Rhu Stoer: two beaches in February
Many of our recent contributions to the website have been catch-ups on our autumn exploration of Quinag. For a change, here is an account of a visit to two beaches on the Stoer peninsula on 12th February 2021, just before the end of the cold snap. It was brilliantly sunny, but with a bitterly cold east wind.
We drove to the Lighthouse car-park, noting on the way a common snipe, which flew out of a ditch at Raffin, and a snow bunting, which flew over the road nearer to the Lighthouse. We then walked across to the cliff-top above Geodh’Gainmhich (= sandy cove) at NC003325 (photo 1). At 0.8m, the tide was as low as it gets on this coast, and the beach, when we had scrambled down to it, was extensive.
Happily, the cliffs provided some shelter from the wind and we enjoyed hot drinks, looking out over rough seas brightly lit by the low sun (photo 2). Tide-lines here have produced, in the past, some unusual sea shells, but all we found at first were fragments. So we shifted our attention to rocks exposed low on the shore, where tiny flattened fronds of the fuzzy black lichen Lichina pygmaea inhabit crevices in the acorn barnacle zone (photo 3).
An unexplored cove
Down at the southern end of the beach the very low tide allowed us to reach a small cove which we had not previously explored. We had to clamber over wave-worn fine-grained sandstone bedrock (photo 4), greened-over in places by the lichen Verrucaria mucosa, which extends further down the shore than any others. Those with imagination will also be able to conjure up the head of a crocodile, with limpets for teeth. Grazing these rocks was a flat periwinkle Littorina fabalis, with its typical triangular tentacles (photo 5) and, curiously, tiny bits of other shells stuck to its own.
In the innermost part of the cove, water running down the cliff had frozen into icicles during the cold snap (photo 6). The ice reached down on to wave-washed sand, so the lowest parts must have formed during the previous few hours. Not far away, Gwen found a good specimen of the sunset shell Gari tellinella (photo 7); at 10mm, this is the smallest of four related species found around our coasts.
The rib of rock that separates the cove from the main beach is so narrow in places that a window has opened up (photo 8). The Torridonian sandstones here contain quartz veins that have, in the remote past, infiltrated the rocks at right angles to the bedding planes, giving them a pleasingly sculptural texture. This is all the more obvious just north of the rib, where a block has fallen onto the rocks below, the weathering of its faces since accelerated by the sea (photo 9).
On our way off the beach we noticed some patches of colour at the base of a grassy south-facing cliff in the north-east corner of the bay (photo 10). Water emerging from fissures in the sandstone had been stained reddish-brown by ‘iron bacteria’, which get their energy by oxidising dissolved ferrous iron, creating an insoluble gelatinous slime (photo 11). Nearby, the succulent leaves of scurvygrass Cochlearia officinalis provided a contrasting bright green. More surprising, however, were some dots of pale yellow much higher on the cliff, identified through binoculars as our first flowers of the season, very early primroses Primula vulgaris.
Climbing back up the cliff we returned to the car to warm our fingers and toes, and then drove down to the southern end of Balchladich Bay (NC027304). There we had a leisurely lunch, with good views over the largest spread of sand we had ever seen on this beach (photo 12), with the wind whipping the top off some vigorous surf (photo 13). We also had a fleeting glimpse of a single redwing prospecting sandy grassland on the roadside.
After lunch we made our way across shingle heaped with kelp down on to the beach. Loafing, or running along the water’s edge, were a small collection of larger birds including oystercatchers, common, herring and great black-backed gulls, as well as a couple of rock pipits, which flew over to exposed rocks.
What caught Gwen’s eye, however, were four medium-sized birds, with shortish legs and bills and ‘bullet-shaped’ heads, silhouetted on the tide-line (photo 14). Happily they flew round behind us and we were able to take some closer, albeit hand-held, pictures in direct sunshine (photo 15). Their gold-flecked plumage and a peeping cry identified them as golden plover, quite the best find of the day. David Haines thought that they were probably on passage, rather than returning to local nesting sites.
After this excitement, we worked north along the beach, crossing the neat tracks of one of the golden plovers (photo 16). We paddled through the exit burn from Loch na Claise to the northern end of the Bay, where there is a fine assemblage of large, smooth boulders, of a variety of rock types (photo 17), presumably derived from the glacial debris that covers much of the Stoer Peninsula. The reddish ones of Torridonian sandstone may well be local in origin, but the greyish, banded ones of Lewisian gneiss have come from further afield and very occasional ones of pale-grey limestone much further still.
Although originally transported in the ice sheets that once covered this landscape, their final tumble-polishing has been carried out by sand and stones moved by the ferocious waves which can batter this west-facing coast, over the intervening 10,000 years.
After a last, lingering, look at the beach (photo 18), we rounded off our Rhu Stoer: two beaches visit with a welcome and socially-distanced conversation with two local members of the Field Club. On our way out we had a brief view, just north of Tigh Ban, of a lapwing, presumably just back on its breeding grounds west of Loch na Claise
Ian M. Evans and Gwen Richard
Denis Mollison has kindly sent this further photograph of Geodh’Gainmhich (photo 19), looking north, on 6th October 2020. It was taken on an even lower tide than we had on 12th February, with an extensive area of boulder beach. There is also much less sand, emphasising the changeable nature of these west coast beaches.
Ian M. Evans