A spring walk up the Traligill

June 16th 2022

A spring walk up the Traligill

Some days out have a primary purpose, but, this achieved, turn into a wander, enlivened by whatever turns up.  Such was our walk up the valley of the River Traligill behind Inchnadamph (NC2521/2621) on 2nd May 2022.  We had been asked by a lepidopterist to find an accessible stand of alpine meadow-rue Thalictrum alpinum, on whose leaves feed the caterpillars of a rare micro-moth.

This is a tiny plant of burnsides and stony flushes, frequent in limestone country, but so widespread locally that it was difficult to pin-point a particular site.  The mouth of the Allt na Glac Moire (photo 1, NC263214), a tributary of the Traligill, seemed a good place to start.

We were also introducing one of Ian’s nephews and his wife to the wilds of Assynt.  Access to this area involves a good mix of track, path and rough ground, and we set off from the car-park by the Hotel.  The track provided good views of Conival on the skyline, but little of particular interest until, just east of Glenbain cottage, we slanted down across an old sheepfold to the pole bridge crossing the Traligill (photo 2).  There were mole hills in the limestone grassland, the territory markers of fox scats on the path, and colourful well-grown caterpillars of drinker and garden tiger moths.  

During the April drought the Traligill had been reduced to a series of shallow pools.  We saw a frog at its edge, and also a small (9mm) metallic ground beetle found in damp places. This was the copper peacock Elaphrus cupreus, so-named from the shining purplish depressions in its elytra (photo 3).  A little further downstream, Ian’s nephew spotted a fresh badger dung-pit (photo 4), a first for him.

Allt na Glaic Mhoir

We arrived at the mouth of the burn just in time for lunch, a knack refined over many years of fieldwork.  Afterwards, our visitors left to find their way back to Lochinver for some shopping.  We started looking for the alpine meadow-rue.  Happily, there were good stands in a narrow band along the banks of the burn and around small islands in its course (photo 5). 

This is one of the daintiest of our native plants, with slender, wiry, creeping stems throwing up dark, shining, divided leaves and little-branched heads of flowers.  Each flower has four pale purplish perianth segments and up to 20 stamens with pale violet filaments and yellow anthers (photos 6-7).  

The gravelly tops of the islands also bore tiny (but nevertheless deer-grazed) fans of the scimitar-shaped leaves of a much rarer plant, the Scottish asphodel Tofieldia pusilla (photo 8).  This is known from only three localities in Assynt, two of them on the Allt na Glaic Moire.  It produces its greenish-white flowers a little later in the year (photo 9, taken on a Field Club meeting on 7th July 2019).

Scattered along the burn were bones from the skeleton of a long dead red deer.  Several of these had fallen into the water and one, a left metatarsal (we think) had been there long enough to acquire patches of a black lichen (photos 10-11).  This was later identified by Dr Tony Fletcher as Verrucaria aquatilis, typically found on submerged freshwater rocks, bone serving as a substitute in this case. 

On the way back

We then crossed the Traligill and walked back up to Glenbain to turn for home.  Not far from the cottage Gwen spotted two mistle thrushes, one above and one below the track.  She managed to get distant pictures of the latter (photo 12).  The fertile limestone soils must provide a good selection of the worms and molluscs which feature in their diet. 

We veered off the track as we approached the ‘Irish bridge’ over the Allt Poll an Droighinn, a major tributary of the Traligill, which drains the southern end of Beinn Uidhe.  The attraction was an isolated alder tree (photo 13), beside the ruins of a substantial building (NC25892192), one of several belonging to a former small farmstead dating back to the 18th century.  This tree is 120cm in diameter at its base (photo 14), one of the largest in the parish and of considerable age.  Close by is a large and equally isolated elder, a tree nearly always found locally in association with human habitation.  Both were probably planted; we wonder for what purpose.  

On the burn just below the farmstead is the remains of a watermill and not far to the east there is a large chambered cairn dating back to Neolithic times (3000-4000 BC).  All are reminders that fertile ground on the Inchnadamph limestones has been occupied, tilled and grazed for over 5000 years.  Assynt’s Hidden Lives: an archaeological survey of the parish (Cavers, G. and Hudson G., 2010) has further details.  

Wych Elms

Rejoining the track we spotted a large wych elm covered in fresh green young fruits (photo 15) on the course of the Allt Poll an Droighinn, one of a fair number around Inchnadamph.  Wych elms were first noted in this area by James Robertson, Assynt’s pioneering botanist, in his travels through the parish in 1767, ‘on precipices where there had never been plantations’, testifying to their native status.  

There are more wych elms along the walled gorge of the Traligill itself, not far away (photo 16), accompanied here by blackthorn, a rare shrub locally.  This escaped Robertson’s notice, and was not, in fact, recorded anywhere in the parish until over a century later, in 1886.  It may well have been planted hereabouts since, again, it rarely occurs in Assynt far from human habitation. 

Thanks to Gordon Sleight for background historical information. 

Ian M. Evans and Gwen Richards

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