Return to Raffin

February 29th 2020

Return to Raffin

January 2020 was one of the wettest months we remember, with 240mm of rain and snow spread over 27 days.  The only reasonable days were, contrarily, already allocated.  So, we were glad of a decent forecast for at least the morning of Sunday 2nd February, when we decided to continue our Boxing Day walk at Raffin (NC0131) further westwards (photo 1).

Parking at the last turning to the north, we followed a sheep path down to the mouth of a small burn and then climbed down on to the boulder beach and started working our way east.  This entailed some challenging clambering, since the rounded boulders were loose, slippery and graded from huge to smaller in the direction we were moving (photo 2).

We took a coffee break in a sheltered spot at the foot of the cliff.  Here we admired a striking green maritime lichen Anaptychia runcinata plastering rocks high on the shore (photo 3); when dry it changes to dark reddish-brown colour.  We also found a scrap of kelp frond covered with the tiny neat rectangular grid of sea mat Membranipora membranacea, a colonial bryozoan (photo 5).  Gwen had earlier noted a great northern diver some way off the Raffin shore and while seated we were treated to good views of three fishing their way south.

After coffee we chose an easier option, found our way back up the cliff and then followed a sheep path along the cliff-top towards the two buildings in the distance.  Conspicuous along the edge of the cliffs were a series of otter ‘tumps’, grassy territorial markers, with fresh spraints in places (photo 5).

There was also some very curious broken ground in one patch of cliff-top grassland (photo 6).  Elsewhere on this coast, similar ground is inhabited by colonies of field voles, whose activities in sheep-grazed turf create trenches onto which their burrows open, a bit like a WW1 battlefield in miniature.  This phenomenon does not seem to be described anywhere in the mammal literature, but we have also seen it elsewhere on northern cliff-tops, as at Strathy Point. However, these wrinkles in the landscape looked a bit hefty for small rodents, and we are so far at a loss to explain them.

Lazybeds and bothies

We crossed an ancient dyke shortly afterwards, enclosing an area of ‘lazybeds’ (photo 7), which appear from satellite imagery to stretch much of the way up to the road.  John Home’s Survey of Assynt (1774) lists this area, under the Farm of Clashmore, of which it was then part, as ‘Rahoun…a fine Sheeling in Corn on each side a burn sloping pretty much South’, with an area of  ‘31A[cres] 3R[oods] and 8 F[alls]’ and ‘an easy access to the Sea’ (photo 8).  The ‘lazybeds’ presumably pre-date his survey and would have been fertilised with ‘sea ware’ i.e. kelp and wrack, carried up from the shore.

The two buildings beside the burn date from the period of the construction of the Stoer Head Lighthouse by David and Thomas Stevenson in 1870, and apparently housed workmen and horses.  That nearest to the sea is still referred to as the Lighthouse Stores.   Stone and other building material for the Lighthouse was landed at a ‘substantial jetty with a ramp leading to the track’ [up to the road].  Eachan MacKenzie of Clashmore informs us that he used to tie his boat up at the jetty some 40 years ago, but that it was largely destroyed in a huge gale in 2005.  The second building is known as the Raffin Salmon Bothy and, according to Eachan, was used by bag-net fishermen until their licence was withdrawn by the Estate in the early 1950s.

We continued along the cliff-top looking, unsuccessfully, for a convenient way down, logging more active otter tumps.  However, we had to return to the buildings to reach the shore, scrambling down by the mouth of the burn, thence finding our way east round a corner and out of the wind for lunch, marvelling, again, at the range of colours displayed by local rock types on the boulder-strewn shore (photo 9).  On this occasion they included, unusually, some conglomerate from the base of the Torridonian sandstones (in the foreground).

Piddocks at work

On the way to our lunch spot, we had noticed a very odd boulder, full of holes, like a huge bath sponge (photo 10).  On closer inspection, the holes appeared to be the borings of one of the marine molluscs called piddocks, which inhabit burrows in limestone rock (photos 11 -12).  The nearest point to Assynt that we have seen their burrows in situ is where the Durness Limestones meet the sea at Balnakeil.  However, the rock of which this boulder is composed is honey-coloured and sandy in texture, quite unlike most local limestones.  It is also difficult to work out whether the borings took place before or after the boulder acquired its current form.  Could it be a relic from the construction of the Lighthouse, stranded on the shore, ‘tumble-polished’ and later attacked by piddocks?  Or is there another explanation?

After mulling over this curiosity, we made our way back along the cliff-top path to our starting point, with sheep picking their way along the beach below us (photo 13).  A heron, a raft of eider duck and a ‘bottling’ common seal provided some entertainment, but the day was rounded off most satisfactorily by excellent views of an otter.  Gwen first spotted its head, back and tail in the foam-strewn surface of a rough sea, and was later able to photograph it, at some distance, on a rock platform, which it had climbed to consume its prey (photos 14-15).

Ian Evans and Gwen Richards

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