Liath Bhad and Loch Glencoul
Amongst the most striking sea views in Assynt are those eastwards from the road between Newton and Kylesku, down the sea-lochs of Loch Glendhu to the north and Loch Glencoul to the south. However, only the south shore of Loch Glencoul is in Assynt, and only then as far as Tom na Toine (NC2630), where sea-cliffs plunge vertically into the sea on the parish boundary.
We were last in this area on 21st October 2017, listing the plants of Newton (NC2331), on a lovely sunny day at the end of the season for botanical fieldwork (photo 1). On 30th May 2020 we thought we might continue along the south shore of the loch as far as the hanging woodland at Liath Bhad (NC2530). Ian had first visited the area back in 1990, and just once since, in 1996, Gwen never before. Finding a passable route proved quite challenging at times, but we did achieve our objective, although the 6km there and back took us nearly seven hours.
There is a good path down from the road, leading to a substantial wooden bridge over the Unapool Burn. East of the sheep fank we made our way to the shore of a very sheltered bay. Here there is a large population of the detached and usually bladderless form of knotted wrack Ascophyllum nodosum ecad mackayi, familiarly known as ‘crofter’s wig’ (photo 2). This curious brown seaweed only occurs in very sheltered parts of Scottish sea lochs, often where a burn crosses the shore, and at this site the usually finely-branched form is accompanied by several variants, including an elegant one with scattered bladders (photo 3).
Lunch was taken at the end of the bay, with good views over nearby islands on which common gulls, herring gulls and oystercatchers were nesting, with a drake eider and inquisitive common and grey seals on and in the sea around them.
We then hacked our way south-east above the rocky shore-line, through birch woodland in places, to an old sheiling on the western edge of a small bay, which contained some ruins and gave us distant views of the hanging woodland (photo 4). The bay housed more crofter’s wig and also gave us a glimpse, between boulders, of a sea slater Ligia oceanica, a littoral woodlouse that can grow up to 3cm long (photo 5).
As we approached the next much larger inlet, Bagh an Liath Bhaid, the extent of the hanging woodland became clearer, occupying a long line of crags which fall gently to the shore, with extensive grassy slopes below (photos 6-7). On the far side of the bay, the grassland in another old sheiling contained ‘snuffle holes, made by badgers, and from there we worked across to the foot of the escarpment. The grassy slopes are both steep and littered with fallen boulders, mainly of the rusty-brown rocks of the Fucoid Beds (photo 8), on which most of the woodland is situated. Below them are exposed, in places, the greyish quartzites of Pipe Rock on which they sit.
The crags (photo 9) had a good variety of ferns including one of the specialities of this site, hart’s-tongue Asplenium scolopendrium, its commoner relatives black and maidenhair spleenworts A. adiantum-nigrum and A. trichomanes (photo 10) and also the daintier brittle bladder-fern Cystopteris fragilis. There were occasional spikes of early-purple orchid Orchis mascula (photo 11) and Gwen, who ventured further along the crags, found a stand of ramsons Allium ursinum. Below the crags the grassland is quite rich, with locally frequent water avens Geum rivale and globeflower Trollius europaeus.
The woodland is mainly downy birch Betula pubescens and rowan Sorbus aucuparia, with occasional holly Ilex aquifolium, but it also contains several very large goat willows Salix caprea, one of which had fallen down the almost vertical crags, but continued to grow upside down (photos 12-13). Later we spied from below, in a gap in the rocky rampart where a small burn tumbles down, an equally large wych elm Ulmus montana(photo 14).
It was at this point, just below the crags, that we had the first of two good views of a white-tailed eagle, close overhead. We then slid down the grassy slope and took ourselves over to a low cliff above the shore for a tea break. Further east, the almost vertical Fucoid Bed crags supported another huge spread of ramsons (photo 15) and below them the Pipe Rock plunged into the sea.
On Ian’s second visit to this area on 2nd August 1996, with Gordon Rothero, they had managed to crawl round the bottom of the sea-cliffs on boulders exposed at low tide. The purpose was to reach a tiny sliver of land, in an adjacent 2km square, which runs for some 30m up the burn forming the parish boundary, and from which they listed 90 species. Beyond that point the land is in the adjacent parish of Eddrachillis; here the cliffs drop vertically into the sea and are become quite impassable.
On the way back
Several brighter green grassy areas were visible along the shore-line as we looked from the crags back up the loch (photo 16). They are marked on Home’s estate map of 1774 as Unapool sheilings, and are a reminder of how important every scrap of good grazing was in those days, and probably as far back as the Iron Age. One small area, with cultivation cairns, also had a very isolated old rowan, which must have been planted there and cherished (photo 17). Just after starting back Gwen found lesser twayblade Neottia cordata in short heather Calluna vulgaris, an unusually open site for this tiny orchid (photo 18).
The shore-line at Bagh an Liath Bhaid had saltmarsh flat-sedge Blysmus rufus, not previously recorded from this part of the coast. After that last botanical highlight, we concentrated on finding our way through some rather unfriendly vegetation higher up the slope, thankfully picking up an old sheep track below Con a’Creag, which speeded up progress. Just off that hill, we had further excellent views of a white-tailed eagle (photo 19, flying away), which was being chivvied by two great black-backed gulls. From its white tail and yellow bill it was thought to be an almost mature 4thyear bird that has been frequenting the north coast of Assynt recently.
Other animal life seen en route included adult common heath and brown silver-lines moths, the cocoon of an emperor moth, a green-veined white, several red admirals, a four-spotted chaser dragonfly, a frog and the signs of fox, otter and wood mouse. Birds, apart from those already mentioned, were scarce, just common sandpiper, a distant cuckoo and stonechat.
It had been a good day, visiting a unique part of the Assynt landscape, in fine weather, with some small discoveries. But close-up views of white-tailed eagle were the icing on the cake.
Ian M. Evans and Gwen Richards