Friday, 11 June 2021

Brokeboot Mountain

Pete and Ali, both madcap pan-species listers much like myself, arrived here on Skye late Friday afternoon. We rendezvoused at the cafe by the pier, ordered far too much pizza for ourselves and immediately set off tracking down various 'exotic' (ie plastic dross) plants for them to tick, beauties such as Druce's Cranesbill, Hooker's Fleabane, Escallonia, Hedge Veronica and, best of all, a Garden Pansy in a paving crack outside the cafe itself. I seem to recall they had hanging baskets last year, so that would explain that. Then the pizza was ready and we stuffed ourselves to the gunnels and made preparations for Saturday's big botanical adventure up Beinn Edra, the highest peak along the northern part of the mighty Trotternish Ridge and host to a whole suite of alpine plants. Pete and Ali were guaranteed a fat fistful of new plants up that hill, I was quietly hoping for a good few too. We had a Secret Weapon to help us scoop as many goodies as possible - Stephen Bungard, BSBI Recorder for Skye! 

Ali headed back to base after our meal, Pete took a wander with me back to Uig Hotel, where we were subjected to midge hell, but he reacquainted himself with some of the plants he'd last seen in 2018 including Mitella ovalis, Bronze Pirri-pirri-bur, Rock Cranesbill and Blue Star Creeper (pure quality up here!) life ticked Lesser Knotweed and noted woody galls on Ash trees caused by the fungus Neonectria gallingena. He also clapped eyes on the mystery hawkweeds which, according to the BSBI Hieracium Referee appear to be new to science and have yet to be officially described. 

I have no idea how Saturday dawned (I have better things to be doing at 4:30 in the morning) but it was fair with moderate cloud and a slight breeze when I woke up at 7am. Good hill climbing weather, I reckoned. We met for breakfast, then Stephen and Neil rocked up and a little after 9am we were heading along the Fairy Glen road, through a couple of gates, past some chickens and into the open moorland at the foot of Beinn Edra. I for one was very excited at the prospect of clapping eyes on some very special high alpine plant species. 

Ali wasted no time in ticking pure dross (Fife does lack some species that are decidedly common in the west!) whilst Stephen gently quizzed Pete over the ID of a few grasses that don't occur down in his Dorset homeland. Neil and I generally mooched about a small river finding a few bits and bobs whilst Ali swept my first lifer of the day from a stand of cottongrass

Awful pic of a potted Nothodelphax distincta, a brachypterous hopper from boggy areas

We found many inverts including the beetles Nebria salina, Plateumaris discolor, Micrelus ericae and several of the stunning Ctenicera cupreus, many Magpie Moth larvae plus a pupa, and mite-induced galls on Heath Bedstraw (Aculus anthobius) and Wild Thyme (Aceria thomasi), but after a couple of hours I suggested we really ought to get a move on and hustle up to altitude for some decent plants. Luckily everyone agreed (it had to happen one day!) and we route-marched up the wrong hill. Turns out the summit of Beinn Edra is hidden from below and I was leading us to the wrong mountaintop! Thankfully Stephen pointed out our error and we re-aligned ourselves to the hidden mountain. Sheesh, I mean how can you lose an entire flippin' mountain that is less than two miles away?? 

We were working our way ever upwards when Stephen stopped us by a small pool. "You all need that" he exclaimed, pointing at a patch of moss a few feet away. Umm? Luckily he meant the small plants just beyond the moss patch. This is them

To my eternal shame, I didn't know what these were. Thankfully Stephen did. These are Chickweed Willowherb and my first new plant of the day. I'm not sure what I was expecting, and in hindsight they do look very 'willowherby'. I'm confident I'd have sussed them if they were in flower, though I think I was expecting them to be on a ledge, not on the edge of a pool. Anyway, this was a new plant for Ali, Pete, Neil and myself. My first of many, as it turned out... 

Upwards some more, but still in an area of wet pools, and we stumbled across a number of Starry Saxifrage nestled amongst a bed of Callitriche brutia and Bog Stitchwort. Lovely wee plants, and our first proper Arctic-alpine species of the day. The saxifrage and Callitriche were new to Pete and Ali, I think Ali ticked the stitchwort too. Those chaps were certainly racking up the lifers today, thankfully! 

We saw Starry, Mossy, Yellow and Purple Saxifrages up Beinn Edra, a clean sweep of all previously recorded saxifrage species. We also saw Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage, but that's a completely different kind of beast. 

(L-R) Ali, Stephen, Neil looking like he's up for a fight, and Pete. Note the habitat

To be fair, this was not in any way a posed pic. I just yelled "hey chaps" and pressed the button. We'd ascended above the level of heather or anything else luxuriant and had now entered the lower boundary of The Zone. Beinn Edra is 611metres high, which is just a smidge over 2000ft (that's an entire fifteenth the height of Everest - bet you're impressed now). We'd come in at about 100metres asl and I think we were probably at over 500metres asl in this image. Note the distant sheep at extreme left, those bloody things get everywhere!

