Elms on a Rainy Day

Lovely to see people turn out in poor weather to attend this first “Wych Elm in Assynt” event at Inchnadamph!

I got there at about 10am for a one o’clock start, which is quite keen, but I had an extra motive: a “new tree” that had evaded the previous list.

I’d seen it walking back down Traligill valley a few weeks ago, late in the afternoon with fading light, sticking out of a limestone crag.

I wasn’t even sure that it was a wych elm at that distance, but it kinda looked right.

The hunch paid off, but with the weather being “damp” at best, the photo opportunities could have been better.

So I put my back to the wind, to keep the moisture off the lens as best I could, and yes, the shot scrubbed up OK!

Back down to the car park for lunch, I was a bit wet myself from climbing a hill with waterproof “boil in the bag” clothes, so changed into some spares too.

The Main Event started, introduced and facilitated by Mandy Haggith, and then we walked back to a fairly accessible wych elm tree, where Euan Bowditch gave us a fascinating presentation about elms, wych elm in particular.

Euan is from the University of Highlands and Islands, a forester and the leader of the Highlands Elm Project, so it was great to have him there with his enthusiasm and knowledge.

We spent some time at this big old tree, and after Euan’s input, I did a piece about photography, describing my approach to getting a portrait of a tree.

Moving on to the banks of the Traligill river, we had a look at some wych elms in the steep gully hanging over the fast flowing water. These trees have an extra ecological relevance: they are well covered with mosses, lichens and ferns, such as common polypody. And these are indicators of remnants of the temperate rainforests that are believed to have once been widespread along the wetter west coast of the British Isles.

Which Elm? Wych Elm.

I got out of the van a bit further up the Glenleraig road than usual, planning a circular walk to try to find some Wych Elm trees.
Consulting my friend Mr O Survey, it looked like I could save myself a bit of road walking by heading across the moor to my first waypoint: a lovely little loch with a view back across the water to Quinag.
I had second thoughts about this; about a dozen times actually. Dead bracken was tangling around my feet, and if I got out of that, I had tussocky Molinia grass with boggy bits hiding between. Hard work.

Some context perhaps?

A few weeks ago, I got a message from “Mandy-the-author” asking me whether I’d be interested in participating in a project that she was about to launch to celebrate Wych Elms in Assynt.
Take some photos?
Oh yes please; right up my street!
Mandy explained that she was planning to write a book and also offer some activity days to the community over the coming seasons.
Before it was too late.
Too late???
Yes, the dreaded Dutch Elm Disease (DED) was still marching north; its progress possibly being assisted by warmer weather in recent times.

Striking a chord it was: I remember hedgerows (lots of hedgerows) with lots of English Elm in Northamptonshire when I was a kid.
Then, quite quickly, virtually all of the mature trees succumbed to “DED” and became dead themselves.

By chance, “Ian-the-botanist” mentioned that he was collaborating in the Assynt project too, and that he could supply a list of existing botanical records along with grid references. Perfect.

I have a few photos of Assynt Elms already, but this was an opportunity to create a body of work, and I do love a project.

I started at Calda burn, as I knew of a very large, very grand tree standing next to a little waterfall, and I went to capture it whilst it still had its summer plumage.

On my map there was one glowing like a beacon: Gleannan a’ Mhadaidh, south east of Suilven. “Wolf Glen”. Wanted to go there for a while, now I had a reason.
Round walk: 20 kilometres; legs aching; feet wet.
Fabulous location; loved it, and a tangled-up multi-stemmed elm tree talking to me from the crag slightly above me.

Then there was the one with a waterfall behind it at Liath Bhad.

And a line of them along a limestone outcrop at Inchnadamph: very photogenic.
And a couple on the side of the rocks in the dry part of the Traligill river valley……

By now I’m hooked.
Not sure that it’ll be a “definitive collection”, but I’m certainly enjoying meeting these isolated outliers.
Might consider repeat visits somewhere, to catch the same tree through the seasons; something that floats my boat.

Now Grace Slick is belting out of the speaker behind me, and my singular typing finger is trying to keep up. Smokin’

Back on two feet; I get around the back of Loch Torr an Lochain, and the view of Quinag is super.

A reflection across a sheet of particularly thin ice in the foreground. “Cat ice” we used to call it, but I can see any cats right now.
Similar experience at Lochan Rapach, but still no cats.

Getting warm now, homing in on my grid reference, but it is only a six-figure reference from 1992, so I have no idea what I might find, if anything.
False alarm: climbing up to get a better view, its a hazel…..
A few more yards: difficult yards; the Molinia tussocks are aggressive here, if grass can be aggressive. I’m hopping from one to another remembering Indiana Jones spelling “Jehovah” incorrectly in The Last Crusade.
There it is.
And I really got lucky: its up on a crag with a blue sky behind it, peppered with little white fluffy clouds. Oh baby; you’re the best!

Around the corner, I change direction; north east now, and the walking improves, thankfully.
Its November 16th, and I’m still brushing ticks off my trousers and sleeves. Three different sizes too. For goodness sake.

I head to a beach that I’ve not visited before, but its boulders and rocks, and not my mission today, so keep walking.
At the corner of Loch a’ Meallard the OS map shows a number “3”, and although I found no sign of this “3” (!!!), the view of Quinag across more cat-ice had to be my favourite of the day.

