A trip to the Inchnadamph ‘zoo’

September 11th 2019

On 7th July 2019, eight members of the Assynt and Lochbroom Field Clubs made a pilgrimage to the Inchnadamph ‘zoo’, an assemblage of unusual plants on two remote limestone ridges south of the valley of the River Traligill.

We set off up the valley, encountering on the track the largest of the local ground beetles Carabus clatratus, a nationally scarce species with boldly-sculptured wing-cases (photo 1).  Just after Glenbain cottage we dropped down to the mouth of the Allt na Glaic Moire, where Scottish asphodel Tofieldia pusilla occurs in one of its three local sites (photo 2).  We then climbed up the hill on the eastern side of the burn to an old sheepfold south of Ruigh an t-Sagairt (the sheiling of the priest), where we had lunch (photo 3).

After lunch, our route took us further uphill to the eastern boundary of a 1960s deer-exclosure (NC263206), which houses impressive stands of melancholy thistle Cirsium heterophyllum and globe-flower Trollius europaeus, amongst many other species.  The luxuriance of the vegetation inside its deer-fence contrasts markedly with that on the ground outside.

Gwen Richards then led us eastwards, across some rough ground, to the higher of  two limestone ridges that house the Inchnadamph ‘zoo’ (NC270204), which she had last visited in July 2008 (photo 4).  There we admired and photographed some of over thirty blue-flowered heads of the striking Oxford rampion Phyteuma scheuchzeri (photos 5-6), accompanied in places by two smaller plants, pink fairy foxglove Erinus alpinus (photo 7) and blue fairy’s-thimble Campanula cochleariifolia (photo 8); there were also a few spikes of frog orchid Coeloglossum viride.

The group later moved down to a second limestone ridge (photo 9), on the northern flank of the valley of the Allt na Glaic Moire (NC271201), which is invisible from the upper one.  Here more Oxford rampion, fairy foxglove and fairy’s-thimble were found in flower, with, in just one gryke (photo 10), a small amount of the white-flowered alpine campion Silene alpestris (photo 11).  The limestone speciality whortle-leaved willow Salix myrsinites was seen nearby.

More photographs were taken there before we struck north-east to the southern flank of a dry valley in the Traligill system (NC274203), where the last component of the ‘zoo’, spring gentian Gentiana verna,was eventually re-located from photographs taken by Pat Evans in 2008, albeit in fruit and hence rather inconspicuous (photos 12-13). After a tea break at the edge of this deep dry valley (photo 14), we made our way home.  The distance to be covered had been estimated at about 6km ‘as the crow flies’.  In the event we walked nearly double that, but the experience was reckoned worth the effort.

Some history

This assemblage of plants has an interesting history.  The Oxford rampion was first brought to our notice locally by Gwen Richards and her friend Anna White, who found it on the lower ridge in late June 1992.   Pat and I visited the site with them three days later, when we also noted the fairy’s-thimble and fairy foxglove.  Alex Scott had told us that there were some ‘doubtful’ records of plants on the then National Nature Reserve, so they had been first encountered some time previously.  The alpine campion and spring gentian were found and photographed by two BSBI members, Chris Poghill and Alan Underwood, who visited the area in 1997.

Oxford rampion is native to the Southern Alps, but previously occurred on the walls of an Oxford college, hence its English name.  The fairy foxglove, fairy’s-thimble and alpine campion are also native to mountains in Europe.  However, they are all cultivated in this country and are now established in the wild at a few sites in the British Isles.  Spring gentian is a different case, occurring as a rare native on limestone in northern England and western Ireland (Upper Teesdale and the Burren, respectively).

We do not know, and probably now never will, who introduced these plants to the Inchnadamph area, why or when, although it may have been many decades ago.  Most of the 20thcentury botanising of this area was carried out in the 1950s by Cambridge botanists such as John Raven and Max Walters (see the excellent account, by Raven, on North-Western Scotland in Mountain Flowers, 1956, pp.149-156).  I have a frivolous suggestion that an Oxford botanist may have been responsible, mischievously scattering seed and then waiting to see how long it took those from ‘the other place’ to find the introductions!   As such, there are those who think that they should be eliminated, but apart from the practical difficulties, they appear to constitute no serious threat to the native vegetation and certainly provide an interesting experience for those who come across the Inchnadamph ‘zoo’ by accident.

Ian Evans

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