Neil and Stephen had been up Beinn Edra before, though only Stephen had botanised it before. He told us we needed to be concentrating on gravel pans and areas of broken turf if we wanted to find the better stuff up here. So that's precisely what we did - and it worked! Next lifer for me (well, for all of us apart from Stephen) was one I've been hoping to see for several years. I give you Sibbaldia, a quietly gorgeous little charmer

It's definitely one of those 'you'll know it when you see it' plants, I've tried to string this plant before. Who even knows what I was actually seeing (deformed Alpine Lady's Mantle maybe???) but the beautiful bluish-green leaf colour helps it stand out amongst the other mosses and plants in the short sward. It's quite a small plant, but once you get your eye in, it's quite common in discrete patches. Lovely, I've wanted to see Sibbaldia for far too long now. Was worth the wait too. According to the texts, this is a late-summer flowering species. Not so at height! May into June is the optimal time to find flowering Sibbaldia on Skye, the flowers are dust by late summer - just ask Stephen! 

There were quite a few plants of Spiked Wood-rush in the bare patches of turf, diagnostically bent over as though in a strong wind. Despite there being quite a few of them, again more noticeable once you've got your eye in, I ony managed shit pics of them. My third plant lifer of the day so far, following the Chickweed Willowherb and Sibbaldia 

Spiked Wood-rush. Note the heads are all bent over sideways, a distinctive feature of this plant

And whilst we're doing crappy pics, this was the best of three images I took of the only Alpine Bistort plants we found up the hill. It looks a lot better in flower, trust me! 

By now we were only a short way from the summit. Stephen realised we were close to a grid reference for Iceland-purslane so he headed off over a cliff in search of it. And when I say he headed off over a cliff...

The camera angle simply doesn't do justice to the ridiculous steepness of this slope. I accidentally knocked a stone with my foot, it bounced into the gulley visible behind Neil (actually below, not behind!) and spooked several Rock Doves into a clattering escape flight. At the bottom of that very gulley is the wreckage of a WWII Flying Fortress; on 3rd March 1945 it flew into the mountainside in fog, instantly killing all nine American crewmen. The valley floor is half a kilometre below us, complete with aircraft wreckage. You can actually see the sea at the very top if the image - tis a very long fall indeed! 

Rather amusingly, I found a cushion of Cyphel more or less where I took the above image. Pete refused point blank to descend, he's not good with heights. Ali took a deep breath (I'm pretty sure he was swearing - or maybe praying - under his breath) and ever so carefully did a Spiderman impression down the slope until he could lifetick Cyphel - at which point he said, "there's loads of that growing on the rocks where Pete and I were sitting", ha! Pete's grin, usually quite large at the best of times, was positively huge. "Yeah, loads of it up here!" he grinned at us as Ali ever so cautiously climbed back to the safety of the clifftop. To rub salt into Ali's wound, I then found a patch that was flowering. On flat ground. Well away from the edge. 

I should say at this point that I'm not particularly great with heights. Well, I'm ok with heights I guess, it's just that I really don't trust my boots. They have a tendancy to slip on wet or slick rock and quite frankly I don't feel safe in them. I've had a couple of close calls which have knocked the proverbial wind from my sails, so I'm nowadays overly cautious traversing terrain where I could plummet to my death. Put it this way, I didn't descend any closer to Neil and Stephen after taking the image above. One slip and there's just nothing to grab hold of to stop the fall. So yeah I chickened out. Ali manned-up though, and fair play to him for it. He was so far out of his comfort zone it was no longer visible. 

Ibex. I've often wondered what it would feel like to do this - and now I know

By now we were slap bang in the middle of The Zone and thoughts turned to Iceland-purslane. Now, to set the scene, the spring has been shite here on Skye and the flowering season has been a late one so far. Iceland-purslane was THE top target for Pete, Ali and myself, yet was the one plant that Stephen feared we could miss due to the late season. He suggested we "may have to work quite hard" for it. Considering that it tops out at at less than 1cm in height and flowers in July/August, and throw in the lateness of the season, I feel we were being just a tad optimistic holding out any hope whatsoever of finding it. So no pressure at all on Stephen.....

But before all that, we stumbled across a lovely wee patch of the smallest tree in the world (disclaimer, it may not actually be the smallest tree in the world, but it can't be far off!) Just look at this beauty, a lifer for me and Pete and one of only two that Ali had up on me - Sand Leek being the other. Oof, I give you the awesome Dwarf Willow. No idea why they call it that...

This is not a seedling - this is a mature Arctic-alpine TREE. Fully grown!

And some more, but female plants this time

The very largest leaves are maybe a centimetre across. Maybe.


But then all hell broke loose as I spotted something that nobody was expecting, the only plant of the day that was entirely new to tetrad, in fact. I believe I may have shouted, I also believe that Ali and Pete almost wet themselves with the excitement of it all

"Mooooooooonwort dot com"

This was easily a centimetre tall, maybe even a centimetre and a half. Basically it was the largest plant we'd all seen for some time now. I know that sound ridiculous, and it is too, but I for one was having a whale of a time on my hands and knees, looking at plants through my 10x handlens because my eyes just aren't good enough nowadays. Heck, some of the plants we were seeing were smaller than the mosses growing up here! And I loved it, it reminded me of the day I spent on my belly in the turf at The Lizard down in Cornwall, looking for rare clovers and instead finding a tick in my belly button later that night. 

