Exploring Quinag: Lochan Bealach Cornaidh

December 30th 2022

Exploring Quinag: Lochan Bealach Cornaidh

In a previous article, we described a visit to the upper part of the Allt na Bradhan on 29th September 2022.  There was a good forecast for a month later, Saturday, 29th October, and we thought that we might round off the season’s fieldwork with a visit to the source of that burn, Lochan Bealach Cornaidh (map, photo 1). 

The lochan lies at an altitude of 420m in the east-facing corrie on Quinag, half a kilometre north of Spidean Coinich, which towers 344m above it.  Despite its name, it is quite a substantial body of water, 400m long, with a rocky shore except at the western end, where there is a sandy beach.  This suggests that it lies in a patch of glacial debris.  Shallow, and sparsely vegetated, it nevertheless harbours a population of brown trout that, given the right conditions, are readily caught.  

Although the highest of the lochs sampled by Gwen in 2010 for her Quinag Lochs ProjectA Study of Aquatic Invertebrate Communities (Richards, 2012), Lochan Bealach Cornaidh yielded the largest species list.  It also had the highest pH (7.2).  Her report is available on the Field Club web-site here. 

Up to and around the lochan

We left the carpark on the A894 at 1000hrs and, with the benefit of upgrades to the path (photo 2) carried out by the John Muir Trust in recent years, reached the eastern end of the lochan just over an hour later (photos 3-4).  A coffee break allowed us to make a preliminary list of the area around the exit of the Allt na Bradhan in 1km square NC2128, before starting work on our target square to its west NC2028, which includes the greater part of the lochan.

The only paths along the southern side of the lochan are those made by red deer (photo 5), and we made slow progress, scanning its margins and small flushes for recognisable foliage (it was too late in the year for any flowers).  The palmate leaves of alpine lady’s-mantle were conspicuous, less so the tiny biternate ones of alpine meadow-rue.  

One mossy flush had a good population of opposite-leaved golden-saxifrage, speckled with water droplets (photo 6), and not long after we found just one rosette of its relative mossy saxifrage (photo 7).  Some small heart-shaped yellowing leaves along the water’s edge had us puzzled for a while, until we realised they were those of marsh violet, which dies back in the autumn, unlike the winter-green leaves of its relative common dog-violet, which is less common so high on the hills.

Ferns were thin on the ground, but in one place, in the damp, shaded, boulder scree, we found the finely-divided, almost triangular fronds of a buckler-fern.  They were too pale and flat to be the usual broad-buckler-fern, and a specimen collected and later pressed (photo 8) proved to be northern buckler-fern, in what appears to be a new site for this montane species.  

We had lunch on a bank above the beach (photo 9), admiring patterns in the sand made by a small burn running down from Bealach a’Cornaidh above us, and more distant views, across a natural ‘infinity pool’, to the east (photo 10).  It was a short break, since the late October sun was out of sight behind Spidean Coinich and the air was distinctly chilly.      

A special crag

On the hill west of the beach there are a series of dark outcrops of Torridonian sandstones (photo 11), the lowest of which has water dripping water over some horizontal fissures and drier parts white with lichen (12).  We had our eyes on it because of the description of the area by R.E.C. Ferreira in the section on Quinag (site 7.3.4) in his masterly Vegetation Survey of West Sutherland (1995), ‘On crags situated on these slopes, there are narrow bands of calcareous sandstone where basiphilous vegetation has developed locally.  Polystichum lonchitis [holly fern] ocurs rarely in crevices here’.  

We struggled up to the crag through well-vegetated boulder scree, and did indeed find and photograph a good stand of the holly fern in the largest fissure (photos 13-14).  The surrounding area contained other base-loving species such as lesser club-moss, flea sedge, and wild thyme, but we were too late in the year to hope to find other specialities he mentions, such as alpine saw-wort and globeflower.  Holly fern is very uncommon in Assynt away from the limestone.

Members of the Field Club and the John Muir Trust had a joint excursion to this area, led by Don O’Driscoll, on 7th September 2008.  We noted that dwarf cornel was ‘frequent in heathery ground’ beside the lochan, and that ‘one plant was later found in fruit just below the crag with the holly fern’.  We did not see it, but thought that we might include Pam Mackenzie’s photograph, taken on that occasion, of the magnificent red fruits of this species (photo 15), which are rarely seen. 

Burn out of the bealach

Before leaving the crag, we took one last look across the whole of the lochan (photo 16).  We then clambered down to the edge of the loch, with some care, since tall heather concealed large holes between the boulders, and made our way north to the small burn that drains the Bealach a’Chornaidh. 

On the way we came across a single tussock of thrift or sea pink (photo 17).  Its pink flowers were long over, but the narrow bluish-green leaves gave it away.  This is one of a small number of species that inhabit montane and coastal habitats in Assynt but none in between; others are roseroot and sea campion.  We knew that it occurred on the highest parts of Quinag, but did not expect to find it at about 450m. 

Not far away we came across a cache of ‘grouse’ droppings (photo 18).  It is difficult to know whether they were from red grouse or ptarmigan, since no expert we have yet found can point to any distinguishing features.  Our knowledge of the distribution of the two species on Quinag is still very patchy, so that does not help.  Ptarmigan are often seen, and photographed, much higher on the hill, but perhaps they come down in the winter?

We had some expectations of the burn, Ian having logged water vole burrows at its bottom end (NC206281) on the visit in 2008.  However, the section we examined added nothing to the record, so we cut our losses and made our way over to the path, some 600m west from where had left it three hours before, and started our descent.  To our north reared up the highest point of Sail Gharbh, at 808m, with conspicuous erosion gullies (photo 19), and on the horizon to our south-east, Conival, Assynt’s highest point, at 987m (photo 20). 

Back down the path

There is not a lot to see along such a well-worn track, apart from a scatter of prostrate junipers, which appear to be widespread on the Torridonian sandstones, which here gently shelve down to the north-east.  We left the main target square (NC2028) after half an hour, but continued logging more prostrate junipers, some of considerable size and age, although all very flat to the ground, which may be due to exposure or browsing, or both.  Alongside one of them (at NC2102830), there was a small amount of mountain hare dung (photo 21), a useful record of this elusive mammal, which no-one has succeeded in photographing on Quinag, so far as we know. 

We arrived at the carpark after a splendid walk back in bright sunshine.  In some six hours on the hill (mostly in the shade), we had covered just over 6km between 250 and 460m.  The total number of species logged was modest, with 57 from the main square (NC2028) and 37 from that to its east (NC2128), but the day made a great finale to our season’s survey work. 

Ian M. Evans and Gwen Richards  

All photographs by the authors unless otherwise credited. 

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