Assynt two

a more mysterious morning, Quinag wreathed in low cloud.

all very still, the tide going out

Bims and I out for an early morning wander around the lodges. obviously she had to be on the lead in case of deer or sheep.

miniature birch trees all round this little ridge behind the lodges, and willow warblers singing in them.

early mornings were an opportunity to use a little watery gouache in my sketchbook

our expedition was in the opposite direction from the day before, to Stoer lighthouse

at the top left of the map, Kylesku being near the top right. we took the tiny road via Drumbeg, much of which passes through exquisite birch, rowan, willow etc woodland, dotted with primroses.

I tried rather unsuccessfully to photograph it from the car. we stopped in Drumbeg (Druim Beag) for the village shop there

after the lodges with their mountain views and heathery surrounds these villages are a surprise, built in sheltered spots with trees and grazing fenced in, ponds, greylag geese, pretty cottages and gardens; one is back to human concerns. a grumpy-faced cat was not interested in us – and outside the village shop was this potted landscape –

alpines and mosses, almost a miniature Assynt, but also strongly reminding one of Japanese moss gardens.

we parked at the lighthouse and set off between fenced off  grazing and broken down brick buildings that looked as if they had been built for defence; now used by sheep for shelter. this walk is one for views, of Harris and Lewis and even Skye, from the high point of Sithean Mor, at 161 metres above sea level.

we passed a big boulder of gneiss, the strata all twisted like the gnarly centre of a striped toffee. both of us feeling some effects of the previous day’s walk – it was a lot easier, but still a hill, a hundred metres or so, up to the radio mast first. we avoided the path along the cliff, neither of us are good at heights. so we missed the old man of Stoer, the spectacular sea stack.

some untidy evidence of human attempts to use the place and of nature’s rapid disposal of such feeble objects.

the track petered out so we had a mis-cast across a boggy patch before winding our way across and finding the path again to the trig point, another sixty metres.

it was cloudy, quite windy and cold, but you can see all the Assynt peaks in turn, across Enard Bay in the Ullapool direction, first the massy high area of Ben Mor Coigagh, then the single toothy ridge of Stac Pollaidh, and to its left Cùl Beag and then Cùl Mòr, the fourth and more isolated double hump is Suilven, then I think the next one must be Ben More Assynt, higher, but further away, sticking up out of a general massif, then Canisp with its two peaks looking like a humpy wall from this angle, and last of all the precipitous cliffs of the western wall of Quinag. it looks quite different from this side.

looking back across the un-named lochan between the trig point and the radio mast.

we ate our lunch up there, tucked out of the wind as there’s a sort of rocky monument. B did not appreciate us stopping. out to sea some vague land shapes across the Minch could be discerned on the cloudy horizon, Lewis and Harris.

walking down again there were quite a few of these little sedge flowers, glaucous sedge, carex flacca. not a lot else happening yet, except for violets.

we drove back through the village of Stoer, which sits on the “unconformity” where sedimentary rocks one billion years in age (the Torridan sandstones, lying around as dark red boulders or pebble sized pieces beside or on the paths we have just been walking.) meet the Gneiss, formed nearly three million years ago from magma, deformed and crystalline, as the boulder in the photo above. the ancient landscape or surface of the Gneiss, with hills and valleys, deep crevices and vertical cliffs, is tipped at an angle, as are all the strata, so that the line of meeting is exposed, and can be seen as not a straight line, but as an irregular one, tracing out the profile of the ancient landscape, which is filled in with broken stone rubble, fallen into huge clefts which were filled in, but must once (one point two million years ago) have been deeper than skyscrapers and the Grand Canyon. This is the violent landscape of a young planet; it would have looked like the surface of Mars, with no plants, just rocks and stones. I am roughly quoting from a fascinating book about the geology of Assynt called Hutton’s Arse by Malcom Rider and Peter Harrison, if you are interested in geology or just in the landscape of North West Scotland it is fascinating and very readable. On this day, I was not aware of the details of the geology, otherwise I would have taken different photos. we were very fascinated by an unfamiliar bird, which turned out to be a wheatear, and spotted more in the next day or two.

