Exploring Quinag: revisiting A’Chairidh

January 13th 2024

Exploring Quinag: revisiting A’Chairidh

Our first visit to the land acquired this year by the John Muir Trust at Kylesku, on 29th May 2023 (Exploring Quinag: A’Chairidh), was very productive.  We logged 131 species of higher plants and 18 assorted fungi and animals, but insect life was sparse, perhaps because of a cool wind. 

I returned to the area on 10th June to tie up some loose ends.  The temperature was very different, peaking at 25 deg.C, as against 13 deg.C previously.  I also went ‘the other way round’ (map, photo 1), starting at the roadside parking place (NC230330), across to the eastern end of the A’Chairidh ridge, and along its south side to the lodges.  I then dropped down to the rocky shoreline (NC224332), climbed back up to the lodges, and returned along the road.  

Crag and scree

We had looked up to the skyline crag and scree on A’Chairidh on the previous visit (photo 2), but by-passed it.  The trees at its eastern end (photo 3, NC227330) were my first objective on this occasion.  The oak was as puzzling as ever in Assynt, so I collected a sprig and took it back for precise measuring and close scrutiny of the hairs on the underside (scan, photo 4).  From these I was able to name it as the hybrid between pedunculate and sessile oaks Quercus x rosacea.  This is the case with most Assynt oaks, but on this occasion it was at the pedunculate end of the spectrum (see notes on scan).

The group of trees in its vicinity, protected from browsing by crag and scree, also included one old and a few young downy birches, an old hazel, a rowan and some shrubby eared willow.  Nearby I noted a patrolling golden-ringed dragonfly Cordulegaster boltonii and a nymphal meadow grasshopper Pseudochorthippus parallelus.  

The scree was virtually impassable, so I skirted along its bottom edge to the west.  In the event, the only plants of note it housed were sprawling mats of bearberry Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (photo 5). 

However, the ground below it was flushed in places, with a good range of basiphiles.  They included the flagship species black bog-rush Schoenus nigricans and some usual associates that had eluded us on the previous visit, such as tawny sedge Carex hostiana and few-flowered spike-rush Eleocharis quinqueflora.

The crag above the scree has trees scattered along its length, with obvious aspens and one puzzling large-leaved and smooth-barked tree, which may be just another aspen, or perhaps a goat willow or wych elm.  It requires further investigation, but is not easy of access, so I have included a ranging shot in case anyone would like to check it out (photo 6; please excuse the indifferent quality, my camera was then 13 years old and has since been replaced).  

Scenic views

After leaving the foot of the scree below A’Chairidh, I walked over to a viewpoint on the slope above the sea-cliffs bordering Loch a’Chairn Bhain (NC226331) to have my lunch.  This provided a panoramic view of the southern coast of the sea loch (photo 7), and a welcome cooling breeze.

Closer to were the wooded heights of Creag Mhor na Cairidh (the big crag of the fish-trap), which rise, vertically in places, 100m above the course of the Allt an Cairidh (photo 8).  The burn marks the boundary between the JMT property and adjacent land belonging to Jim Sloane, on which the crag and land to its south are situated.  The crag extends for nearly 1.5km inland, and round a headland at its seaward end.

The ecological importance of this area was first noted in Chris Ferreira’s masterly Vegetation Survey of West Sutherland (1995), with a detailed description under site 4.4.23 in vol. 2.  He concludes: ‘a very fine example of birch-rowan woodland on Lewisian gneiss that contains a wide range of ground communities in addition to a good number of tree species.’  The trees he lists are the downy birch and rowan, together with aspen, goat willow, hazel, holly and wych elm, with ‘regeneration and a good age structure’.     

A rare find

The crag will feature in further accounts of this area, but meanwhile we can add to the species list the rarest of Assynt trees, rock whitebeam Sorbus rupicola.  A single example was spotted by Gordon Rothero high on the crag at NC228328 on 24th September 2004, in the presence of Pat and myself.  He recognized it by the white undersides to its leaves, and we confirmed his diagnosis from fallen leaves later in the year.  This is one of only three local sites, the other two being on limestone cliffs north of Stronchrubie.  

As a small contribution, I can report that on 10th June I heard or saw on the crag the following birds: buzzard, chaffinch, cuckoo, willow warbler and wood pigeon.  

Sea coast and back to the lodges

From this viewpoint I worked my way over to a point above the lodges, and descended past them to a rocky shelf on the coast below (photo 9, NC224332).  The edge of the shelf was a straight drop into deep water, not a place to slip, but it and the adjacent low cliffs provided me with some maritime and moorland species not encountered previously, together with a small heath butterfly.   

Climbing back up the cliffs, I came across a grassy gulley containing numerous northern marsh-orchids Dactylorhiza purpurella, an immature toad and another butterfly, a dark-green fritillary.

By the time I reached one of the outlying lodges a combination of heat and exertion required a long sit-down on its steps.  Here I was refreshed with a glass of water and conversation by a kindly woman from Merthyr Tydfil, who had just arrived for a repeat holiday in this delightful spot. 

The ground around the lodges provided some predictable ‘weedy’ additions to the list, but also a further example of the hybrid spotted-orchid Dactylorhiza x formosa and a first heath fragrant-orchid Gymnadenia borealis.  

I then trudged back up the road to my car, with one last surprise, on the southern verge just short of the parking place (NC230331, regrettably just outwith the JMT boundary) – two spikes of the salmon-pink sub-species of the early marsh-orchid Dactylorhiza incarnata. 

The four hours I spent on this re-visit added a further 21 species of higher plants to the list for the JMT land, making a total of 152, together with a grasshopper, a dragonfly and two butterflies.  However, there is still much more to record, especially amongst the animal life.   

Ian M. Evans

All photos by I.M.Evans


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