By now we were down to four target species - Poa alpina for all of us and Poa glauca for Pete (both over the cliff edge and possibly not yet flowering), Dwarf Cudweed which we were told was as big as a sprig of moss but silvery, and Iceland-purslane which in all probablilty wouldn't even be visible yet. And if it was it would be seedling-sized and thus unrecognisable and untickable. Hmmm. 

And then Stephen yelled, "I have Koenigia!" which is botany talk for "Come and get your Iceland-purslane, mere mortals" and not that he has a mildly contagious rash which, let's face it, is exactly what it sounds like. Mildly contagious rash or not, we dashed across the hillside and fell to our knees to behold Stephen's wondrous find. And actually, it really was pretty effin wondrous to behold - my fave plant of the day in fact. Here, have a minor barrage of mediocre pics

Each plant was, and I kid you not, approximatey 2mm tall. And we saw dozens of them in this one small gravel pan. The left-hand plant in the bottom image appears to be something other than Iceland-purslane (and thus not worthy of further mention) but the reddish stems and almost succulent leaves of Koenigia are really very distinctive - even at 2mm tall! For anyone not familiar with the history of Iceland-purslane in Britain, it was first discovered in Britain in 1934 on the Trotternish Ridge about seven miles south of Beinn Edra, though it wasn't correctly identified until 1950. It was subsequently discovered growing on the Isle of Mull, also in the Inner Hebrides (and I've heard of a record from Norfolk, a county not exactly known for its high summits - this may be in error/planted?) It seems that Iceland-purslane is suffering due to warmer springs/summers and has experienced a very significant reduction in numbers since the turn of this century. However, it still survives in good numbers at numerous sites along the Trotternish Ridge for now. 

Sharing the same gravel pan as the Iceland-purslane was another stonkingly good plant, Three-flowered Rush which, in Britain, is almost restricted to the Scottish peaks with just a few outliers in Cumbria and Snowdonia. Here it is, situated about 20cm from the nearest Iceland-purslane plants

Seemingly of a sudden, the clouds rolled in and we were in the rain. Nothing too hectic, just a bit of fast-moving mist really. We all agreed that it would be foolhardy to attempt a cliff ledge hunt for Poa alpina and Poa glauca in these wet conditions, which just left Dwarf Cudweed to go. Stephen wasn't even sure it would be up yet, but we were very much in The Zone and I felt confident we'd find it (but then again, what do I know?) Surprisingly, within a few minutes I spotted a distinctly silvery set of leaves poking up through the broken turf and Boom! our final plant target for the day had fallen!

Dwarf Cudweed in all its glory. It's actually a very smart little plant and worth the effort of finding

We had a quick group huddle, in the rain, and decided that we were all very happy with our day up Beinn Edra. Between us we had amassed a very respectable species list and everyone had gleaned a fistful of lifers, even Brown Trout for one of us (!) My own tally of lifers stood at six plants and a hopper. Pete and Ali were punch-drunk with it all as we started our long descent into civilisation. 

And why the title Brokeboot Mountain? Well because at some point during the long, wet, foggy slog back downhill through the heather and peat bogs, the strap that holds the locking cleat on my left boot was torn away and is now forever lost. I've checked the strap on my right boot, it's quite a solid bit of  construction. Heck knows how I managed to rip it clean off, but I did and that's that. Beinn Edra pulled out all the stops for us, it's welcome to a bit of boot leather. 

Many, many thanks to Stephen for agreeing to guide us up the slopes of Beinn Edra, and to Neil for being his usual amazing self in finding all sorts of weird and wonderful beasties for us. Apologies for the length of this post and congrats if you've stuck with it to the end. Tomorrow you get to see spawning lampreys and exotic sponges, stay tuned! 



  1. I look positively overdressed. Until the two hour downpour on the descent! Epic weekend. One thing I love about listing is how moments and days become immortalised in a simple spreadsheet line that bring back the whole thing.

  2. Well, great to see you have overcome your 'Writers Block'!
    Hope I don't dream I'm an Ibex tonight because that would be more like a nightmare - how do they do that!
    Thank again for an excellent week-end.

  3. That is an absolutely fascinating post, and I really mean that.

  4. Ali, Pete, it was a terrific weekend! Next time we'll maybe do more marine stuff. Or maybe Pine Marten baiting. Or fishing. Or...or...

    Jono (hmmm, that seems just a bit too informal)
    Keeper of Chateau L (yeah, that's better), your kind words are very much appreciated. Thank you, sir!

  5. Found myself googling Iceland-purslane, just so I could see what mature versions look like. That your fascinating post caused me to do so is some achievement, let me tell you! 😄

    1. Haha, thank you. It doesn't precisely blossom into a towering giant, that's for sure!