Exploring Quinag: Allt na Bradhan and Allt Leum Neill
The last week of September 2023 was wet and windy. However, sunshine was forecast for Saturday 30th, so we took ourselves off to Quinag for what proved to be the last survey visit of the season. The target 1km square was NC2128, to the north-east of Lochan Bealach Cornaidh (map, photo 1).
Our starting point was where the Allt na Bradhan crosses the path up the hill (NC217280), about 1.5km west of the road. We intended to work down that burn to the eastings gridline, turn north and contour over to the other burn in the square, Allt Leum Neill (burn of Neill’s leap) and then follow that burn upstream back to the path. And that was, roughly, how it turned out.
Allt na Bradhan
We met in the main carpark at 1000 hrs and reached the starting point at 1045 hrs. Below us were a series of ‘greens’, burn-side grasslands, where cattle, sheep and other livestock would have been grazed back in the 18th century (photo 2). They are situated, we suspect, on glacial deposits washed down from the area around Lochan Bealach Cornaidh.
The grasslands proved rather species-poor, with common bent Agrostis capillaris, heath bedstraw Galium saxatile, yellow pimpernel Lysimachia nemorum, ribwort plantain Plantago lanceolata, meadow buttercup Ranunculus acris, a little creeping buttercup Ranunculus repens and some wild thyme Thymus polytrichus.
Heavy concentrations of dung (photo 3) indicate that this is now a favourite grazing area for red deer. One part had been colonised by daisy Bellis perennis, an indicator of well-trodden ground almost certainly brought in by them. There were a few waxcap fungi and, predictably, the dung roundhead Stropharia semiglobata (photo 4).
At the edge of the greens (NC217281 and 218281) are the remains of two structures, the first built into a bank (photo 5) and the second free-standing (photo 6). They presumably date back to the 18th century, or earlier, and were built by those herding the livestock. They may just have been shelters from bad weather, or this fairly remote area was perhaps a full-blown summer shieling; we shall probably never know.
The burn course itself had locally frequent alpine lady’s-mantle Alchemilla alpina, a small stand of beech fern Phegopteris connectilis, and lesser spearwort Ranunculus flammula in a slower-flowing stretch. Otherwise, it was not as rich as we had hoped. Our wanderings around the greens took well over an hour, during which time the sun came out.
We then continued further downstream, noting impressive collections of rounded Torridonian boulders in hollows where they appear to have been dumped during the retreat of the ice thousands of years ago (photo 7). Reaching the edge of the square (NC219281) just after noon, we then turned north.
A pleasant surprise was some cowberry Vaccinium vitis-idaea, still in flower in a sheltered hollow (photo 8); this is normally over by the end of August. Nearby was one of eight frogs noted that day, many of them almost black (photo 9). Such dark colouration is common in upland populations (the ground covered was at 320-430m /1060-1430ft), and may help camouflage them.
A conspicuous outcrop of the Torridonian sandstones underlying this area provided us with a vantage point for lunch (NC219283), with splendid panoramic views (photo 10). It also housed a small patch of prostrate juniper Juniperus communis nana (photo 11). This was the first of eight we logged that day, all ground-hugging, often amongst loose stones. This must make them less attractive to deer, which are known to browse them.
Flatter areas in this landscape housed small bog pools (photo 12), which we explored after lunch. These increased the species count, with predictable species such as common cottongrass Eriophorum angustifolium in the water itself, star sedge Carex echinata and common yellow-sedge C. demissa round the edges, and great sundew Drosera anglica in cushions of bog-moss Sphagnum spp.
One pool also provided a second record of an odd little ascomycete fungus bog jellydisc Ascocoryne turficola (photo 13). This grows in bog-moss, but was actually underwater as a result of recent heavy rains. We had found it lower down the valley (NC2228) on 15th October 2020 (see Exploring Quinag: Allt na Bradhan (1)).
A solitary rowan
We had intended to make our way right over to the course of the Allt Leum Neill, but veered off-course towards a distant old rowan. It was rooted in fissured rock below a small sandstone outcrop, at an altitude of 340m (photo 14).
As the only tree seen all day (other than a scrap of eared willow Salix aurita by the burn), it merited closer inspection and did not disappoint (photos 15-16). It was not easy to approach, being protected against browsing by deep crevices, but we did find a little common polypody Polypodium vulgare on its mossy trunk. It was still in leaf, with some berries, and there were a few tiny seedlings amongst nearby bilberry Vaccinium myrtillus.
Allt Leum Neill
Not far beyond the rowan, we finally reached the course of the second burn, which we could hear from afar making its way downhill (photo 17). Stony areas in its vicinity bore more scattered prostrate juniper in places and a pool off the main watercourse had a small population of water crickets Velia sp.
The burn course itself did not provide much of botanical interest, being fast-flowing and rocky. However, it did extend further upstream than shown on the 1:25,000 O.S. map, apparently originating in a network of shallow boggy channels on a plateau of Torridonian sandstone (NC213285).
The plateau had scattered flat slabs of the same rock, one of which provided us with a good seat for a tea break. Whilst idly scanning this scenic landscape, we noticed that one of the largest slabs was perched on rounded cobbles (photo 18), like a car on chocks. It may have sunk though a melting ice sheet, to finish up on smaller debris originally at its base, or there may be a better explanation. Whatever the mechanism, it appears to have sat there, unmoved, for over 10,000 years.
The rounded edges of this and other slabs had a crusty coating of lichens, including several species of rock tripe Umbilicaria spp., notably one locally rare species, the spiky U. cylindrica (photo 19).
Back to the path and a surprise
Half an hour later we were back on the path (NC211283), some 700m west of where we had left it. As we trudged back down to where we had started (much of the landscape had been rocky, wet, and quite tiring to navigate), we picked up a few trackside weeds such as annual meadow-grass Poa annua and procumbent pearlwort Sagina procumbens, to add to the list.
There was, however, a surprise, as we looked back over the greens where we had started recording some five hours before. Spread around the landscape were nearly thirty sheep (photo 20), with distinctive colour markings. They must have moved up in the early afternoon, presumably from Newton or Unapool, but were a long way off the hill ground of those crofting townships.
We finally reached the carpark at 1645 hours, having covered about 5.5km and logged a modest and generally predictable 59 species, with no surprises (apart from the lone rowan). But we had the satisfaction of filling in one of the holes in our coverage of Quinag and had enjoyed the autumnal sunshine.
Animal life, not already mentioned, was sparse, with two sightings of red grouse, a distant raven (over Spidean Coinich), a black slug Arion ater, an irritating deer ked Lipoptena cervi and, on the roadside opposite the carpark, a solitary caterpillar of the white ermine moth.
Ian M. Evans and Gwen Richards
All photos by Gwen Richards