Stoer: search for ‘the hollow of the thorns’
In broken ground out on the hill, about 1km east of Stoer village (NC045287), there is a landscape feature named as Poll an Droighinn on the 1:25,000 O.S. Map (photo 1). This translates as the pit, bog or hollow of the thorns, specifically either bramble or blackthorn. Further to the east are the hill Sidhean Poll an Droighinn and Loch Poll an Droighinn, so the feature must have impressed itself on our predecessors.
Back in June 1999, Pat and I had come across an isolated stand of blackthorn Prunus spinosa in this general area, and guessed that it might be the source of the name. I had, however, forgotten the precise location.
On 2nd October 2019, Bill Badger, Gwen Richards and I thought that we might look for the ‘hollow of the thorns’. Starting at Bill’s house, we made our way past the ruined Telford church, along a sheep path and then followed the winding course of a burn up the hill to the north. Crossing the head dyke onto the common grazings, we eventually reached an impressive boggy hollow (NC045287) containing a deep pool with white water-lilies Nymphaea alba and surrounded by tussocks of black bog-rush Schoenus nigricans (photos 2 and 3). The tussocks were spiky, but of actual thorns there was no sign.
The pool was not without interest, however, since it contained both Nordic bladderwort Utricularia stygia and the stonewort Chara virgata, indicating some base-enrichment of its waters. At this point rain, which had been threatening, became much more intense and we abandoned our search.
Three days later, on 5th October, Gwen and I made another attempt to locate the blackthorn, armed with an approximate grid reference that I had dug out of the Assynt flora files. Our route took us along the back road and up the side of a new deer fence enclosing one of the Stoer crofts. After a diversion to check out some dense thickets, which proved to be dominated by eared willow Salix aurita, with a little hazel Corylus avellana on the crag behind them, a blackthorn thicket eventually came into sight.
It was buried in substantial boulder scree in an embayment in the crags (NC047285), just at the edge of the common grazings (photos 4 and 5). It was generally protected by its inaccessibility, with some old clumps and younger ones suckering through the scree, although in places the twigs had been quite heavily grazed, possibly by deer (photo 6).
The 1999 visit had recorded some interesting associates including ramsons Allium ursinum, globeflower Trollius europaeus and barren strawberry Potentilla sterilis, but we were unable to find these so much later in the year. However, we did come across a number of the softly-hairy, bronzed rosettes of pyramidal bugle Ajuga pyramidalis on nearby heathery crags.
This blackthorn thicket is rather further from human habitation than in most of its Assynt sites. The shrub was much appreciated in the past. Flora Celtica records it as the source of a ‘fragrant and grateful wine’ (Lightfoot 1772); it was also said that ‘the common people eat it plentifully’ and that it was ‘useful in pulmonary and asthmatic complaints’ (First Statistical Account, 1799). The stones of blackthorn or sloe have been found on Neolithic sites, the leaves are recorded as providing ‘refreshing infusions’ and a pinkish-purple dye has been made from the berries. On the other hand, it was one of the shrubs that it was believed unlucky to take indoors, and was quoted as having a ‘generally sinister reputation’.
We shall never know whether blackthorn was originally planted at this site or just occurred naturally. Be that as it may, there appear to be no other obvious local candidates for ‘the hollow of the thorns’ and there is now no-one to ask if this is why Poll an Droighinn and the other local features were so named.
Reference. Milliken,W. and Bridgewater, S., 2004. Flora Celtica. Plants and People in Scotland. Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd. Highly recommended.
Ian M. Evans