Lunch was trying to get out of my rucksack, but the weather was due to change, so I stuffed some confectionary and carried on: my second location not far away.

An oak!
Maybe scarcer than elm up here? Yes, I’ll get your photo too, thank you!

1992 record says “huge wych elm on boulder scree, other elms nearby”.
And it was indeed huge. A bit of a challenge to photograph, within woodland and amongst boulders about five feet across. A very large branch had partly fallen years ago, so there was a tangle of boughs the diameter of my arm or my leg reaching down to the floor.

Finishing off here and the light faded as clouds arrived, so I was wise not to stop for lunch earlier.

The third side of my triangle of my circular walk was back to the van, and there was a gert big erratic on the hill that I headed to for lunch. It was soooo big, that it was much larger than Quinag, the mountain behind it; just look at that: 

Mission accomplished, I reckon; so long as I didn’t mess up the camera settings.

Trudging up the hill, I came over a slight rise, and suddenly there’s this thing in the sky.
Was it a bird? Was it a plane?
Splash. Wallop.
As I watched the sea eagle cruise over my head at telegraph-pole height, I put my foot in a hole full of water and fell over.
You couldn’t make it up. It was a great view, as I sat in the bog trying to work out which way was up.
Anyhow, no old men were hurt during the course of this adventure……

My Wych Elm photos are now being collected in the gallery here:


Gleann Leireag/ Glenleraig: Continuum

Time and wilderness.

There would’ve been a time before people. The place existed before it was affected by the earliest inhabitants. Wilderness.
What did it look like?
No records, no books, no photos. Only guesses.
Who and when? No idea.
Then a thriving community; maybe for thousands of years.
Yes, they, and their livestock, would have left a significant mark: not just the buildings.
Over 200 years since.
Now we need archaeologists to tell us the story.
Is it wilderness again?
Will it ever be wilderness again?


Sixth day of May; it should be spring. I left home in cool sunshine with a lazy north wind blowing; about 15 minutes later, I’m at Glenleraig and reluctant to get out of my vehicle. I can see what’s coming. Then it goes very dark and slams it down with hail and sleet. One hot drink later, it starts to clear, and I get the camera out. Suddenly, I’m scampering up the roadside verge: that cloud is now on the nearby mountain of Quinag, and creates a fabulous background for my first shot of the day. Just look at that!

And I know it will be there and gone so very quickly. Over in an instant. The absolute and complete opposite of most of what I’m looking at, a landscape brim full of time. The vast bulk of Quinag is primarily sandstone that’s about 1000 million years old; the rocks under my feet are probably three times as old. Mind boggling. And in the foreground of my photograph are the remains of a building, which is likely to be from a settlement that was thriving here until it became victim of the Clearances about 200 years ago. There are quite a few like this, and, in fact, this was one of the largest settlements around before that time; quite important then.

I wander about in the intermittent sunshine with willow warblers belting out their song from nearby trees, and two separate cuckoos are, well, cuckooing. Like they do. If I was a meadow pipit now, I’d be keeping my head down, or risking an unwelcome extra egg in my nest. At the corner of an old ruined wall, a wren disappears into a hole in the stones and doesn’t come out again. People used to live and work here. After the bedrock itself, their ruined houses are probably some of the oldest things I can see. The trees are mainly birch, and are nowhere near as old.

Maybe the lichen on the stones is. There’s a lot of it, and it is very slow growing.

Perhaps it was even on these stones before they were used to make homes for people and byres for animals.

The ruins are gradually being absorbed back into the ground and overgrown with vegetation. I walk further up the glen. There is a path; it’s a bit boggy to begin with, but runs for about 4 miles towards the shores of Loch Assynt.

It’s very scenic and I know it well: I have a rowan tree up here that I visit regularly to photograph the changing seasons.

Winding through the still-dormant heather, the birdsong has petered out, and I can hear the breeze and my own footsteps crunching on dead bracken. No traffic, no people. Up by the remains of an old tree erupting from rocks, pointing at the sky like a magic wand, a lightning conductor, I look down at a grassy plateau. There’s a circular shape in the turf. It’s likely to be much older than the ruined buildings I saw earlier, and perhaps 2000 years old. Iron age? Yes, this landscape has been inhabited for a long time, and might be emptier now than it has been for thousands of years. Maybe we’ll never know.

Below me, the burn bubbles its way down to the sea. I can see a little waterfall upstream, and wonder if I can get a shot with Quinag in the background.

The middle of nowhere. No signs of the human race just here. A mountain, a stream, open moorland, and a big, big sky. Like it’s been this way for ever? I think about the meaning of “wilderness” and also “wild land”, and wonder where those interpretations start and finish. The sort of places I might expect to see “wildlife”? All using the word “wild”. So not “tamed”, then. Clearly they’re not cultivated, farmed, or gardened. But maybe it’s also about personal comfort zones and familiarity. I’m out here in places like this regularly. I don’t think about labels or definitions myself. I’d guess those previous inhabitants, whether they be 200 or 2000 years ago, didn’t either.

And I’m not “in the middle of nowhere” at all. This is definitely “somewhere” for me.

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