Exploring Quinag: east of Loch na Ba Brice

October 28th 2023

Exploring Quinag: east of Loch na Ba Brice

Some of the slivers of land around the edge of the JMT property of Quinag, although small, have proved interesting.  Such was the case with the south-east corner of NC1731 (map, photo 1, with JMT boundary in orange), to the east of Loch na Ba Brice (loch of the speckled cow).  It straddles an old track from Ardvar to Tumore on the side of Loch Assynt, and was probably last used regularly over 200 years ago, before Ardvar was cleared, but very little since.  It was on our target list for 2023, and we managed to reach it on 23rd September, a cloudy day in a series of wetter ones.  

We left the car overlooking Loch Ardbhair (NC168323) and struck uphill across broken ground to the south-east (photo 2), hoping (but failing) to find a section of the old track running along the ridge line.  We flushed a pair of red grouse shortly after levelling out.  With a couple of meadow pipits and a distant raven, they were the only birds encountered all day.  This is often the case inland in Assynt after the nesting season.  

Taking a brief break not long afterwards, on a smooth gneiss outcrop (NC175314), we found a small plant of prostrate juniper Juniperus communis nana, the only one seen.  We finally reached the line of substantial galvanised iron fence-posts marking the JMT boundary (NC177313) about an hour and a half after we had set out, and were able to start recording.

A small burn and some basic flushes

When we had ticked off the dozen or so usual species of the wet heath which dominates this landscape, we started up a small burn draining higher ground to the east (photo 3).  As usual, this rapidly increased our score, its better-drained, although still damp, banks yielding species such as sneezewort Achillea ptarmica, ribwort plantain Plantago lanceolata, primrose Primula vulgaris, selfheal Prunella vulgaris and wild thyme Thymus polytrichus.  

The burn was fed locally by a series of stony flushes containing the greyish tussocks of black bog-rush Schoenus nigricans, with small boggy pools in more level sections.  Patches of these tussocks were a feature of the hillside north of the burn (photo 4), and soon yielded most of the regular associates of this species, including dioecious sedge Carex dioica, few-flowered spike-rush Eleocharis quinqueflora, broad-leaved cottongrass Eriophorum latifolium and one of our favourites, pale butterwort Pinguicula lusitanica. 

More surprising finds were long-stalked yellow-sedge Carex lepidocarpa (mostly found on local limestones) and the tiny dark leaves of alpine meadow-rue Thalictrum alpinum, which Gwen spotted in a patch of bog-moss dripping water (photo 5).  A small boggy pool also provided some sludgy fine-leaved material which, examined later under a microscope, resolved itself into the stonewort Chara virgata and lesser bladderwort Utricularia minor.  

Animal life in the vicinity included late nymphs of the meadow grasshopper Chorthippus parallelus. a large dark frog, and the first of several large hairy caterpillars of the fox moth.  Lunch was enjoyed on two small boulders in the middle of this damp area.

Back to the burn and an erratic

We then cut across the hill to a small waterfall just west of where the main burn entered our target area (photo 6).   A pool below the fall had banks relatively inaccessible to grazers and gave us two of only three ‘trees’ we found that day, a small bush of the furry-leaved eared willow Salix aurita and the ground-hugging silver-backed leaves of creeping willow Salix repens.

Shortly afterwards, at 1330 hrs, with good views over Eddrachillis Bay (photo 7), we started back.  We made for a conspicuous boulder of Torridonian sandstone, one of many erratics plucked from the ramparts of Quinag during glaciation (photo 8).  As often with larger erratics, it was capped with a layer of peat supporting a stand of the leathery leaves of crowberry Empetrum nigrum.  Have these caps formed in situ, or are they the last remnants of a continuous blanket of peat dating back to a period when it completely covered this landscape?

Alongside the boulder was the only example of rowan Sorbus aucuparia seen all day, a well-browsed veteran about 20cm high. 

Down to the valley

We then carefully worked our way downhill (photo 9), since recent rain had made the ground very slippery.  Our destination was a place on the map where the burn is cut by the JMT boundary fence; it reappears on the JMT side about 150m downstream.  