I was more preoccupied with trying to tell which mountain was which, and drawing them in a way which would help me to paint.

on the way back we stopped in the next village along from Stoer, Clachtoll, and visited Ripples Crafts, where I made an investment for the future. I knit rather occasionally and have to make a big effort to finish something, whereas Lucy knits every evening and at every opportunity, and makes gorgeous jumpers, shawls and hats for herself and friends and for Scott. but Helen cooks up irresistible colours in her dye shed – see her website here

back to our lodge in Kylesku, a grey afternoon; I found this tiny flower growing in one spot. it is heath milkwort, polygala serpyllifolia, rather than the common sort the app identified, because it is growing in acid soil, not the chalky downland soil the other sort likes. I can’t quite see in my photo if it has opposite leaves instead of alternating ones.

morning birdsong at the lochan on the way into the lodge site. willow warblers, as everywhere in Scotland where there are birch and other deciduous trees and scrub. they nest in brambles and other inaccessible low places. as for what’s growing in the lochan it’s hard to tell at this time of year, but nearby small lochans support bottle sedge Carex rostrata, many-stalked spike-rush Eleocharis multicaulis and bogbean Menyanthes trifoliata.

this was the day to visit the “Bone Caves”, west of the peaks we were looking at from the coast the day before, up a valley on the edge of the Ben More Assynt range. it’s a popular walk with plenty of information signs, and what’s more a description of them takes up a chapter of Kathleen Jamie’s book, Surfacing. you follow this burn, the Allt nan Uamh, the Burn of the Caves,

until there’s a point where the whole burn is emerging from underground suddenly;

after that there is still a riverbed full of water rounded boulders, but it is dry. I had no idea that there is limestone in Scotland. (forgive my ignorance – there are limestone pavements, Karst, as in Yorkshire, and the Burren in Ireland) so the rock underneath this valley, and in this whole area, is like Swiss cheese, as the weak acidity of rain erodes the limestone. this is the Durnessian limestone of Assynt – the place just goes on giving, geologically speaking, and the caves started to form about two hundred thousand years ago.

it’s about forty five minutes up to the serious part of this walk, with the shaggy brown hills closing in on both sides, and another path where you need to watch your feet, with rocks and boulders to thread your way through.

then you cross the river bed and make your way up the path to the caves, high up in the cliff. glaciers scoured out the valley, leaving the caves high above the original levels.

we distracted ourselves from the perpendicular aspects of this walk as usual, by noting what was near our feet. there were hundreds of these caterpillars, mostly very tiny, and not in a good place where people walk over the rocks. presumably the heather and grass was also full of them.

these steep slopes were also dotted with primroses. I am glad to find that someone else felt how scary the path is up to the caves and down again the other side – from Ayleth Savage’s website  “The cliff face became very steep and we literally could not chance looking up or down the mountainside for fear of losing balance and tumbling 500 feet to our deaths. It’s difficult to convey just how precarious the gravel path and steps became especially coupled with the wind howling through the valley. It constantly tested our balance where only a thin lip of earth separated our footfalls from an 80-degree downward slope.”

we were lucky that it wasn’t very windy, but it felt very precarious, Kathleen Jamie had a large rock fall into the river bed from on high about twenty five yards in front of her when she was there.

humans visited these caves around eight thousand years ago, hunting reindeer and bear. they are called the bone caves because they were full of large amounts of bone fragments and reindeer antler when they were discovered by the famous geologists Peach and Horne in 1889. the bones included arctic fox, lemming, lynx, wolf and wild horse, possibly washed into them when the ice melted at the end of the last cold period. a fragment of a polar bear’s skull was found, dating from twenty thousand years ago. excavations in 1934 found signs of human activity including several artefacts carved from bone and antler, the remains of
two human skeletons, and mussel and limpet shells some ten miles from the nearest branch of the sea.

I think that when human hunters came here the landscape would have been very different, possibly lightly wooded in many places with birch, rowan etc, the suite of flora that is only now seen in a few steep places around the edges of sea lochs, like the woods near the Kyelsku lodges.

we were very relieved to be back on the more level part of the path, and sat down so that I could have a little drawing session, looking up at the cliffs.


walking back down we met cavers, loaded with backpacks and helmets and spades. One chap stopped to talk to us, saying this was the two hundredth and somethingth time he’d walked up this path, and he hated it more every time. it turned out he and his friends – from Wales – had done most of the work discovering where the caves go and mapping out the water courses. it was at this point that I realised why the river had disappeared.

here is where it pops up, a huge flow out of nowhere. the cavers told us about the geology visitors information site just down the road. which we duly visited, after going to Ullapool’s seafood shack for lunch (delicious tempura haddock with bits and bobs in a wrap)

this installation demonstrates the upside-downness of the local strata.

so then we stopped very close to Kylesku at the Geopark shop and I bought the book I mentioned earlier – this beautiful geological map of Assynt, and another book of walks with helpful photos of the various peaks or inselbergs, which I obviously can’t get up on top of but there are some walks that are more possible, should I be able to get back here some time.

then the  evening sun put on a beautiful show for us










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