Summer meeting 1986: Fort William

HomeEventsSummer meeting 1986: Fort William

23 July 1986 - 30 July 1986

Meeting report

Participants: Tom Blockeel, Richard Fisk, Mike Fletcher, Richard Libbey, David Long, Jean Paton, Mark Pool, John Port, Tony Smith, Phil Stanley, Rod Stern, Harold and Pat Whitehouse and Gordon Rothero (Local Secretary), Peter Pitkin appeared on odd occasions (often from odd directions!) and we were joined on two days by Ro Scott local N.C.C, officer.

Fort William is not a prepossessing place, particularly if there is a big, wet, westerly wind blowing up Loch Linnhe and the cloud is down to the level of the pulp mill chimney. However, it is the obvious centre for exploring this part of the Western Highlands, and the Nevis Bank Hotel provided a comfortable and friendly base. The geology of the area is fairly complex and it is sufficient to say that the volcanic rocks associated with the two ‘ring complexes’ of Ben Nevis and Glencoe provided two sites (Coire Leis and Coire Gabhail): a further four sites were based on the outcrops at various levels of the Ballachulish limestone (Beinn na Socaich, Craig Aoil, Beinn Riabhach and Aonach Beag): finally Camas Salach is a ravine in the Dalradian schist while Lon Leanachan is a sort of (!) raised bog. The weather during our stay was very unsettled but the rain fell kindly for us and we had clear tops for two of the three high days. The blustery weather ensured that ‘midges’ were never a real problem even in the damp depths of Camas Salach.

During the evening of the 23rd, as we were meeting over drinks in the bar of the Nevis Bank, Rod Stern arrived with the sad news of the death of Ted Wallace. I never had the pleasure of meeting the man but his name cropped up again and again during my preparation for this meeting; he had been to virtually all the sites we visited during his remarkable series of forays into the Scottish hills.

24 July. Coire Leis on Ben Nevis (G.R. 27/1771).

A cool, damp day with the cloud hanging round the shoulders of the ‘Ben’ all day but fortunately never obscuring the base of the Coire. By courtesy of the Forestry Commission and the Economic Forestry Group we were able to drive up to the 300m contour leaving a reasonable if boggy walk up into Coire Leis. Despite instructions to the contrary, some bryologising took place on the walk in. In particular David Long found Ditrichum lineare on the eroded side of the path and also Racomitrium elongatum. Bryologising began in earnest above the climbing hut at the base of the coire. As we wended our way up the burn that flows out of Coire an Lochan, the more montane species began to appear in the rocky grassland here. Species like Anastrepta orcadensis, Anastrophyllum donianum and Scapania ornithopodioides were widespread and there were small amounts of Scapania nimbosa, Barbilophozia lycop odioides and Marsupella alpina. From the gravel near the burn David Long produced the piece of Haplomitrium hookeri that he always keeps in his pocket. It was raining persistently by lunchtime but this was good for the moral fibre and spirits remained high. After lunch we climbed round the base of the ‘Douglas Boulder’ (200m high) and picked our way up the scree slope below Observation Gully. Plants typical of this block scree and its associated gravel included some of the species already mentioned and also Kiaeria blyttii, Pohlia ludwigii, Racomitrium microcarpon and Marsupella adusta. Rod Stern and Peter Pitkin found Andreaea nivalis which proved reasonably frequent on wet blocks higher up. There was some ghoulish talk of climbing accidents and the occurrence of various Splachnaceae, but the best I could manage was Tetraplodon mnioides growing vigorously from an old sardine can. From the screes an interesting scramble led to a large snow patch below what climbers call the Orion Face; this patch normally persists throughout the year. The gravel below the snow patch enabled comparison to be made between Kiaeria falcata and K. starkei and with K. blyttii on the rocks nearby. Arctoa fulvella was also present, in small quantity as usually seems to be the case. Other plants of interest here included Ditrichum zonatum vars. zonatum and scabrifolium, Polytrichum sexangulare, Oedipodium griffithianum, Lophozia opacifolia, Marsupella stableri, M. sprucei and Pleurocladula albescens, while above the snow patch there was a beautiful carpet of Pohlia wahlenbergii var. glacialis, recognisable from a considerable distance. The dampness was by now all pervading and though no conscious decision was taken, a movement was made downward so we never reached the more basic rocks that outcrop further up in Coire Leis. After a minor mix-up over transport, all bodies were safely off the hill.

