Bad a’Bhainne, Lochinver
One of the delights of the western parts of Assynt, for naturalists, is the ‘rumpled’ nature of the landscape, with literally hundreds of lochs, connected by small burns in valleys bounded by wooded crags, alternating with low hills. There are distant views of bigger hills, but no broad vistas, just delightful surprises when you crest a ridge and drop down into a valley. This is ‘cnoc and lochan’ landscape, underlain by Lewisian gneiss criss-crossed by volcanic dykes, and gouged out along lines of weakness during the last Ice Age.
Such is the ground north of the junction between the coast road and the A837, just outside of Lochinver (NC1024), which we explored on 4th June 2021 (map, photo 1). It is part of the former farm of Inver, once intensively managed, with patches of grassland, old peat banks and extensive ‘lazy beds’, now just grazed by deer (aerial, photo 2).
Starting at the road junction, we zigzagged our way north across heathery ridges until Loch Sloc a’Bhuilg (= loch of the hollow of the bubbles?) came into sight (photo 3) and we could start recording. North-west of the loch is a narrow valley with lines of crags on both sides, which narrows into birch woodland. In open areas, argent and sable moths were flying, together with common heaths, brown silver-lines and two damselflies, the large red Pyrrhosoma nymphula and common blue Enallagma cyathigerum.
The shaded southern side was very mossy and rather dour, but we did find one clump of the uncommon hay-scented buckler-fern Dryopteris aemula, with its typically crisped fronds, and Wilson’s filmy-fern Hymenophyllum wilsonii creeping through the mosses.
On the northern side of the valley, the flora began to diversify, with masses of primroses Primula vulgaris at the bottom of heathery slopes rising to the crags of a mafic dyke (one of many dykes in this area). We lunched beside the crags with views down to the small Loch Doire nam Muc (= loch of the pig’s wood, photo 4), entertained by a noisy cuckoo in the woodland across the valley, accompanied by chaffinch and willow warbler.
Retracing our steps eastward along the crags took us to an area of huge boulders (photo 5), sheltering some large rowans, a holly and a few spindly aspens, with mats of bearberry Arctostaphylus uva-ursi high up, and beech fern Phegopteris connectilis tucked in to the scree lower down.
Down to the loch
Dropping down to the loch, we added the usual aquatic plants and two more dragonflies, four-spotted chaser Libellula quadrimaculata and a couple of recently emerged golden-ringed dragonflies Cordulegaster boltonii (photo 6).
At the eastern end of the loch there is a small islet covered with vegetation (photos 7-8), out of reach of both larger herbivores and fire. At one end, amongst rowan and downy birch, there was a tree with larger shiny leaves, a solitary alder, once a rare tree in Assynt, and nearby a large stand of royal fern Osmunda regalis, with fresh green fronds rising from last year’s growth (photo 9).
Leaving the loch, we followed its exit burn down to the north (photo 10), which brought into sight the broader valley of Bad a’Bhainne (= place of the milk/cows?), where this burn joins another from the north–east to form one of main feeders of the Manse Loch. There is a substantial area of grassland lying on sandy soils above the confluence and on aerial photographs it is seen to be surrounded by a substantial dyke (photo 11). This area is, unusually, missing from John Home’s inventory and map of 1774, but it would appear to have been a shieling ground where milking cows were summered.
The grassland provided a pleasant spot for a tea break, looking out over the valley below (photo 12) and, afterwards, a number of plants not previously noted, such as yarrow Achillea millefolium, pignut Conopodium majus, wild thyme Thymus polytrichus, white clover Trifolium repens and a variety of grasses. All are widespread species, but good indicators, in this moorland landscape, of richer ground, probably because of underlying glacial till.
There were also small heath butterflies flying in some numbers and early stages of the meadow grasshopper Chorthippus parallelus (the only true grasshopper that occurs locally). We had a look for pyramidal bugle Ajuga pyramidalis in scree on the northern edge of the valley, and found a few rosettes. It was first noted here on 26th July 1992, when 500+ plants were counted in an area that had been ‘extensively burned’; this species is apparently subject to great fluctuations in numbers.
We then took a closer look at the burn and associated boggy areas (photo 13). The burn was deep enough for white water-lily Nymphaea alba and Nordic bladderwort Utricularia stygia, and two characteristic sedges were found in the boggy areas, slender sedge Carex lasiocarpa with its whip-like leaves and bog-sedge C. limosa with its sprawling heftier ones. A patch of bog-bean Menyanthes trifoliata in the burn had a colourful small moth feeding on the flowers, the beautiful yellow underwing (photo 14).
The valley narrows at its western end, before dropping down to Manse Loch. There are well-wooded crags on the southern side, which we did not have time to visit on this occasion, but will repay further attention. On a sandy hillock at this end there were two large holes and an apron of excavated soil indicating a badger sett (photo 15), apparently unoccupied.
We then retraced our steps to the grassland, where we found a further one-hole badger sett, again unoccupied. What we took to be mining bees had been excavating their nest holes in the soil dug out from that sett (photo 16). Starting back up the hill along the almost dry exit burn from Loch Sloc a’Bhuilg, we came across otter spraints, which we had missed on the way down.
Other animal life noted included the click beetle Ctenicera cupreus, the almost ubiquitous caterpillars of northern eggar and drinker moths and several frogs. In over five hours we had explored just a quarter of the 1 km square NC1024, finding a loch we had never seen before, a shieling not on the definitive map and 125 species of higher plants. We shall go back some time to explore more of the area.
Ian M.Evans and Gwen Richards