North from Balchladich on Boxing Day
The forecast for the week after Christmas 2019 looked fairly dire, apart from Boxing Day. So, that morning, Gwen Richards and I took ourselves off to Balchladich Bay (NC0230) to explore the coast north of there with her collie Jess. We had intended to walk out to Rubh’an Dunain, but a brisk and chilly south-easterly wind sent us over to the west coast. This is the longest stretch of accessible rocky shoreline in Assynt, with excellent rock-pooling at warmer times of year (photo 1).
Our first stop was a small cove which provided the shelter for us to enjoy a hot drink with a left-over mince pie. The vertical sandstone cliffs were covered in places with a shaggy grey mat of the robust lichen sea ivory Ramalina siliquosa (photo 2). This is essentially a coastal species, but can occur locally nearly 3km inland, on high crags facing south-west into prevailing winds off The Minch. Whether it benefits from, or just tolerates, salt-laden spray is a moot point.
Nearby, on thin soil, were shiny, bright-green cushions of English stonecrop Sedum anglicum (photo 3), whose succulent leaves are presumably protected by their leathery skins from the dessicating effects of salt. Wedged into crevices were the tight, flat, star-burst rosettes of the smallest of the plantains, buck’s-horn plantain Plantago coronopus (photo 4), with its neatly toothed leaves; another tough plant, rarely found any distance from the coast. Nearby, almost vertical grassy vegetation on sheltered parts of the cliffs housed the more delicate winter-green leaves of primrose Primula vulgaris (photo 5), which must also be salt-tolerant to some degree.
Lichens and rocks
A sandy patch tempted us down towards low tide mark, where the colourful range of inter-tidal lichens extended way down the shore, with a black fuzz of Lichina pygmaea (photo 6) amongst the limpets and barnacles. Further up, lower parts of the cliff bore a mosaic of orange and black crustose lichens (photo 7), probably Caloplaca marina and Verrucaria maura. On the highest edge of an isolated rock stack there was the even more intense orange of one of our showiest lichens (photo 8). This is Xanthoria parietina, which likes nitrogen-enriched bird perches, whether on rocks or roofs.
Tumble-polished, rounded rocks, varying in size from large boulders down to pebbles, in a striking variety of colours, are a feature of this shoreline (photo 9). Some may be derived directly from the cliffs, which are composed of reddish-brown, often coarsely-grained, sandstones laid down under desert conditions in Torridonian times, a billion or more years ago. Others must have originated in the thick layer of glacial till that covers much of the Stoer peninsula. This is certainly the source of the speckled greyish pebbles of the much older Lewisian gneiss and white ones of the younger Cambrian quartzites, amongst others.
A little later, easy progress along the shore was impeded by small headlands and, in deference to my stiff knees, we made our way up to the sheep tracks which run along the top of the low cliffs. Tucked into a crevice in the low maritime heath covering the cliffs were the old fruiting bodies of the blackish puffball Lycoperdon nigrescens (photo 10), which is our commonest moorland species.
We followed the sheep tracks above some steep-sided gulleys and then dropped down to have our lunch out of the wind, on a north-facing bank at the mouth of a substantial burn (photo 11). This is the Alltan na Fithriach (intriguingly, burn of the dulse, an edible seaweed, presumably once abundant on this shore), which drains the large Loch Cul Fraoich up behind Raffin; near its mouth are the remains of an old watermill.
A few birds
Lunch was enlivened by an unexpected variety of birds. These included a pair of ravens, harassing a family party of hooded crows. Perched on rocks way down on the shore were the usual suspects, including shag, cormorant, great black-backed and herring gulls, with solitary curlew, heron and oystercatcher flying along the shoreline.
Out on the sea, Gwen spotted two pairs of eider, with an additional female, a great northern diver in winter plumage and, towards the horizon, beating its way north, a solitary gannet. My contribution was a kestrel flying past much closer to us, not nowadays a common bird in Assynt.
After lunch we crossed the extensive shingle beach to see if there were any seashells on fresh sand uncovered by the very low tide. The highest part of the shingle is obviously very stable, since individual pebbles are covered with a mosaic of many decades’ growth of greyish lichens (photo 12). There was little on the sand except bird footprints, and cast up bits of seaweed, but this is an exposed high-energy shore.
The earlier watery sun had brightened up as we found our way back to Balchaldich, although the wind wasn’t much warmer. I was further up the hill than Gwen, where I came across occasional shells of crabs, blown up onto the moorland. Most were the smooth shells of shore crabs Carcinus maenas, but I also found one from a great spider crab Hyas araneus (photo 13). Although, at 6cm long, not fully grown, the knobbly carapace was almost completely covered with encrusting growths of a bryozoan or sea mat, with occasional calcareous tubes of young keelworms Pomatocerus triqueter. Spider crabs perhaps rely more on camouflage than speed to escape predators in their rock-pool habitat.
A view to the isles
Gwen’s best find on the way back, in a boggy runnel not far from the shore, towards Balchladich Bay (NC023306), was the creeping stems, with neatly-paired leaves, of bog pimpernel Lysimachia tenella, in what is now thought to be its only known site in Assynt. Its delicately-veined pink flowers (photo 14) appear in July.
As it turned out, we were well pleased with our choice of a route, since a wealth of finds close-up was enhanced by distant views of the tips of the hills on the Outer Isles, 40 miles to the west (photo 15), and the rather more substantial snow-covered hills of Wester Ross to the south (photo 16).
The only downside to the day was the contribution to the landscape made by some other members of our own species, sea-borne plastic litter which washes up along this coast, despite regular beach cleans (photo 17). Fortunately, this accumulates in sheltered coves over a relatively restricted area, but the sheer amount is deeply dismaying.
‘Part two’ of this adventure is available on our website at Return to Raffin