25 July. Beinn na Socaich (G.R. 27/2373 & 2374)

The weather forecast was not too bad so another ‘hill’ day was decided upon. The big north-facing coires of the range of hills known as the Grey Coires are little frequented and the geology map showed some basic ground at the western end – Beinn na Socaich. Again access up E.F.G, tracks cut the walk-in down to size and botanising could begin almost immediately in the ravine above the level of the plantation. Where we crossed the ravine, Anoectangium warburgii and Meesia uliginosa occurred in the bedding planes of the rocks. A cool breeze blew mist up the valley obscuring most of the, by now, widely dispersed party; however we did manage to coalesce for lunch, by which time the weather was beginning to improve. The remainder of the afternoon was spent searching for the elusive ‘basic ground’ on the awkward N.E. facing crags, with only intermittent success. The odd patches of good ground provided a respectable list; Rod Stern found a beautiful patch of Rhizomnium magnifolium, Jean Paton found Jungermannia borealis, Diplophyllum taxifolium and Scapania degenii, the detached wanderings of Peter Pitkin produced Aulacomnium turgidum and Bryum riparium; other interesting finds in this area included Campylopus schwarzii, Amphidium lapponicum, Barbilophozia lycopodioides and Plagiochila carringtonii. A few of us penetrated the upper coire where there were patches of snow. The communities here were much the same as on Ben Nevis but in addition there were good colonies of Moerckia blyttii and Anthelia juratzkana in the damp grassland and mineral soil,with Dicranoweisia crispula on the rocks. The lowly ‘Munro-bagger’ in our midst galloped off along the skyline whilst the rest of us made a more sedate return down the valley. The sun was shining. Subsequent conversation with Ro Scott, N.C.C. Area Officer, revealed that we had missed the best ground which is much lower than I had deduced from the map.

26 July. The ‘Lost Valley’ in Glencoe (G.R. 27/1655).

Two ‘high days’ and a poor forecast suggested a lower option. The bottom part of Coire Gabhail, known by climbers as ‘the Lost Valley’ and by bryologists as ‘Dixon’s Coire’ is basically a ravine into which has fallen a considerable part of the mountainside. The blocks are huge and near the burn have a good covering of birch, rowan and some hazel providing a very humid and sheltered habitat. Large boulders on the open slope below the main rockfall are the locality for Andreaea megistospora which was dutifully refound by David Long. In the ravine and amongst the blocks it was the sheer biomass of bryophytes that impressed, carpeting the tops of the rocks and festooning the trees. Antitrichia curtipendula was abundant in this area. Of the more oceanic species Harpalejeunea ovata and Drepanolejeunea hamatifolia were not uncommon on the verical faces of rocks near the burn, Mastigophora woodsii formed some large cushions on the north-facing wall of the ravine, Leptoscyphus cuneifolius occurred on some of the older birches and Glyphomitrium daviesii grew in several places on the blocks above the tree line. Wet rocks under some of the dripping crags had fine carpets of Dicranodontium uncinatum.

Beinn Riabhach (G.R. 27/1071)

At lunchtime in the Lost Valley Jean Paton, Tom Blockeel and David Long were enticed away by the metamorphosed limestone that outcrops in low crags above the Blarmafoldach road S.W. of Fort William, a move which proved very worthwhile. Besides interesting species like Scapania aequiloba, Haplomitrium hookeri and Gymnostomum calcareum, they found three species new to Westerness (V.C. 97) in Thuidium recognitum*, Plagiochila britannica* and Scapania lingulata*.

