Exploring Quinag: Allt na Claise
The Allt na Claise flows north-west, from high ground below Sail Ghorm on Quinag (NC1831) to the south-eastern corner of Loch Ardbhair (NC1732), a distance of some 2.5 km (O.S. map, photo 1). The lower part of the burn is on Ardvar ground, the upper part on the Quinag estate. This is an area that neither of us had visited in over two decades. November is getting a bit late in the year for survey work, but we decided nevertheless to see what we could find there on 4th.
We left the car, by prior arrangement, just inside the entrance of the private road to Ardvar. Here we were interested to re-find, on a peaty bank beside the parking area, some small plants of salad burnet Poterium sanguisorba ssp. sanguisorba (formerly Sanguisorba minor), where it was first discovered back in 1997 (photo 2). It was thought to have been introduced accidentally, perhaps on machinery, and has persisted. There are no records of its occurrence as a native in Scotland north of the Central Belt, but there is a thin scatter of supposed introductions further north, including one, at some time prior to 1970, in the Lochinver area (NC02).
Up the burn
Crossing the burn by the narrow bridge on the coast road, we made our way across rough ground to the old fence bounding the Quinag estate, on the far side of a boggy area (photo 3, NC180319), where we started recording. The winding course of the burn (photo 4) had the usual scraps of grassland along its well-drained banks, yielding species such as bird’s-foot trefoil Lotus corniculatus and wild thyme Thymus polytrichus, with the bonus, in one place, of yellow saxifrage Saxifraga aizoides.
The presence of this last indicated some degree of base-flushing from the underlying Lewisian gneiss. This was confirmed, a little higher up the valley, by the presence of the archetypal indicator species black bog-rush Schoenus nigricans. It was accompanied by the ‘usual suspects’, such as dioecious and tawny sedges Carex dioica and C. hostiana.
There was also the hybrid Carex x fulva, between tawny sedge and common yellow sedge C. demissa. Hybrid sedges are usually a matter for the expert, but this one is not infrequent in Assynt and may be recognised by its pale, tapered, female spikes, which flatten when squeezed, indicating that none of the seeds have set.
We had lunch hunkered down out of a rather chilly wind, and then continued up the valley. Near a small waterfall, we spotted a wren bobbing about, the only small bird seen all day. Soon afterwards, we were surprised to find, under a thatch of heather on the peaty top of a tump, an adult toad ensconced in a tight hollow (photo 5). This was possibly its hibernation site, so we quickly covered it up again. As always in such landscapes, it is interesting to speculate where the nearest spawning site for this species might be, possibly Lochan na Saile, over a kilometre to the east.
Crags and scree
We then left the burn to explore some crags on its south side, with mossy boulder scree below (photo 6). There was a solitary mature holly high on the crag (NC184316), protected from browsing by its inaccessibility. Damp shady areas nearby added species such as meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria, water avens Geum rivale and primrose Primula vulgaris. One primrose leaf had been conspicuously mined by the larvae of the agromyzid fly Chromatomyia primulae (photo 7). This is not an unfamiliar sight locally, but NBN has no records from West Sutherland, so we shall remember to log it in the future.
A little further up the burn (NC186316) we came across, on its south-western side, a grassy hollow sheltered by crags (photo 9). The grassland contained species such as sweet vernal-grass Anthoxanthum odoratum and common sorrel Rumex acetosa indicating an enhanced degree of fertility.
There were also, within 50m of one another, the ruins of five former huts or shelters (photo 9). John Home’s Survey of Assynt, 1774, summarised in Adams (1960, pp.6-7), records this area, under ‘Ardvare Farmsteading’, as ‘Clash a poor Sheeling where three Burns unite in the southmost Den’, with an area of three falls (40 falls to a rood, 4 roods to a Scots acre). Despite Home’s description, the remains of so many buildings suggest that this area was a valued base for the summer grazing of livestock in the 18th century and before, although to any modern farmer it might seem desperately marginal.
The hollow was backed by a vertical crag bearing, out of reach of browsers, an old hazel and a rowan. It provided other additions to the list for the day, including alpine lady’s-mantle Alchemilla alpina, the trailing stems of stone bramble Rubus saxatilis, and the small stripy larva of a heath rustic moth (photo 10).
We had a leisurely tea break with our backs to the crag, looking down the valley to the waters of Eddrachillis Bay in the distance (photo 11). The remains of one of the huts, just below the crag, contained a large clump of soft rush Juncus effusus, in which we found ample evidence of field voles, in the form of chopped stems and dung (photo 12). Although this rodent is almost certainly widespread in such landscapes, checking rush clumps is a good way of confirming its presence.
A small waterfall on the burn adjacent to the sheiling (photo 13) did not yield anything new. So, bearing in mind the shortness of days in November, approaching clouds, and the general principle of quitting while you are ahead, we started on our way back to the road, which took us an hour.
In the four hours spent in the area, we logged the respectable total of 86 species of higher plants. Birds were scarce, although we did have a distant view, on the way up, of two ravens on the horizon, harassing something much larger; their quarry must have been an eagle, either golden or white-tailed, since both occur in the area. Most interesting, perhaps, was coming across the old sheiling, reminding us that two centuries or more ago this was a working landscape of a different kind.
Ian M. Evans and Gwen Richards
Adam, R.J. (ed., 1960). John Home’s Survey of Assynt. University of Edinburgh