A winter walk to Suileag bothy
Assynt’s woodlands were very colourful last autumn, but by the first day of winter, 1st December 2019, the leaves had all fallen and moorland had taken over the colour palette. The forecast for that morning was not optimistic, but Gwen Richards and I decided to take a walk, with Jess, from Glencanisp up to the bothy at Suileag, below Suilven (NC1421). We had showers, but the gleams of sunlight between them illuminated a landscape that was adequate compensation.
Not only are the varied shades of yellow, orange and foxy-red of moorland in early winter a visual delight (photo 1), but they pick out many of the plants that dominate our local vegetation.
In valley mires, such as that at the head of Loch na h-Airigh Fraoich (loch of the heathery sheiling), straw-yellow indicates swathes of purple moor-grass Molinia caerulea (photo 2) This also occurs in sloughs running down the hills, marking out areas that are perpetually wet, but with some flow in the water. Purple moor-grass can form substantial tussocks (photo 3), and when these are densely clustered together in valleys, progress through them is very laborious, since one can walk neither between nor upon the tussocks. As the winter wears on, the old leaves become detached, blown by the wind and accumulate in hollows like so much raffia.
Tussocks of a finer-leaved plant, a deep chestnut at their peak, are those of deergrass Trichophorum germanicum (photo 4). This is another species of wet habitats, often in partnership hereabouts with heather or ling Calluna vulgarisand cross-leaved heath Erica tetralix, in the vegetation type known as wet heath, locally abundant on our wet western hills.
A third tussock-forming species appears on the slopes above the Suileag track in smaller quantities, where there is mineral-rich flushing from ‘basic’ dykes intersecting the Lewisian gneiss. This is black bog-rush Schoenus nigricans (photo 5), with conspicuous black fruiting heads and narrow leaves that fade to a greyish-green colour over the winter. Stony spring-fed watercourses in which it is often found are inhabited by a particular association of other flowering plants, more obvious earlier in the year. These include pale butterwort Pinguicula lusitanica, broad-leaved cotton-grass Eriophorum latifolium and one or more of the colourful early marsh-orchids Dactylorhiza incarnata. The Suileag track is a good place to look out for these in summer.
In places along the track the outcrops of such ‘basic’ dykes are very obvious, since they are plastered with light-coloured lichens (photo 6), including the coralline Stereocaulon evolutum which attracted Gwen’s attention (photo 7). On wet bare rock nearby were rosettes of the reddening succulent leaves of yellow saxifrage Saxifraga aizoides, no longer sporting its bright-yellow flowers (photo 8).
The bothy lies on the edge of a substantial walled enclosure, presumably once used for livestock (photo 9). We ate our lunch inside, with clouds moving briskly over Suilven (photo 10), having read entries in the log by hardy souls who had braved the summit late in November (as had Gwen earlier in the year), and appreciating all the more the contents of our thermos flasks. The sky had clouded over for our walk back and we were quite glad when Loch Druim Suardalain finally hove into sight (photo 11).
Bird life was scarce during our 7km walk, just one woodcock off the side of the track and a solitary red grouse giving its ‘go-back, go-back’ alarm call on the hill above us.
We made one last stop to look across the valley mires to the wooded edges of the old sheiling at Bad na h-Achlaise (photo 12). Here an industrious mole had been cleaning-out its worm-trapping burrows right at the edge of the track. The south-facing slopes along which the track runs at this point are clothed with bracken, a sign of deep fertile soil, good for earthworms and the moles that feed on them.
Ian M. Evans