27 July. Craig Aoil (G. R. 27/1877), Lon Leanachain (G. R. 27/1978) and the Spean Gorge (G.R. 27/2081).

Our ranks had been increased with the arrival the previous day of Harold and Pat Whitehouse, John Port, Richard Fisk and Mike Fletcher and we were joined for the day by Ro Scott, so it seemed reasonable to visit sites within everyone’s compass. Craig Aoil is a limestone knoll rapidly decaying under the onslaught of the quarrymen; it is surrounded by conifers but some birch and hazel scrub exists on the top and all trees are liberally coated with lime dust as a result of the quarrying operations. As in other areas near lime quarries this leads to some unusual epiphytes – Neckera crispa, Orthotrichum anomalum, Encalypta streptocarpa, Hygrohypnum luridum and Scapania aspera to mention a few. This is the habitat of Orthotrichum urnigerum in its only British site, refound on this occasion by Tony Smith. On the rocks themselves the luxuriance of the bryophytes was impressive: great wefts of Eurhynchium striatum, Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus and Brachythecium glareosum, deep cushions of Tortella tortuosa, often in fruit. On a different scale, three species of Seligeria were seen, S. pusilla, S. donniana and S. acutifolia and on the hazels, Neckera pumila and Orthotrichum pulchellum were not uncommon.

After lunch, to provide a contrast we moved on another kilometre down a forest track to a large bog, Lon Leanachain. The bog has good populations of Sphagnum magellanicum in dull red patches and large hummocks of both S. fuscum and S. imbricatum. The associated hepatic flora was a little disappointing, Calypogeia sphagnicola, Mylia anomala, Cladopodiella fluitans and Riccardia latifrons providing some interest.

There was just time for a brief visit to another site, so a small cavalcade moved on to the deeply incised section of the River Spean below Spean Bridge. On a previous visit to reconnoitre the site I had recorded a good list of oceanic species but time did not allow us to get to the more heavily wooded section; even so, in the short time available two rotting logs produced Cephalozia catenulata and Sphenolobus hellerianus. The lower part of the ravine would repay further exploration if you have a head for heights and are not worried by deep, dark pools!

During the course of the week, Tom Blockeel and Harold Whitehouse did their thing in various patches of cultivated ground in and around Fort William coming up with two new records for V.C. 97 in Dicranella staphylina* and Bryum microerythrocarpum*.

28 July. Camas Salach, Loch Sunart (G. R. 17/6860 & 6861)

Loch Sunart is only 25 minutes from Fort William via the Corran Ferry so, although the area is well known, I could not resist the temptation. Despite the reputation of the area, the N.C.C, did not have good species lists for specific sites, a result of our fixation with 10km squares perhaps. Anyway, the compilation of a species list for Camas Salach S.S.S.I, seemed sufficient to justify the long drive and even the wear on the suspension on the last few, sump-cracking kilometres. The weather was dreich: windless, damp and ‘midgey’, the worst of the trip, but bryologists’ tolerance levels seem to be fairly high. The ravine is steep and incised, with lots of fallen trees giving rise to some amusing simian antics. The bryophyte communities were typical of these western ravines but with a few more rarities than is usually the case. In the first few metres after leaving the track we had already found Acrobolbus wilsonii and Plagiochila atlantica and soon after Jean Paton pointed out a slab covered in Sematophyllum micans. The list of extreme ‘oceanic’ species steadily increased as we scrambled upward and included Dicranum scottianum, F rullania teneriffae, Harpanthus scutatus, Lophocolea fragrans, Metzgeria leptoneura, Leptoscyphus cuneifolius, Plagiochila corniculata and Radula aquilegia. It was sad to see that, even in an area like this, some underplanting of the oak woodland with conifers had taken place, to the extent of ring-barking in one spot. The track by the coast, and the coastal rocks themselves, were given some attention and produced Atrichum tenellum, Haplomitrium hookeri and Fossombronia incurva.

