Exploring Quinag: Poll a’Ghamhna

July 20th 2023

Exploring Quinag: Poll a’Ghamhna

Saturday 8th July was forecast as the hottest day of 2023 that far.  The temperature did indeed rise to the mid-twenties, tempered, thankfully, by a brisk easterly wind.  We had planned to visit one of our remaining target 1km squares on Quinag, and had in mind a longish trek up Gleann Leireag.  That did not look an inviting prospect, so we opted for another site much closer to the road.  This was Poll a’Ghamhna (hollow of the steer/stirk according to Gemma Smith, or possibly the wet miry meadow of the same, according to Dwelly), the bay at the mouth of the Allt a’Ghamhna (NC2032; map, photo 1).

We parked north-east of the waterfall (NC214321) and walked west along the road to a point, at the end of a barrier (NC208325), where there is a steep path down through woodland to the shore.  Fording the river, fortunately quite low, we dropped our rucksacks by an old wall at the edge of the bay and contemplated this delightful area with hot drinks in hand (photo 2). 

Green-veined whites were flying nearby, as was a silver Y moth.  At the edge of the bracken which covers much of the area there was a group of pale buff gill fungi, with tiny insects running through their gills (photos 3-4).  We are unable at present to put a name to the fungus, and close examination of Gwen’s photos has revealed that the insects were minute rove beetles (photo 5).  They are members of the family Staphylinidae, of which there are at least 1129 British species.  The smallest, such as these, are only identifiable by a handful of expert coleopterists, so we can only wonder what their role may be in the local ecosystem.  

Shoreline

The sheltered shore of the bay carries the only substantial area of saltmarsh on the Quinag property (photo 6), though there is a small amount on their recently acquired land at Kylesku.   This community contained most of the predictable species, with a short sward of red fescue Festuca rubra, sea plantain Plantago maritima, sea milkwort Glaux maritima and thrift Armeria maritima. Its seaward edges were fringed by creeping bent Agrostis stolonifera and common saltmarsh-grass Puccinellia maritima.  In muddy areas nearby there were patches of saltmarsh rush Juncus gerardii and, in more stony ones, the shiny heart-shaped leaves of scurvygrass Cochlearia officinalis. 

A little further up the shore there was a drift-line of washed-up wrack, marked out by the yellow flowers of silverweed Potentilla anserina, tight rosettes of buck’s-horn plantain Plantago coronopus and sprawling pale-green plants of chickweed Stellaria media and cleavers Galium aparine.  The last two are common ‘weeds’ of cultivated ground, but here occur in their natural habitat. 

We were more surprised to find, above the drift-line, a patch of disturbed ground, with broad-leaved plantain Plantago major.  This is normally found on roadsides and in other well-trodden places.  However, the area may be trampled from time to time by workers from the offshore salmon pens, accessing four large pipes collecting freshwater from the Allt a’Ghamhna.

A less ‘weedy’ discovery, along the upper edge of the shoreline, was skullcap Scutellaria galericulata, with its delightful blue paired flowers (photo 7), an exclusively coastal plant in Assynt.   Nearby were some tiny long-stalked gill fungi, almost certainly examples of the collared parachute Marasmius rotula (photos 8-9). 

Species-rich wet grassland

Back from the shore, above the remains of an old wall that extends the whole length of the bay, there is an area of species-rich wet grassland.  This is, presumably, on fertile ground that was once cultivated.  It appeared to be slightly base-rich, and contained a wide variety of sedges Carex spp., including carnation C. panicea, common C. nigra, common yellow C. demissa, flea C. pulicaris, glaucous C. flacca, oval C. leporina, pale C. pallescens, and star C. echinata.  

More colourful components of the grassland included meadow buttercup Ranunculus acris, meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria, northern marsh-orchid Dactylorhiza purpurella, self-heal Prunella vulgaris and sneezewort Achillea ptarmica, with more hints of base-richness in the form of fairy flax Linum catharticum.  Wet channels, perhaps on the line of former drains, contained creeping forget-me-not Myosotis secunda, lesser spearwort Ranunculus flammula, marsh marigold Caltha palustris and marsh thistle Cirsium palustre.  

There was also a sprinkling of heathy species such as bog asphodel Narthecium ossifragum, cross-leaved heath Erica tetralix, ling Calluna vulgaris and round-leaved sundew Drosera rotundifolia.  

Northern end of the bay

In the first hour or so we had recorded, from an area of little over 100 x 10 metres, some 75 species of higher plants.   We then took ourselves off to the foot of a ridge of rock at the northern end of the bay for our lunch.  Here we added species such as bird’s-foot trefoil Lotus corniculatus in drier grassland, and heath bedstraw Galium saxatile and English stonecrop Sedum anglicum on rocky areas.  A common carder bee Bombus pascuorum was nectaring nearby. 

