Exploring Quinag: on the quartzite
Large areas of two Cambrian sedimentary rocks cover the eastern flanks of Quinag, extending onto the summits of Spidean Coinich and Sail Gharbh – the Basal Quartzite and above it the Pipe Rock. Both are hard and whitish, tending to pinkish-purple in the Pipe Rock. Their colour indicates a lack of minerals other than the silica of which they are composed. As such, one might not expect them to support much in the way of biodiversity.
We were able to test this prediction during a visit, on 13th September 2021, to a low-lying area south of the main track up the hill (NC2227; map in photo 1), which is backed by the northern edge of the quartzite slope leading up to Spidean Coinich. Following a small tributary of the Allt Sgiathaig up the hill into our target square, we peeled off just before a small lochan to have our coffee on one of the odd peaty tumps, of unknown origin, often found on the quartzite (at about 280m). This tump was adorned, as often, with a fox scat and red grouse droppings.
We enjoyed a slow walk round the margins of the lochan, which was covered with vegetation back-lit by bright sunshine (photos 2-5), with emergent stems of bottle sedge Carex rostrata, many-stalked spike-rush Eleocharis multicaulis and bogbean Menyanthes trifoliata. There were also floating leaves of broad-leaved pondweed Potamogeton natans and floating bur-reed Sparganium angustifolium and the underwater ‘flue-brush’ stems of Nordic bladderwort Utricularia stygia, with winter buds forming at their ends (photo 6).
A sample of the bladderwort was collected for desmids. David Williamson later found in it examples of ten species, mostly ‘common’, but one, Euastrum divaricatum, ‘which is considered very rare in Europe’ (photo 7). There were also two dragonflies still active quite late in the season, single males of common hawker Aeshna juncea and black darter Sympetrum danae.
The lochan discharges into the tributary burn we had been following (photo 8), and we continued upstream towards some low quartzite crags. A pool in a broader section contained a mat of bright-green grassy vegetation which proved to be floating sweet-grass Glyceria fluitans (photo 9), usually a plant of richer habitats. On a previous visit, in 2008, we had found burrows and fresh dung of water voles in this section (see Postscript), and the presence of both may be connected.
Quartzite crags and scree
Not long afterwards the burn skirted the base of a quartzite crag (photo 10), where we found cloudberry Rubus chamaemorus, a good moorland species in Assynt. Despite their mineral-poverty, the long-exposed surfaces of the quartzite were almost completely covered with lichens. These must get most of their nutrients from rainwater (photo 11).
Skirting the boggy basin in which the burn originated, we found a dry area, with a good view north (photo 12), for lunch in the sun. Afterwards, we climbed up a rocky slope to some quartzite block boulder scree (photo 13), to see what it might be sheltering. The answer was very little new, apart from a few plants of the perennial fir clubmoss Huperzia selago (photo 14), and locally frequent cloudberry, whose leaves were changing into autumnal oranges and reds (photo 14). Close up, we were impressed by the power of the ice sheet that had fractured, detached and tumbled these massive boulders more than 10,000 years ago.
We then contoured cross country towards the path, noting the usual fox moth larvae and northern eggar cocoons. There was also some late-flowering cowberry Vaccinium vitis-idaea and a small stand of the elegant stems of wood horsetail Equisetum sylvaticum (photo 16), here, as often, a long way from woodland.
Loch and tump
Reaching the path, we turned east, but soon detoured towards the southern end of a rather dour loch (NC226279), devoid of any higher plants. The quartzite slabs which floored it were covered in places with dark squiggles which we took to be silken tubes housing midge larvae (photo 17).
Not far from its eastern edge was a moss-covered rocky tump with the usual red grouse droppings. We also found two merlin pellets (photo 18), one containing mainly ground beetle shards (probably Carabus glabratus), the other small bird bones (probably meadow pipit). There were scattered old bushes of prostrate juniper Juniperus communis nana nearby, a few meadow pipits flew over and we heard one wren.
Returning to the path, we walked back down it towards the road. A characteristic flora is found on the margins of such paths, consisting mainly of grassland species, introduced in the course of maintenance work and by the many booted feet which tramp along it each year.
Familiar examples were daisy Bellis perennis, ribwort plantain Plantago lanceolata, selfheal Prunella vulgaris, common ragwort Jacobaea vulgaris and dandelion Taraxacum spp. More surprisingly, we also noted some base-loving species such as glaucous sedge Carex flacca and fairy flax Linum catharticum. Although highly localised and obviously introduced by human activity, they do require listing and added to the list for NC2227 some 16 further species.
These ‘weeds’ apart, we had logged in some four hours 59 species of higher plants. The watercourse and small lochan had contributed nearly half of these, the scree just the cloudberry and fir clubmoss. Not a rich area, but a useful contribution to our knowledge of the hill, whilst providing us with a good day out in autumnal sunshine.
The Field Club held a joint meeting with the John Muir Trust in this area on 7th September 2008, led by Don O’Driscoll. Pam Mackenzie photographed those present (photo 19, left to right – Pat Evans, Gordon Sleight, Jan and Mark Snowdon, Denis Mollison, Ian Evans and Don O’Driscoll). Observations made on that occasion included: on the watercourse at NC226273, a fox scat, black darter and common hawker dragonflies and water vole burrows and dung; and elsewhere in NC2227, the larva of a broom moth, a wren in high heather and a hovering kestrel.
Ian M. Evans and Gwen Richards