Assynt part one

after four nights staying in the far north west of Scotland I have far too many photos and memories for one post, it’s all a bit unmanageable ….. but for a start, on the last but one Saturday in April my daughter Lucy, my dog Bimba and I left Fife at just after ten am (with a quick return to pick up my knitting) and drove north.

various stops on the way – pitstop at Dunkeld for the bakery, coffees, breakfast for Lucy, a quick arboretum wander for B and me (which could have been the subject for a post, I have enough photos) – then as I wasn’t doing the driving, plenty to look at as the road goes through the Cairngorm national park, still some patches of snow on the tops, trees greening lower down. we stopped for a walk and lunch in Strathpeffer, an oddly victorian gothic spa town in the highlands, only an hour and a half from our final destination. here is an installation of rocks, a maze of boulders in Blackmuir wood,

which I could have spent an hour or more looking at – “Touchstone Maze was created using 81 stones from quarries across the Highlands and Islands and reflects Scotland’s complex geographical map” here’s a link

the lewisian gneiss attracted my attention, being the oldest rock in the UK and having this pretty green streak. the next day we found ourselves walking on it. more of geology later.

a real feature of last week was the discovery of wild violets (common dog violet, viola riviniana) growing everywhere. I am delighted to find them popping up in my lawn and my drive, survivors of sprayings and other treatment; in the highlands they are everywhere – here in blackmuir wood, and up in the short grass amongst heather wherever we walked in Assynt. on this walk we also found wood anemones, cowslips (something I am trying to grow on my lawn, I put plugs in last year, but they seem to be struggling a bit, the turf was put down on bare clay and it’s quite dry) and primroses.

there are still patches of snow high up. April has been cold. the landscape began to draw itself in my sketchbook

as we drove up from Wester Ross and Ullapool

peaks that stand up in the landscape and as the road winds around, change shape in a kind of dance, so you can’t see which is which from the map.

we arrived at Kylesku Lodges in time for warm sunshine that made our balcony a little hot, out of the wind, with its awe-inspiring views of Quinag (pronounced Coonyagh, Gaelic for the Milk Pail) its gigantic double pyramid faces looming over and reflected in the loch below.

the photo doesn’t begin to have the impact of these hills, the wide angle lens flattens the peaks or gables of Sàil Gharbh and Sàil Ghorm and pushes them away. on a sunny afternoon they are in shadow and inscrutable.

we only had two afternoons like this, but they were a joy.

Bims liked the high view from her bed too.

a short walk took us into Kylesku itself to pick up the wood-fired pizzas we had ordered, from a garden gate, light and smoky and delicious.

sunset was officially around nine, but it stayed light for a long time on those clear evenings, and even when the rest of the sky was dark, the western edge over towards the Hebrides and the Atlantic stayed golden. it wasn’t dark enough to see a lot of stars beyond the main constellations.

in the morning the light was on these two imposing great gables, with some cloud –  which built up as the morning progressed. on the lower hillsides the precious woodlands of birch, rowan, willow, wych elm … are turning green with new leaf.

part of the landscape around the lodges. this is the gneiss, beautifully lichened, which produces a terrain of hollows and humps, lochans and little hills. it has been scraped and dumped on by glaciation. the more fertile land on the coast can be seen to be glacial till – ground up rock – with boulders and stones in it.

we went on a walk close by, to find a waterfall higher up.

it was hard to find a path at first, round the edge of the loch

very peaty and mostly quite dry.

with slabs of bare rock

and spectacular views. a cold wind too. we ascended about two hundred and fifty metres of rough path

here and there a violet

in all this dry desert of crisp grass and wintery heather. there are tree seedlings, little rowans with three leaves, tiny birch trees, but there are too many deer and they get nibbled off. looking down all time to watch your feet, negotiating peat holes and ridges, crags, loose stone, and tuffets of grass, your attention is towards the details, when the general is a bit bleak. it’s either the spectacular views or the small things.

this tiny treasure is common lousewort – pedicularis sylvatica – which is a root parasitic plant. it attaches to the roots of other plants, probably the heather. it got that name because people believed if eaten it gave livestock infestations of lice. which would likely be the result of poor condition due to sour un-nutritious  grazing.

there was an assortment of different rocks, but the only one we recognised was the Lewisian gneiss, and here was a big boulder with a slash of pale green in it, just like the one at Strathpeffer. it “is a product of varying ingredients, some igneous (volcanic) in origin and some the amalgamated products of erosion which have gathered to form sedimentary thicknesses, before all these ingredients, regardless of origin, have been baked, squashed and melted, perhaps many times, cracked up in movement, injected with fresh material from deep within the earth and cooked, squished and melted again over almost unfathomable eons, as millions of years of heat and pressure separated and glued their minerals and cooked or cooled their crystals in bands of differing size and composition”. I took this wonderful description from this gneiss-crafting website


and there is more, if you go there. whereas Wiki is almost incomprehensible it’s so technical.

we climbed up above this beautiful loch (Bealach a’ Buirich – bealach is a narrow mountain pass, and Buirich is the bellow of a stag), where the grey cloud and the blue sky shimmered in reflection

and sat down to eat lunch – yesterday’s pizza, just as delicious cold – and decided not to go further to find the waterfall, this was quite beautiful enough, and negotiating the path back would be just as tough. we were already quite tired.

I made a couple of drawings, but the wind was too cold to hang around. cold enough to make my eyes and nose run objectionably.

Lucy in charge of Bims was way ahead most of the time, doing a bit of botanising – and watching birds. we saw several stonechats, and wrens. but no golden eagles.

this is juniper haircap moss, polytrichum juniperinum, tucked under the edge of a rock. (I have a new app which is supplying all the botanical info, called Picture this)

and next to it a tiny fern, deer fern, struthiopteris castenea, according to the app.

even smaller, this red dot on a green stalk is a lichen. it might be a tiny stalk of Cladonia coccifera. next to it is fir club moss

huperzia selago, and here two sprouts of it newly up.

all the colours and shapes of lichen and rock

felt very inspirational for an abstract painter

and I slowed myself down even more

by photographing them. I’ve discovered since that this fine almost white rock is quartzite, almost pure silica, a Cambrian (five hundred million years old or thereabouts) sandstone which is part of the complications of the geology here, where strata are disordered by horizontal faults. large areas of it cover the eastern flanks of Quinag.

and here is a beautiful example of the twisting strata of the gneiss.

I managed to put one boot into a deep black hole of liquid peat soon after this, and then on the flatter terrain I slipped on a patch of peaty sphagnum, and sat down suddenly, wrenching my dodgy knee and gaining a wet patch on my backside.

back to the little burn with its very loud waterfall, near the car park.

clear and musical in the sunshine.

it was very hard work, a path sometimes with squishy peat, a lot of loose stone, and high steps over rocks, all of which made me fear for my ankles. and also it got very grey and cold with low cloud. all dispersed by the time we were well on the way back. I wish I were fitter and more confident (read younger too) and could go walking up on the top of Quinag.





  1. Another wonderful blog with its vivid descriptions of the micro and macro surroundings of your lodge. I discovered the joy of lichens on an expedition to the Canadian Arctic. They are such important indicators of life where none looks possible. Thank you Jane.

  2. The name Wester Ross drew my eye. My sister in law lived for 12 months in Västeros in Sweden. I wonder if there is a link way back.

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