Achadh Mor Lagg: unfamiliar ground
On 13th April 2021 we thought we might explore some of the land behind Lagg on the coast road between Clashnessie and Oldany (NC0930-0931). Ian had last visited the area back in 1990, early in the survey for the Flora of Assynt, but his memories were vague, Gwen never before. We reached the area, by prior arrangement, along the south-western side of Lochan Fearna, which is now a trout fishery.
Our first stop was on a gneiss outcrop with a clump of bearberry, looking out over boggy ground (NC090306). Soon afterwards we picked up the headwaters of a small burn (photo 1) which flows north-east down into Loch an Achaidh Mhoir. This took us to the western edge of the large sheiling Achadh Mor, from which the area gets its name.
An old rowan
At the southern end of the sheiling a huge old rowan (photos 2-3) springs out of a gneiss crag (NC092308). Given a dearth of trees in the immediate landscape, this one may have had some special significance, as did those often found near old house sites. Be that as it may, its branches were thickly coated with lichens, and a small sample of dead twigs was collected for further investigation.
This sample proved very productive, since on it Tony Fletcher identified the following 17 species: Bacidea naegelii, Caloplaca ferruginea (photo 4), Evernia prunastri, Graphis scripta, Lecanora chlarotera, Lecanora carpinea*, Lecidella elaeochroma, Lobaria pulmonaria, Melanohelia exasperata*, Melanelixia subaurifera, Pannaria rubiginea, Parmelia sulcata, Physcia aipolia (photo 5), Physcia leptalea (photo 6), Ramalina farinacea, Ramalina fastigiata, Rinodina roboris. Those asterixed are ‘unusual’ in Assynt. Tony also found, on the M. subaurifera, a lichenicolous (parasitic) ascomycete fungus, Abrothallus parmeliarum, which may be ‘new’ to Assynt. He suggested that detailed examination of the trunk of the tree might well provide even more species.
Gwen noticed, low on the trunk of the rowan, a small orange gill fungus (photo 7). This seemed to us an unusual habitat, so it was photographed and sampled for later naming by Bruce Ing. Lunch was taken beneath the tree, in bright sunshine, with a background of meadow pipits in song flight and a concealed but very audible wren (the only passerines noted all day, although there had been a skein of about 50 pink-footed geese over earlier).
The sheiling grassland was starred with the bright yellow flowers of lesser celandine. Also obvious were the finely-divided young leaves of pignut; its underground tubers are probably the reason for badger snuffle holes seen here and elsewhere on the sheiling. Not far away there is a record, from 5th June 1990, of a small stand of adder’s-tongue fern Ophioglossum vulgatum. Since this is the only precisely-localised higher plant noted for the area, the sheiling may well be worth another visit later in the year.
Loch an Achaidh Mhoir
After lunch, we dropped down to edge of the loch and followed obvious deer paths around its boggy eastern margins. A vertical crag dropping off into deep water (photo 8) afforded protection from such browsers (and possibly fire) for a small patch of ancient aspen (photo 9) and a single holly. The dried-up bottom of an adjacent mire pool (NC094309) was criss-crossed by the rhizomes of bogbean (photo 10), exposed by the prolonged period of drought. A potential desmid sample was collected from one of the wetter parts of the pool.
On a gneiss outcrop a little further on (NC094310) there were the shining leathery leaves of more bearberry, just coming into flower (photo 11), and a few small plants of prostrate juniper. Both are very sensitive to burning and hence scarce in parts of Assynt.
We then made our way across to a bay on the western bank of Loch Poll, which is furnished with large old downy birches, out of which we scared three wood pigeons (infrequent in this generally open landscape), and gave us fine views of the snow-covered ridge of Quinag (photo 12). There was a frog in the heather nearby.
Turning back, we struggled through tall heather above Loch an Achaidh Mhoir until we crossed the substantial boundary dyke of the sheiling (photo 13). Our last stop was to take a look at an old sheep fank built up against a crag (photo 14); we wonder when it was built and how long since it was last used? A short tea break, and then up the hill and back across boggy ground to the road. It had been a pleasant day out in the sun, over spacious terrain, with splendid views and some localised natural history interest, in a former agricultural landscape that is now reverting to a ‘wilder’ state.
Achadh Mor is listed in John Home’s Survey of Assynt of 1774 (Adam, 1960) as one of many ‘sheelings’ in the large ‘Farm of Oldernay’ (more than 3211acres), which ‘is held in repute to be the most commodious on the Assint Estate, and is so in the Surveyor’s opinion, as it excels almost all the other coasting Farms, both in the quality and extent of the Grass and Pastures’, but also because ‘The large tracts of natural Woods upon it add greatly to its value for grazing by breeding young Cattle and sheltering them in Winter’.
It is specifically ‘Sheeling 5’, which ‘Lies between the Edge of a small Loch and ‘twixt the last and Loch Poule’, with an area of 5 acres, 2 roods and 1 fall. The construction of its impressive boundary dykes involved a very considerable investment of effort in the days of shovels, barrows, horses and carts, emphasising the former importance of the site in the local economy.
Ian M. Evans and Gwen Richards