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3 Jul 2020

Torridon – an enchanting wilderness of water and rock

Written by Seamus MacNally, Property Manager, Torridon
A mountain landscape, with tall mountains creating an almost-bowl effect. Boulders, rocks and small scrubs are strewn across the base.
Our countryside places have reopened, and many of us feel an even greater emotional attachment to Scotland’s natural landscapes this year. Seamus MacNally explains why Torridon is so special and why it must be protected for future generations to enjoy.

The mountains of Torridon contain some of the most spectacular scenery in Scotland. They are made from ancient Lewisian Gneiss rocks, over 2 billion years old, with the youthful Cambrian quartzites topping the peaks and sandwiching the massive layer of Torridonian rocks that make up the bulk of the landscape. These are composed of a mix of reddish sandstones, conglomerates and mud stones, deposited around 700 million years ago in massive rivers and lake. The strata they form can clearly be seen along the hillsides.

As striking as the mountain scenery is, it’s the presence of water, in the form of the sea in Upper Loch Torridon as well as the numerous hill lochs, that puts it all into perspective. The steep mountains seem to have ‘their feet in the sea lochs and their heads in the clouds’, as a previous ranger, Lea MacNally, once described them. There has been a MacNally working for the Trust at Torridon for over 50 years now, and it’s safe to say that this place is more than just a place of work – it’s more like home. However, 50 years is not even the blink of an eye in terms of the geological lifespan of this land, which has had a very long time to develop into its present form.

The last ice age was about 10,000 years ago, and so the vegetation and wildlife that we see today have adapted to various changes (especially in climate) since then. Torridon is certainly not a wet desert, as some people would like to proclaim, but a natural landscape that is brimming with wildlife – from tiny plants like the bog orchid up to the largest land mammal in Britain, the red deer.

Five deer graze in a grassy area on the side of a rocky mountain. The bright blue water of the loch can be seen in the background.
Deer grazing on Liathach

There are fine examples of lateral moraines (ridges of debris that form either side of a glacier) on both sides of Coire Mhic Nobuil to remind us of the glaciers that once ground their way towards the sea. The moraine below Sgorr a’ Chadail at the west end of the Liathach ridge is quite prominent, looking like a raised pathway across the hill. Up close there is a shallow trough on the upper side where the meltwater would have run alongside the deposited material. Covered in vegetation now, it is well drained compared to parts of the hill slopes and the grasses that grow there are attractive to the deer.

Trees once grew in the bottom of the glen where today there is open ground, but do not put all the blame for their demise on grazing animals or even humans; it was more to do with climate change when Torridon became a much wetter place. It’s still possible to find trees such as birch, rowan and a few pine on steep ground, usually beside noisy, tumbling burns, and also among the boulders in Toll a’ Mhadaidh Mor, below Beinn Alligin. Here the hillside collapsed spectacularly around 4,000 years ago, in the best example of a rock avalanche or sturzstrom in this country. The result was a huge boulder field that now provides shelter, good drainage and a few extra minerals to aid the growth of trees.

The open ground is dominated by dwarf shrub heath and includes dry heath and blanket bog. It supports an estate herd of just under 300 red deer. Their numbers are controlled to ensure that they live in harmony with their habitat. The vegetation grows from thin acidic soils; on a winter’s day in January when the north-westerly wind, rain and often snow comes hammering down the glens, it’s a wonder how anything survives in these harsh conditions. But survive they do, and with the return of spring the vegetation slowly becomes greener and more palatable. By the time June arrives, young life is everywhere on the hill.

A close-up of a young golden eagle sitting on a rocky ledge, with spiky brown head feathers and a large sharp beak.
Juvenile golden eagle

Golden eagles sometimes nest in the estate’s coires and they hunt ptarmigan, an occasional blue hare or wild goat. They also keep an opportune eye open for any newborn deer calves, to feed their hungry youngster on some remote crag. Often, only one of the two eaglets that normally hatch will survive, as food is in short supply in this area of the NW Highlands.

A small green plant grows between loose rocks and moss. It has two white flowers with four petals each and a yellow centre.
Northern rock cress growing at Torridon

Much that is special about Torridon has been recognised by the numerous scientific designations for the area, including a Geological Conservation Review listing for the rock avalanche on Beinn Alligin. Sites of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation are given for the vegetation found here.

One of the National Vegetation Classification Scheme Surveys carried out (B O’Hanrahan and A Headley, 2008) states: ‘the greatest importance of this site rests within the superb development and significant extent of the hepatic-rich heath on the north side of Liathach and east of Beinn Alligin. The presence of other liverwort-rich vegetation types, particularly those at the more montane end of the spectrum underlines the importance of this facet of the site’s vegetation.

‘Blanket bog and wet heath are both well-developed on most of the lower-lying slopes around the Liathach and Beinn Alligin massifs. Some of their greatest value lies not in their diversity, hydrology or rare species but simply in the presence here of large areas of lightly grazed vegetation of these types, enabling a much better assessment of the influence of environmental factors on the species composition and growth-forms of communities such as Scirpus-Erica wet heath and Scirpus-Eriophorum bog.

‘Also, in apparent contradiction to the predominantly acid geology, the presence of locally well-developed, species-rich tall-herb vegetation is important: they are closely associated with the ledges that are such a feature of the geomorphology of Liathach and, to a slightly lesser extent, Beinn Alligin.

‘Most of the summit ridge vegetation is extremely species-poor, especially the Carex-Racomitrium moss-heath, which certainly shows the influence of the acidic geology. But, even here, there are some areas just off the main ridge which support species such as northern rock cress (Arabis petraea), tufted saxifrage (Saxifraga cespitosa), wavy meadow-grass (Poa flexuosa), curved wood-rush (Luzula arcuata) and alpine lady fern (Athyrium distentifolium).’

A bright green stalk shoots up out of a bog, with a cluster of buds at the top.
A bog orchid in Glen Torridon

Torridon has something to offer all visitors, from the superb mountain scenery to the tiny plants that find shelter on its exposed ridges and ledges. Its mood will change according to the weather and light; it’s an ever-changing place of magic that is more than worthy of conserving, for both current and future generations to enjoy.

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