Pam Mackenzie on 31st December last, a rather inclement day, and thought the area might be worth re-visiting in the spring.  On this occasion we hoped to reach the ruins of another house, at Pollantobair (NC073270), which I last saw in 1993.  The primary purpose was for Gordon to record bryophytes, but we also noted, as usual, any higher plants, animal life and landscape features of interest.

There was a small stand of pyramidal bugle Ajuga pyramidalis half-way up the track, in open ground on a south-facing bank, its preferred habitat.  After coffee by a ruin alongside the present house, we made our way around the mire behind it to some west-facing crags.

These bore what one might describe as a relict woodland flora, including bluebellhoneysuckleprimrose and wood pimpernel.  Trees are scarce in this landscape, but a scraggy rowan did carry a little of our largest lungwort lichen, Lobaria pulmonaria.  There was also a greater variety of mosses and liverworts than hitherto encountered, including string grimmia Grimmia funalis (photo 1), a moss whose ‘neat hoary cushions…are a consistent feature of base-rich gneiss on crags’ (Gordon’s text in Flora of Assynt, p.230).

Lunch was taken overlooking an un-named lochan (NC074268), the banks of which yielded field vole burrows in purple moor-grass tussocks and a small frog. We than followed its exit burn downstream, noting a fine plant of prostrate juniper Juniperus communis nana on a knoll, and, at the edge of the burn, old fruiting stems of bog hair-grass Deschampsia setacea, an uncommon species that I was quite pleased to be able to identify so early in the season.

The burn took us through a boundary dyke into an extensive grassy area (photo 2), parts of which were probably once cultivated, around the ruins of a well-built house (photo 3) and barn at Pollantobair, last occupied, I understand, by an elderly man and his sister prior to WW2.

Across the valley from the house is a big crag (NC074272; photo 4), with huge boulders at its base, one of them a colourful mosaic of minerals and lichens (photo 5). Another has a large crack containing a well-grown rowan (photo 6), and a patch of a second lungwort lichen, the greyish-green Lobaria scrobiculata.   Gwen also made the curious discovery of the skeleton of a heron between two of them.  On a nearby rock outcrop Gordon found a good stand of the bird’s-foot wing-moss Pterygonium gracile (photo 7), whose neat brownish-green shoots are, again, characteristic of the ‘mildly basic rocks’ of our local gneiss, although usually ‘in small quantity…on the margins of lochs’ (Flora of Assynt, p.243).

We then followed the winding course of the burn cross-country to where it discharged into Loch Leathad a’Phris Droighinn (loch of the slope of the thorny thicket; photo 8). Circling the loch anti-clockwise, to avoid crags plunging off into deep water, we reached the foot of a vertical rock-face (NC069267), parts of which looked as if they had been white-washed (photo 9), with an almost continuous sheet of a single species of lichen.  This has since been identified by Tony Fletcher as Haematomma ochroleucumvar. porphyrium, a species that ‘seems to dominate shaded faces of ultramafic rocks’ locally.  It has striking bright red apothecia (photo 10), from which the generic name derives (Haematomma = blood-eye).  A later look at the geological map confirmed that we were at the very edge of a large area of Lewisian gneiss described as ultramafic (i.e. with a high proportion of dark magnesium- and iron-rich minerals), and shown in a distinctive purple.

Tea was taken at the foot of the crag.  I may have lingered a little, since, whilst I was still contemplating the loch, Gordon discovered, behind me, on a mossy shelf, three small but distinctive rosettes, up to 3cm across, with hairy leaves and incipient flowerheads (photo 11).  He recognized them as hairy rock-cress Arabis hirsuta, a species I have never come across.  The most recent record in the Flora of Assynt is from Ardvreck Castle in 1969, with just one other vague one, from NC21 (possibly the Bone Cave Valley) in the 1950s. Hairy rock-cress is widespread in base-rich habitats elsewhere in the British Isles, but definitely thins out in the north-west of Scotland.

The crag also bore a good stand of the third lungwort lichen for the day, Lobaria amplissima, which has an almost white thallus, conspicuously ornamented with brownish-black coralloid outgrowths of the blue-green photobiont (photo 12).   It is most commonly found on large trees with neutral bark, but does occur rarely on rock faces, as here. Elsewhere, the crag retained elements of its former woodland cover that had managed to escape local burning, with sheets of ivy (photo 13), woodruff in a crevice (photo 14), which testifies to the basic nature of the rock, and another good stand of pyramidal bugle amongst scree at its foot.

Well pleased with the discovery of the hairy rock-cress, we made our way back to the car and then up to Gwen’s for a welcome cup of tea.  Gordon had had a good day, recording 100 species of mosses and 27 species of liverworts, and also contributing to our cumulative total (spread over four 1km squares) of 93 species of higher plants.

Other observations included numerous caterpillars of the drinker moth, and another rather nicely-marked green one, later identified by Gwen (after considerable effort, since there are a lot of green caterpillars) as that of the anomalous moth Stilbia anomala (photo 15).  This moorland noctuid is commonest in the north and west of the British Isles, where the caterpillar feeds on wavy hair-grass and other moorland grasses; the adult flies from August to September.  Birds were scarce, with a flight of some 70 pink-footed geese and one wren, but we did have a good if distant view of a noisy peregrine.

A return visit

Two weeks later, on 22nd May, Gwen and I made a return visit to the last-mentioned crag (photo 16) to get pictures of the hairy rock-cress in flower (photo 17).  We took a closer look at, and listed, the higher plants on and below the sheer rock-face, adding sanicle Sanicula europaea and moonwort Botrychium lunaria, amongst others.  We then did a small circuit down to the shore of the loch, across wet ground to a small lochan, and back, via a mire with both black-bog-rush Schoenus nigricans and white beak-sedge Rhynchospora alba, to the crag. The total haul, reasonable given the relative earliness in the year for recording (grasses and sedges still being difficult to recognise) was, again 93 species, but a different selection from just a small part of 1 km square NC0626.

Animal life noted included the green jelly balls of the colonial ciliate protozoan Ophrydium sp. in the shallows of the loch (photo 18), a fine, if widespread, red-legged ground beetle Pterostichus madidus (photo 19), magpie moth caterpillars, two male palmate newts in breeding rig and another sighting of the peregrine.

Footnote. This story is another tribute to the fascinating diversity of the natural world in the landscape of Assynt, and its shaping by past human activity.  Regrettably, current managers of the area persist in setting fire to it, pointlessly destroying that diversity in the short term, or at best setting it back for many decades and, incidentally, making a personal contribution to climate change.

Ian M. Evans

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