Exploring Quinag: Allt na Bradhan
The forecast for 15th October 2020 promised sunshine, but the day dawned very cloudy, with a noticeable chill in the air. We were reluctant to abandon our intended target square on Quinag, so we went for it. It was NC2228, on the west side of the quartzite ridge of Druim na h-Uamha Moire, with the lower reaches of the Allt na Bradhan (photo 1). Both Gaelic names pose questions. Claire Belshaw tells us that the former translates as the ridge of the big cave, but where is the cave? The latter may be a form of the word for a quern; does that relate to the loch which it drains?
As it turned out, the day was both enjoyable and productive, despite a very slippery landscape resulting from recent rains. We made for a large lochan 100m north of the main path up Quinag (at NC226279), pausing on our way to inspect a mossy tump on the quartzite bedrock (photo 2). This bore several small bird of prey pellets, presumably merlin (photo 3), since what we had taken, at first sight, to be the tail of a field vole, was in fact the rolled-up feathers of a small passerine, probably a meadow pipit. At the edge of the tump there was a small prostrate juniper Juniperus communis nana, one of a number we came across during the day.
In a shallow bog pool nearby were the pinkish-buff fruiting bodies of some funnel-shaped jelly fungi, submerged by the rain (photo 4). These were later identified by Bruce Ing as the ascomycete bog jellydisc Ascocoryne turficola, which he described as ‘a really good record’. The only other place in West Sutherland where it appears to have been noted is beside Loch Caorach, east of Strath Halladale (NC9158/9159).
Lochan and wet heath
We started our recording proper at the north-eastern end of the lochan (NC227280). It is shallow, floored with angular white rocks derived from the surrounding quartzite, presumably mineral-deficient and, not surprisingly, devoid of higher plants. In fact the only plants visible were a fuzz of tiny algae covering some of the rocks, which must have been getting their nutrients from deer dung, since a prominent red deer track runs along the edge of the lochan.
A small handful of species dominate the seasonally-colourful wet heath, on thin peat, that vegetates the quartzite ridge and much of the surrounding area, between the many rock outcrops. They include deer-grass Trichophorum germanicum, purple moor-grass Molinia caerulea and bog asphodel Narthecium ossifragum, with scattered plants of heather Calluna vulgaris and cross-leaved heath Erica tetralix. Having ticked these off, and admired the variety of colourful bog-mosses Sphagnum spp., we took a morning break at the edge of the lochan, watched from a distance by two ravens. They seemed to be observing us for the rest of the morning, ‘checking that we are still alive’, as one of us put it.
Down the side of the ridge
We walked over to the edge of the ridge, for a view over the main part of the target square, way below us (photo 5), and then made for a break in the vertical crags which form its north-western edge. Descending, with some care on the wet ground, to the foot of the crags, we came across old red deer dung, sprouting fruiting examples of the dung roundhead gill fungus Stropharia semiglobata (photo 6). The pellets were greened over in places with the broad leaves of round-fruited collar-moss Splachnum sphaericum, which is specific to herbivore dung in damp heathy areas.
The wet slopes, with denser heather in places, were home to a variety of other bryophytes, including reddish patches of a particularly ‘juicy’ liverwort, purple spoonwort Pleurozia purpurea (photo 7). A colourful component of the ‘northern hepatic mat’ community in the North-West Highlands, it is absent from England and Wales, but found elsewhere in the world as far afield as Alaska and the Himalayas.
Reaching a more level area (NC227282), at an altitude of about 270m (900ft), we had a fleeting glimpse of a mountain hare, which raced away up the hill. It was still in greyish summer pelage and the first that either of us had seen for a while. Dropping down again we came across a few leaves of cloudberry Rubus chamaemorus nestling in moss amongst the heather.
At the foot of the crags
Lunch was taken at the foot of the quartzite crags (NC228283), looking west across to the ramparts of Sail Gharbh (photo 8), and north to Ben Stack and Foinaven on the distant horizon. Quartzite has a well-deserved reputation for dourness, but its vertical surfaces were nevertheless completely covered with crustose lichens. Amongst a restricted range of species, and colours, the most conspicuous were patches of the yellow and black map lichen Rhizocarpon geographicum. However, a small area of the crags was plastered with a luxuriant growth of the fruticose species sea ivory Ramalina siliquosa, usually found on the sea shore, but also on inland crags exposed to salt-laden westerly winds.
A deer ked landed on one of us whilst we were enjoying our sandwiches (photo 9). This hippoboscid or flat fly Lipoptena cervi is an external parasite of the red deer, with strong hooked tarsi which allow it to hang on to its host. Both sexes have wings, which enable them to reach their host (or other warm-blooded vertebrates), but they then shed their wings. They are difficult to dislodge or squash, scuttle sideways to avoid capture, and are not popular amongst hill-walkers.
After lunch, we worked our way north along the foot of the crags as far as the junction between the quartzites and the Torridonian sandstones on which they rest (photo 10). The half-a-billion-year gap of this unconformity never fails to impress, the change in rock type being signalled by a sudden increase in diversity of the lichen cover on the sandstones. In this instance it was accentuated by a feathery cushion of two of the larger Cladonia species, with prostrate juniper growing through them.