29 July. Aonach Beag (G. R. 27/1971 & 2071)

Because I had been really looking forward to this day, I had subconsciously given it ‘star status’ and I’m sure this communicated itself to the rest of the party. Aonach Beag is a big hill, over 4000ft, with a lot of basic rock at high levels; added to this is a huge north east facing coire with semipermanent snow patches. Access via E.F.G, tracks again made life a little easier and the party left the vehicles and wandered off into a damp morning at about 10 am. After a reasonable walk-in and aided by some pin-point navigation by David Long, we had an early lunch in near sunshine (oh Ye of little faith!) below the obvious band of basic rocks that lead up from the floor of the coire to the bealach between Aonach Beag and Aonach Mhor. Early finds of Meesia uliginosa and Leptodontium recurvifolium augured well though the basic rocks were clearly ‘patchy’. The block scree associated with the lower crags had good populations of Scapania ornithopodioides, S. nimbosa and Anastrophyllum donianum and the crags themselves produced Isopterygiopsis muelleriana and Scapania calcicola. Richard Fisk, Mike Fletcher and I scrambled up into a particularly rich little gully which had large quantities of both Bryoerythrophyllum caledonicum* and Odontoschisma macounii*; these were gratifying finds as they fill in a large gap in the known distribution. After rev isiting ‘our’ gully David and Tom pointed out that we had missed Tritomaria polita. The party regrouped by a little lochan for a second lunch and then resumed the ascent to the bealach via block scree, snow patch and crag. This is a very rich area, boasting Andreaea nivalis, Polytrichum sexangulare, Ditrichum zonatum var. zonatum and var. scabrifolium, Orthothecium rufescens, Bryum dixonii, B. muehlenbeckii, Amphidium lapponicum, Brachythecium glaciale, Philonotis tomentella*, Hylocomium pyrenaicum, Harpanthus flotowianus, Plagiochila carringtonii, Marsupella alpina, M. stableri and Pleurocladula albescens to name but a few.

The final snow patch before the bealach had proved so interesting, in climbing rather than botanical terms (although at one point it was necessary to use Harpanthus flotowianus for upward progress), that a number of people were fairly keen not to descend by that route. Despite the lateness of the hour we decided to head for the top and explore the large, summit plateau; here there were good colonies of Dicranum glaciale on the steep faces of the solifluction terraces and Nardia breidleri in amongst the carpets of Marsupella brevissima and Ditrichum zonatum. Windows in the cloud below us allowed views of the Water of Nevis and the big Glencoe hills beyond. After a conference on the summit the party divided, the ‘A’ team returning to the vehicles over Aonach Mor, while the ‘B’ team turned S.E. to scramble down to the head of A’Chul coire and back down the burn. The ‘easier’ descent line proved much steeper than my memory of it (my belated apologies!) and so it was a weary but unbowed team that reached the cars shortly after 10 pm. It is a tribute to the enthusiasm of the group and the remoteness and richness of the site that the BBS notched up perhaps its first 12 hour day in the field (?); a fitting end to a good week.

I looked forward with some trepidation to my first BBS meeting as local secretary and the fact that I actually enjoyed the week is due to the people who came along; my thanks to them. I’m sure Mike will not mind my saying that perhaps my biggest worry was that we would lose him on the hill, this necessitating informing my acquaintances on the local Mountain Rescue team that they were looking for a barefoot bryologist wearing a plastic ‘mac’ and carrying an old shopping bag! Our final tally for the week was well over 400 taxa with 9 new County Records, and a great number of plants with a restricted distribution. A number of these were photographed in stereo by Pat Whitehouse and the results that she demonstrated at the AGM were very impressive, particularly the great depth of field. I hope everyone on the meeting went away with an impression both of the beauty and the fragility of the sites that we visited. Even the most remote site, on Aonach Beag, is under som e threat from the possible extension of the proposed skiing development on Aonach Mor. One thing we can try to do as a Society is to make sure that these unique bryophyte communities are not lost through ignorance of what is there.

Gordon Rothero


Fort William