On the way (NC177312), Gwen collected from heather a small geometrid moth.  At a distance it looked rather featureless but, close-up, proved to have a delicate pattern of parallel lines (photo 10).  It was a slender-striped rufous Coenocalpe lapidata, a moorland moth species scarce in the North-west Highlands, which flies in September and October.  There are two previous records on NBN for Assynt, of singletons taken by Ian in light traps on, coincidentally, 22nd September 1998 and on the same day in in 2002.  There are other records from the vicinity of Lochinver (NC02) and Inchnadamph (NC22).  It was later released. 

Nearby, a late example of the heath bumblebee Bombus jonellus was foraging on one of its favourite plants, bell heather Erica cinerea.

Find of the day

Along the east side of the lower stretch of the burn there were more stony flushes marked out by black bog-rush, and here Gwen made the find of the day (photo 11).  Sprawling along the bank of the burn, and around the flushes, were the unmistakable bare stems of rough horsetail Equisetum hyemale, with rounded black-tipped sheaths looking a bit like bunches of used matches (photos 12-13).  Some were beginning to show their orange autumn colouration.

This is a rare plant in Assynt, with just nine known sites scattered across the landscape, half on the eastern limestones, and two others on the southern flanks of Quinag, near the Allt Doire Cuilinn.  It has never before been found in NC13.  Associated with it were two stout fruiting stems of an orchid (photo 14), later identified from a photograph as those of the northern marsh-orchid Dactylorhiza purpurella.  Not far away, in a flush, were the reddening rosettes of another associate of black bog-rush, yellow saxifrage Saxifraga aizoides.

We spent half an hour in this area taking photographs and having a celebratory tea break.  We also had a chat with a couple of walkers from Musselburgh, making for Ardvar, ‘to have a swim’.   It was the first time in over thirty years that Ian had met anyone on this part of the track. 

Burnside grasslands

Whilst resting on our laurels, we spotted across the burn two small areas of grassland, just inside the boundary fence-line.  These provided us with a good top-up for the list with, for example, ‘common’ grasses that are often scarce in such moorland landscapes, including sweet vernal grass Anthoxanthum odoratum, Yorkshire-fog Holcus lanatus and tufted hair-grass Deschampsia cespitosa.  

Along the bank of the burn was another narrow band of grassland with the only examples seen all day of fairy flax Linum catharticum and common bird’s-foot trefoil Lotus corniculatus.  Nearby were two small, hairy, moth caterpillars (photo 15), the darker a white ermine and the lighter a ruby tiger; there was also an orange-striped caterpillar of a drinker moth.

We left the target area at 1525 hrs, beside a magnificent example of early 20th century ironmongery in the form of a galvanised boundary fence-post (photo 16), having by then notched up a respectable 76 species.

Back via Loch na Ba Brice 

At this stage we were still separated from the car by 2km of rough/slippery terrain, and two members of the party (Ian and Jess) were beginning to show their age.  So, we decided to return along a valley containing the burn feeding Loch na Ba Brice (see map), recording, from crags along its northern edge and associated scree, any additions to NC1731 that had not been recorded on JMT ground.  

The crags proved quite rich, with some scraggy aspen Populus tremula, drooping mats of bearberry Arctostaphylos uva-ursi and silvery rosettes of mountain everlasting Antennaria dioica.  Squeezed into crevices below overhangs there were also two small ferns, predictably black spleenwort Asplenium adiantum-nigrum but also the much less widespread wall-rue Asplenium ruta-muraria (photo 17).  There were also more ruby tiger caterpillars.

We did a final top-up of lacustrine species at Loch na Ba Brice (photo 18), including white water-lily Nymphaea alba and the bright green floating club-rush Eleogiton fluitans.  We finally reached the road at 1700hrs, having added a further 15 species from the area west of the boundary fence.  

Ian M. Evans and Gwen Richards

All photos by Gwen Richards



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