Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Bog Trotting

What sets this area of bog land that blankets the major part of the island of Lewis apart from others is the sheer extent of unbroken and actively growing peatland and the pervading influence of the sea on it unique plant life. While others rush to the two magnificent beaches at Garry and Traigh Mhor I head inland for a spot of solitary bog trotting. Taking the track across the road from the newly opened bunkhouse passing the quarry where only two weeks ago the pair of young buzzards huddled together scruffy with chick white fluff between virgin feathers and yesterday I watched the last one make its maiden flight acoss the valley to make a rather ungainly landing. I pas over the tiny bridge that crosses the aptly named Allt na muilne where further down stream you can still make out the remains of at least two ancient mills. The river in full spate is an impressive sight capturing water over five square kilometres and half a dozen lochs it crashes down peat-brown from the moorland little over a kilometre long to do battle against the incoming tide on the white sands of Traigh Mhor beach. The old peat gathering track, one of many that fan out onto the moor from the back of North Tolsta rises slowly up to about 100 metres where it stops at Loch Diridean. Along the left bank of the loch there are still the neat striped contours of peat extraction and at this its north easterly end there is an ancient stepping stone crossing to a spit of ground that once served as the old sheep fank for working on sheep brought in off the moor. I like to cross at this point but the stones at the near side are beneath the water so its shoes and socks off and on all fours as the slippery flat rocks are now anything but steady. Clambering to the high ground beyond I can see my hoped for destination the 248 metre hill of Muirneag which dominates the skyline from Stornoway to the north-west and east coasts. This extra ordinary landscape was formed during a period of climate cooling which saw trees recede and peat build up beneath sphagnum mosses. The winter has been surprisingly dry and follows an exceptionally dry summer of 2012 where the multicoloured blanket of acid green, rich red and pale yellows of the moss has been dried and bleached in the sun. Further in I make my way through a maze of small pools of flowering bog bean their root system clearing tracing the depths. This land of blanket bog is scarce in world terms and is one of subtle contrasts where drier heath ridges give way to wet hollows and streams cut deep into the peat that connect the open water tapestry of lochs. The soft walking provides a rich array of wetland plant life with bog mosses, butterworts, sundew, spotted orchids and bog asphodel. The lochs are set low in the landscape and as such often remain unseen until close to. Both red-throated and black-throated divers can be seen in the lochs and are easily disturbed so a wide berth by humans in spring and summer is recommended. I well remember at the age of six struggling home with a dead black-throated diver dangling from the handlebars of my bike as its beak strummed the wheel spokes so keen was I to show it to my parents the beauty of this bird. The Red Indians have a story of how the loon got its spots as a gift for having restored the sight of the Indian chief but this eye-catching summer plumage arrangement of dark lines with bars of white spots may have more to do with camouflaging the bird as it hunts for small fish.

I plod on towards my goal that now seems even further away and almost tread on a red grouse, it flies low chattering in anger and I assume it is a male since females will often do a tumbling defensive dance as if injured in order to lure one away from her young. High above the cascading song of the skylark marks for me childhood’s classic summer’s day and beyond on a raised dry mound an alert golden plover calls out with a soft whistle warning to its mate. I arrive at last at Loch Nic Dhomhnaill at the foot of Miurneag and decide to head back, leave the climb for another day and head to the north east to Loch Scarasdail where a shieling is marked on the map. As I reach the ridge the rusty tin roof is immediately visible at the far end of the loch and as I approach I marvel at just how perfectly the old stone structure blends into the landscape so different from our modern homes that must be perched on the highest spot to obtain the finest view and a clean wind that negates any form of gardening. Within the walls of this low hut a wren has made its nest and trills loudly in anger as I enter, the old iron stove has be lugged way out here on the moor but with strong winter winds full of sea salt it has corroded beyond use. Further over I discover two more ruins before continuing north-east to the river leading down to Garry beach. Earlier on this year we had a massive fire on the moor which lit up the night sky for several days and seems to have started on the north side of this valley, now with the heather burnt the grass has grown lush and the grazing will be good. The fire was not without consequence to nature as it spread over some seven square miles as far as the coast however visually it is already becoming difficult to see where exactly the burn took place and apart from a lack of heather and a greener aspect I am amazed at how quickly it has regenerated. The river Ghearadha winds its way eastward cutting deeper into the landscape where eventually it cuts through an escarpment passing under the bridge to nowhere and joins the Minch. On the way there are several ruined remains indicating that in the past this valley was used during the summer months as common grazing when the women, children and young adults would live in the shielings tending the township cattle and sheep while the men laboured on the more fertile ground close to the coast. The traditional Lewis shielings became in later years a low stone-built base with turf sods for its upper walls which explains why today many remains are little more than knee high mounds of grass covered stones. Inside these windowless smoke filled structures was a raised platform where dried heather and moor grass made a fairly comfortable nights sleep.

On the high ground above Garry beach I along with other locals continue the tradition of peat cutting, leaving them to dry flat for three weeks then setting them up for the wind to continue the drying process. Arriving back at the house its time for tea and an evening close to a good open peat fire and outside in front of the house is displayed the peat stack today a symbol of pride and I smile as another visitor to the bunkhouse takes a photo of my labours.