The members of the Assynt Field Club were on the move for their July meeting – or at least some of them! The summer meetings tend not to be all that well attended as people round here get very busy in the summer season, but this time we were meeting with members of the Inverness botanical society who were over on this side of the country for a botanising weekend – one of the main reasons for this field trip being to find the elusive Scots Primrose.
We met at the Balnakiel beach car park at 11.00 on a fine but not too sunny Sunday morning. Balnakiel is just a mile or so from Durness, opposite Cape Wrath on the very north-western tip of Europe, and boasts the most beautiful, long beach of white sand and shallow, turquoise-coloured water.
It was my turn to drive this time and in the car with me was Gwen, who drove me for the Bird Race and who has now taken a job as a part-time member of the ranger service, which she says she is very much enjoying albeit that it is harder work physically than her old job of driving the Assynt Centre bus! We also had a young man called Robin on board who was born in Scotland but who had been taken very early in life to live on Lake Champlain in Vermont – the one time site of a water-born battle, although it seems somewhat land-locked! Robin is over here not to trace his ancestors but to learn about the wild-life and ecology of our area as part of his degree. Also with us was Lynne, another great friend and also local moth expert – not that we were expecting to see moths on this trip!
So a good crowd of botanists with varying degrees of knowledge set out from the car park along the path which leads over the golf course. We were led by Ian and Pat Evans – both botanists with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the plants of this area. We soon saw much to delight the eye – both on the ground and in the air! Flying over us were black-headed gulls, which we always find fun as we don’t get them on our coast just 30 miles south. And we spotted gannets and guillemots, shags and cormorants out over the water. Looking down, the thing I marvelled at most was the size of the orchids this year – the more common northern marsh orchids had huge heads, and even the smaller, slender fragrant orchids seem to have bigger heads than normal this year and were giving out a good strong scent. I also learned the difference between a creeping and a bulbous buttercup – useful knowledge for a gardener!
We were quite strung out as a group, especially as we had a couple of older people with us, and as we went along the path, we would suddenly see ahead of us a group of enthusiastic people all kneeling down around a certain cluster of plants. Sometimes they were there for an inordinately long time – or so it seemed to us lay-folk! During the course of this section of the walk, we came across field gentian, grass of Parnassus, kidney vetch, frog orchids as well as the other orchids mentioned above, twae blade, crossed-leaved heather, wild thyme… And then we found ourselves amongst a great grouping of that we had come to see – the tiny Scots primrose. They are extremely small – it has been known for people out looking for them to walk right over them without realising it! You would think that it would look like a normal, everyday primrose in some way, but it doesn’t at all – see pic below.
Evidently the golf course at Durness is quite famous for its variety of the more unusual wild plants, and we certainly saw a good selection that day.
By this time it was not far off lunchtime, so we hoofed it back to the cars, collected our lunch and walked along the beach, where we stopped for our picnic, leaving behind a few folk who didn’t feel up to the walk along Farad Head, which was the plan for the next part of the day.
Having refreshed ourselves, we set off along the tarmacked path which the army built to give access to the small installation at the far end of the peninsular. It can’t be much used by motor vehicles now as it quickly becomes entirely covered in sand! Robin and Gwen left us at this point to get up to the part of the headland where they were likely to see puffins. As we went along the path the real botanists would go off on to the dunes from time to time looking for good examples of things like sea sedge, while the rest of us just strolled along. One of the members of the Inverness group – who were all exceptionally friendly and helpful – pointed out to me the tiniest of wee plants: sea sandwort. This has the smallest flower I think I have ever seen on any plant! Unfortunately, I had left my camera back at the car in a fit of laziness.
Eventually, we came to the cliffs at the end of the trail, where could be seen (as often on our cliffs) the most beautiful hanging gardens of wild flowers such as sedums, thrift and ferns. Sometimes even burnet roses are seen lying flat against the cliffs, braving the elements and still flowering!
At this point, I turned back as we had lost Lynn on the way, and I was worried that she might have gone astray. The others went on up a hill and over to a lochan where moss campion was known to be growing – evidently it turned out to be somewhat past its sell-by date, much to the disappointment of those who went. I met Lynn back on the path, and we strolled down to the beach, and along to the car. Sometime later, groups of weary botanists started to appear, including Gwen and Robin, who had indeed seen puffins, albeit on the water rather than on their nests. They normally go back out to sea around the middle of July.
We hit the road south, stopping for ice cream in Scourie – which has become a tradition among the three of us on our way home from field trips to the north coast. It had certainly been a warm enough day for ice cream – I had peeled off my rugby shirt and was wearing just a sleeveless top, and although the day wasn’t very sunny at all, my shoulders were quite red next morning…
[Photos by Clarinda]