Lochan and pools
We then dropped down a further slippery slope to flatter ground on the Torridonian sandstones and made our way across to a large rectangular lochan (photo 11). This waterbody (NC227283) provided our first aquatic higher plant, the massed bootlace-like leaves of floating bur-reed Sparganium angustifolium, whose spiky fruits poke up through the surface of the water (photos 12 and 13) . A shallow bay at the southern end was covered with the leaves of bog-bean Menyanthes trifoliata, but the only other aquatics were some stringy stems of a form of bulbous rush Juncus bulbosus aquaticus and the almost ubiquitous common cottongrass Eriophorum angustifolium.
Leaving the lochan we continued westwards, weaving our way between shallow pools on the sandstone pavement. At the edge of one pool Gwen spotted, on an emergent stem, what appeared to be the shed skin or exuvia of a dragonfly nymph. On closer inspection it was revealed as an adult common hawker Aeshna juncea just about to emerge (photo 14). She managed to photograph it before, perhaps sensing her attention, it dropped back into the water. We did wonder how it would fare, emerging so late in the year.
Allt na Bradhan
About 100m further on we finally reached the course of the Allt na Bradhan (NC225284). The burn was substantial and flowing fast (photo 16, looking downstream), not surprising since it emanates from the large Lochan Bealach Cornaidh at the foot of Spidean Coinich, about 1.5km upstream. As is often the case, the well-drained banks of the burn were occupied by narrow strips of grassland. Research by Professor Xavier Lambin and colleagues at Aberdeen University has revealed that the fertility of this grassland is enhanced by the populations of water voles that inhabit the banks.
The grassland contained a number of species commonplace elsewhere but not seen before on that day, such as ribwort plantain Plantago lanceolata, meadow buttercup Ranunculus acris and autumn hawkbit Scorzoneroides autumnalis. The watercourse itself had bright green mats of an elegant aquatic, intermediate water starwort Callitriche brutia, which has long leaves with spanner-like tips.
A short distance upstream we left the main course of the burn, following a small eastern tributary, just after a wren had exploded out of high heather. The attraction of this tributary was the series of ‘deer lawns’ alongside it, which we could see from a distance (NC224283). They are areas of close-grazed grassland (photo 16), with a wealth of additional species. These included daisy Bellis perennis, creeping buttercup Ranunculus repens, common sorrel Rumex acetosa and wild thyme Thymus polytrichus. Evidence of their enhanced fertility was also provided by small bright-red waxcap fungi Hygrocybe sp. and a black earthtongue fungus named later by Bruce Ing as the plain earthtongue Geoglossum umbratile (photo 17). This is a widespread species of upland grasslands, appearing in autumn, but does not appear to have been previously recorded from Assynt.
In a couple of areas the lawns broadened out and on their edges were the remains of stone structures (NC223283), presumably the bases of shelters for those tending livestock once driven up to these high grasslands (photo 18). They constituted the only signs of human use of the landscape that we saw all day, once we were off the well-made path up the hill.
Above the lawns, the course of the small tributary became quite ravine-like. We had a tea break by its side, amongst scattered plants of cowberry Vaccinium vitis-idaea, a few, unexpectedly, still in flower (photo 19). In shady areas alongside the watercourse, which disappeared underground in places, were other ‘novelties’ such as bitter-vetch Lathyrus linifolius and wood-sorrel Oxalis acetosella.
Tucked down in one shady hole (NC223282) was a substantial moss cushion with a darker plant woven through it, a compact form of Wilson’s filmy-fern Hymenophyllum wilsonii (photo 20). The origins of this tributary were in bouldery hollows with high heather covering deep crevices, not a place into which to venture towards the end of quite a long day. We did spot, from a safe distance, a few fronds of beech fern Phegopteris connectilis beneath a large boulder.
Back to the path
Having left the burn behind us, we struck uphill towards the path. Here we chanced upon evidence of two of the herbivores, other than red deer, found in this landscape, the rounded golden droppings of mountain hare (photo 21) and the cylindrical ones of what we presumed were red grouse (although possibly ptarmigan, something to check in future), which we had been seeing all day. More surprising was a tiny seedling of downy birch (photo 22), a fair distance from any source of seed (NC222281). This was the only tree seen all day, except for some scraggy rowans on the quartzite crags, with a few seedlings at their foot. How long the birch seedling escapes browsing is another matter.
Other life encountered during the day was sparse, not so surprising given the time of year. There were the usual empty cocoons of emperor and northern eggar moths and water crickets Velia sp. on lochans and burn pools. There was, of course a wealth of lichens and bryophytes, but they require, for the most part, specialist expertise. We did not see a single frog, and only one other species of bird, a pair of stonechats, near the start of the path.
The higher plant list, for the five hours we spent on the hill, amounted to 62 species, rather more than we expected, given the nature of the wet heath which covers much of the area. Any deficiencies in this regard were well matched by the rewards of a leisurely look at crags, lochans, pools and burnsides, discovery of the deer lawns and, of course, a close encounter with a mountain hare.
Ian M. Evans and Gwen Richards