Exploring Quinag: Cnoc na Cairidh

January 25th 2024

Exploring Quinag: Cnoc na Cairidh

Articles on our fieldwork on JMT land at Quinag in 2023 have included three relating to areas immediately south of Kylesku (Exploring Quinag: Atlantic Woodland at Creag an Spardain;  Exploring Quinag: A’Chairidh;  Exploring Quinag: revisiting A’Chairidh).

We also visited, on 2nd and 4th June, adjacent land belonging to Jim Sloane, which is situated between two burns, the Allt an Cairidh on its north-east boundary and the Allt Creag an Spardain on its south-west boundary.  With his permission, we are including an account of these two visits in our series on ‘Exploring Quinag’. 

Our botanical survey on 2nd June focussed on the 1km square NC2232, but other observations were made on our way to and from it, all on the same property (map, photo 1; the green dashed lines show the position of mafic dykes in the underlying gneiss).  The area covered is to the south of Cnoc na Cairidh (hillock of the fish trap, a reference to a feature to its north).  

We did not explore, on this occasion, the steep wooded crags of Creag Mhor na Cairidh, at the north-east end of the target square, partly for practical reasons, because they must be approached from their base, but also because they merit an article in their own right (see references in Exploring Quinag; revisiting A’Chairidh). 

Setting out

We left our cars at the junction of the B869 with the A894 at 1045 hrs (NC231314) and set off uphill to the north (map, photo 1), noting on our way a drinker moth cocoon, the congested gall of the mite Aculops pedicularis on lousewort Pedicularis sylvatica, a small pearl-bordered fritillary and a common heath moth.  Bracken on a south-facing slope (NC231315), probably sited on glacial till, sheltered a large patch of bluebells Hyacinthoides non-scriptus.  

We crossed several areas of peaty ground covered with hare’s-tail cottongrass Eriophorum vaginatum (photo 2), passed through an old turf and stone wall marking a former enclosure, and continued climbing until we had reached more level ground where a rocky tump offered a dry seat for a refreshment break.    

Another half a kilometre of undulating ground took us eventually into our target square (NC229321).  The moorland here has a curiously beaten-up look in places; it may not yet have recovered from many former decades of grazing and burning.  However, some shallow pools had patrolling four-spotted chaser dragonflies Libellula quadrimaculata, and nearby we encountered a common lizard and a frog.  

First crags 

We now had in our sights a line of broken, patchily-wooded, crags (photo 3) stretching to the west.  They are on the line of one of the mafic dykes that cross the area and, with the scree below, provided attractive ground to search.  

Stony base-enriched flushes at the foot of the crags were marked by clumps of black bog-rush Schoenus nigricans (photo 4), with some of its usual associates, including the elegant tawny sedge Carex hostiana (photos 5-6) and a starfish-like over-wintered rosette of pale butterwort Pinguicula lusitanica (photo 7).  In contrast, its relative common butterwort P. vulgaris, not far away, was in full flower.

The flushes fed a small watercourse to the west (NC229323), where we found a toad and saw a large red damselfly Pyrrhosoma nymphula.

Boulder scree a little further along (photo 8) supported dry heath with, in open areas, species such as wild thyme Thymus polytrichus; we flushed from it an exquisitely-marked beautiful yellow underwing moth.  The scree also provided cover for a few seedlings of downy birch and rowan from trees higher up the crags.  Here they shared areas out of reach of browsing red deer with scattered suckering aspen (photo 9).  

At the base of one rock-face Gwen found a single rosette of pyramidal bugle Ajuga pyramidalis, and in longer grass nearby there were the burrows of field voles.    

More extensive grassy areas, amongst the scree at the foot of the crag, had further wild thyme, bitter vetch Lathyrus linifolius, bird’s-foot trefoil Lotus corniculatus and primrose Primula vulgaris.  We also spotted the cocoon of a six-spot burnet moth (photo 10), the caterpillars of which feed on bird’s-foot trefoil, another fast-flying small pearl-bordered fritillary and a large ground beetle Carabus glabratus (photo 11).  This seemed a good place for lunch.  

More crags

The crags continued westwards (photo 12), providing shady overhangs for black spleenwort Asplenium adiantum-nigrum.  Higher areas, out of reach of the deer, sheltered a prostrate juniper, a large-leaved but inaccessible willow, wild rose and one bush of the widespread alien Himalayan cotoneaster C. simonsii. 

We completed our searches of the crags and scree around a conspicuous grassy area (photo 13, NC226324).  Here there were an old holly with a trunk 20cm in diameter (photo 14) and  suckering aspens on the crag, and two well-browsed hazels in the scree (photo 15).  

The grassland had a good range of species typical of slightly base-rich ground.  There was sanicle Sanicula europaea tucked in amongst the boulders (photo 16) and maidenhair spleenwort Asplenium trichomanes quadrivalens in a crevice at the base of the crags.  A mistle thrush was feeding at the top of the crag.  

Towards the sea 

There were two further groups of trees on the north side of the valley, which dropped off very steeply to the sea (photo 17), both with conspicuous aspens and rowans.  We reached the first group, which added dense swags of bearberry Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (photo 18), and some ivy Hedera helix and mountain everlasting Antennaria dioica to the tally.  

The second group, which we viewed from a distance, included a large shiny-leaved tree which, from a previous visit with Don O’Driscoll and Romany Garnett of JMT on 13th May 2015, we knew to be an isolated goat willow Salix caprea.   Chaffinch and willow warbler were singing in the area.  

Turning back

Taking into account our height above sea level (about 90m), the time of day and the reduced sprightliness of two members of the party (Ian and Jess), we decided to forgo, with regret, any attempt to reach the shoreline at the bottom of the valley, where there would, no doubt, have been more to add.   

So, we had an early tea break and then retraced our steps back up the valley, over a saddle and down into the next valley to the south, that of the Allt Creag an Spardain (photo 19, NC225323), which forms the south-east boundary of Jim Sloane’s land.  

We were able to add several aquatics to the list from the north side of the burn, including water horsetail Equisetum fluviatile, common sedge Carex nigra in full flower (photo 20) and alternate water-milfoil Myriophyllum alterniflorum.  There were also more large red damselflies and a brightly marked argent and sable moth flying.

We then worked our way, through dense vegetation, up the burn, past a wooded gorge, until we had sight of Loch Unapool (photo 21), then south-west over some rough ground above its steeply-sloping banks, and back to where we started (photo 22), reaching our cars, fairly weary, at 1700 hrs.   

The higher plant tally for the day was some 82 species, with a good variety of animals as a bonus, including mammals, a few birds, one reptile, two amphibians, a beetle and assorted butterflies, moths and spiders.  

It was as interesting, however, to note what a substantial contribution the wooded crags make to the overall biodiversity of the area, as well as the potential for the trees on them to re-establish themselves further afield, if the impact of browsing by deer can be reduced.  

Ian M. Evans and Gwen Richards


Having spotted, as we were on our way back on 2nd June, some emergent vegetation in the shallows at the north end of Loch Unapool, I paid it a quick visit two days later.  This area added just four aquatics to the list for NC2232:  many-stalked spike-rush Eleocharis multicaulis, shoreweed Littorella uniflora, water lobelia Lobelia dortmanna and broad-leaved pondweed Potamogeton natansThere were several four-spotted chaser dragonflies, large red damselflies and numbers of fast-moving whirligig beetles Gyrinus sp.  The flora of the rest of the loch will have to await future surveys of outlying parts of Jim Sloane’s land.  

Ian M. Evans

All photographs by Gwen Richards  


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