From this spot we watched both common and grey seals, presumably attracted to the area by the salmon pens.  One of the greys was ‘bottling’ and so motionless that we at first took it to be an odd kind of buoy, until the use of our binoculars revealed downwardly-pointing whiskers.

Woodland

After lunch we briefly explored the woodland on the northern side of the rocky ridge (NC209327), which extends right down to high water mark.  It was dominated by downy birch Betula pubescens, with occasional rowans Sorbus aucuparia and seedling hazels Corylus avellana.  The last is good evidence of natural tree regeneration, despite signs of the presence of red deer.  

A sunny glade in the woodland supported a large population of delicate plants of upland enchanter’s-nightshade Circaea x intermedia (photo 10) and in a small burn we found the round, toothed, leaves of water avens Geum rivale.  Magpie moths were flying nearby. 

Above the glade, boulder scree extends up to a gneiss crag (photo 11), which enabled us to add a few ferns to the list for the day (other than the rampageous bracken), including black spleenwort Asplenium adiantum-nigrum in a shady crevice.  

Back along the shore to the river

North of this point the woodland extends down to the sea over more well-vegetated large boulder scree. This is difficult ground which we were not tempted to explore, so we retraced our steps along the shoreline (photo 12).  We added sea arrowgrass Triglochin maritima and small-fruited yellow-sedge Carex viridula to the complement of saltmarsh species, and caught a glimpse of a common lizard scuttling through shoreline rocks. 

We took a further look at the species-rich grassland, where dark-green fritillaries were flying, our first sighting of the year.  Gwen fought her way through high bracken up to the edge of the wooded slope above the former cultivated area.  The ground flora was not rich, but she did pick up some useful additions to the list. These included the malodorous hedge woundwort Stachys sylvatica, bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scriptus, primrose Primula vulgaris and valerian Valeriana officinalis. She also found much mountain fern Oreopteris limbosperma, some without its usual diagnostic citrus smell.

After re-crossing the river, we had a brief break before tackling the steep slope up to the road.  Its rocky north-eastern bank provided great wood-rush Luzula sylvatica, a solitary holly Ilex aquifolium and common polypody Polypodium vulgare on a boulder.  

We also took the opportunity to scan with our binoculars the woodland higher up the slope opposite, picking out the fluttering leaves of a large aspen Populus tremula.  This tree is plentiful on crags further up the valley, but apparently thins out in areas more accessible to browsers. 

The score for the day was 116 species of higher plants.  We have provided rather more detail than usual about where they were found, as evidence of the rich diversity of the plant communities found in this small corner of the Quinag estate.  

Some history  

Poll a’Ghamhna appears to be one of only three sites on Quinag permanently inhabited in historic times, the others being the shieling ground of Torr a’Ghamhna to its east and Doire Cuilinn low on the southern slopes of the hill.  

The attractions of the area were presumably accessibility to the sea and the fertile soils of the flat area at the mouth of the river, which probably developed on a dump of glacial till, as elsewhere on the north coast of Assynt.  It would however have been a dourish place to live in the winter, when sunshine would never have reached ground level.   

There is a set of ruined buildings and associated walled enclosures ranging along the north bank of the river, completely hidden on the occasion of this visit by tall bracken (but see below).  

Malcolm Bangor-Jones informed us that the shieling of ‘Torgawn’ to the east was ‘likely cultivated by the late 18th century, given the expansion of Unapool and fishing’; ‘Pollgawn’ may have a similar history.

He notes that in the 1861 census there was at Pollgawn a house ‘with two rooms with windows’, inhabited by: ‘William MacLeod, married, 52, fisherman, born Assynt; Janet, wife, 50, born Assynt; Roderick, son, unm[arried], 15, fisherman, born Assynt; Janet, dau[ghter], 12, born Assynt; Ann, dau[ghter], 10, born Assynt; and Alexandrina, 8, born Assynt’.

‘A survey of 1875 showed the house as roofed, but by 1891 it was uninhabited; in 1903 it is recorded as unroofed’.   It has not been inhabited since.  

A winter visit 

On 10th February 2002, Ian had explored the same area and mapped the ruins, which at that time of year were not smothered by bracken (sketch, photo 12).  

He also noted badger snuffle holes between the ruins and the river.  He later located two badger setts further to the north, on the west side of Torr a’Ghamhna..  There were two holes ‘by huge boulders’ at NC20973304 and ‘a main sett, with 10 or more holes, with paths, in scree just south of an almost impassable crag’ at NC20943311.  

The woodland in this area, extending right round the headland, is very difficult of access and remains almost completely unrecorded.  

Ian M. Evans and Gwen Richards

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