Summer is definitely toppling over into Autumn now, so on a quiet and mellow afternoon we head off on a forestry walk not far from Inchree where we stumbled upon these fantastic examples of Fly Agarics.
Just off the footpath at the edge of the forest these toadstools look as if they had been made for a fairytale film set. There is not a blemish on their bright red caps, and they are huge!
Everything about these Fly Agarics is perfect as we get to them and look closely. The large white gills present as fresh white with a tinge of pink when viewed from underneath, and the new veil is still complete, flaring above the typical bulbous base.
With no slug trails, mice nibblings or bird pecks the cap is still perfect with as yet nothing to spoil the pristine surface.
The smaller of these two Agaric (or Amantia Muscaria to give it its latin name), shows an excellent example of an emerging toadstool, cap still rounded before fully opening and flattening out. The white spots or warts are still a lovely creamy white; at later stages they will fade to a yellowish colour as they age and get rain washed.
Pulling back the view and showing them in their setting you can see how arresting the sight was as we rounded the corner of the footpath and saw them on the bank under the trees next to the river. They are typical of their habitat, growing as they are under the Birch and Spruce trees on this acidic soil bank.
There’s a whole host of other fungus species showing well right now and in Glen Nevis there is a small stand of beech trees with colourful bracket fungus growing out of the heartwood.
This is the Hoof or Tinder fungus so called because the brackets look very like a horse’s hoof – if you the rap the fungus with your knuckle you will find it quite solid and hard; this is a tough specimen at this full grown stage, hard like a walnut. Not the soft collapsible spongy feel that one might expect on first encountering it.
Close up you can see beautifully coloured tiers of distinct growth, concentrically grooved and zoned with blue grey, greens and rich tan coloured rings.
The currently accepted scientific name for this bracket fungus is Fomes Fomentarius which means “fungus used for tinder” as this fungus can indeed be used for lighting fires, even if it does burn very slow.
When this fungus is in its fruiting body phase it is common to see a large, spongy thick lip growing all the way round the bracket – this soft white lip is the growing layer of the fungus. Only later on will it become the very tough horny hoof that we see on tree trunks throughout beech woodlands across the Scottish Highlands.
On this same group of tree trunks we also found a sweet example of Porcelain fungus. Classically situated high up on the beech trunk it’s delicate thin appearance is immediately evocative of translucent porcelain tea cups; especially when viewed alongside the tough no-nonsense brackets.
The morning was a warm bright, sunny excursion up the Glen following the winding river Nevis and traversing past the old burial ground which lies quietly enclosed in a guardian of beech and sycamore trees.
Later in the afternoon, having crossed the river Nevis at Lower Falls we headed back down the Glen through the coniferous plantations. By now the sun had gone in and the warmth had gone; there was a definite early evening chill in the air. We headed back along one of the forest tracks accompanied as we walked by the high pitched delicate, restless notes of Goldcrests and Coal Tits foraging together up in the canopy along their own little coniferous highway.
On a mossy lichen encrusted bank farther along this track is a veritable village of toadstools looking exactly like a small hamlet. It’s a bit of a steep scramble to get up to look at the fungi in detail built as they are high above the road like tiny alpine chalets.
They are each quite jaunty looking funnel shaped fungi close up, and have the outward look of a stetson hat set squarely and confidently on its stalk. The gills are interweaved, more akin to the offset course of bricks as opposed to the smooth running line of the gills in the Fly Agaric. The closest we have been able to get to identifying them is possibly the Bi-coloured Deceiver.
Growing out from their precipice as they do, they complete an elegant study in this green palette of mosses and lichens which are immensely pleasing to the eye.
“I don’t do dams” the lady said dramatically, clasping the back of her hand to her forehead. “Er why is that?” my friend asked somewhat nervously.
“Dams! Can’t bear them. I can’t even look at them!”. “But you keep your eyes on the road, surely? You don’t have to look”.
“No, no, I just can’t even look. I know its there!”.
“But, you don’t have to look; it’s away to the right of the road; which bears left!” “No. Can’t even drive along the road. Nasty things. My husband drives past it no problem. The children and I have never been further than Tulloch”.
My friend looked nervously down at the two innocent children who were destined never to see any further east along the A86 and the stunning landscape – nature reserves, biking trails and mountains including the Cairngorms that would have been so rewarding.
Laggan Dam, completed in 1934, is a stunning example of early 20thC quality and craftmanship; careful attention paid to the finished appearance that is pleasing to the eye nearly a century later – close up you can see the beautiful detail in the cast bronze plaque that was set in place, showcasing the heyday of our industry.
Scotland’s heart is still relatively new to us and so David, having discovered this road whilst driving back from dropping a friend off at Inverness airport came back open mouthed at the drama and beauty along the route, not to mention the vast sweeping skyscapes which we never got from our lovely home tucked in under Helm Crag at the back of Grasmere. There, one looks up to see the sky.
Our next free day allowed us to head out and explore back along the route. The Scottish Highlands are incredibly varied; drive in any direction and you get a completely different feel to the landscape. The day for us became a blend of happy reminders of the Lake District, touches of the Alps and images of British Columbia; like all the best bits of the world one has ever been to.
Creag Meagaidh lies on the north shore of Loch Laggan, half way along the A86 road between Fort William and Newtonmore and is a beautifully managed and maintained nature reserve that is successfully regenerating the natural birch woodland and other flora such as the rare mountain willows.
Coming from the barren fells of Lakeland where hill sheep are intrinsic we see everywhere strong examples of what can be achieved when sheep are removed from the landscape. This is not partisan propaganda – rather a snapshot of what is being shown to 2 individuals who come from the heart of Herdwick country.
Lichens festoon the branches here; taking nothing away from the natural beauty and adding a mantle in their own way; almost like snow.
There are regular happy reminders of home past in elements such as the dry stone walls, the boulders being much more rounded here; keen evidence of the vast rolling and tumbling of heavy river cobbles slowly worn down, then fished out of the rivers to provide the stone walls.
Follow the Allt Dubh Trail that winds through the birches and across a boardwalk to emerge above the reserve to the start of the path onwards to the Loch which sits snugly below the vertical crags of Coire Ardair.
Humans are natural pattern seekers and for us Creag Meagidh is such an abundant provider of shape and form that it will repeatedly draw us back to explore the changing shapes, patterns and colours of the whole reserve and mountain. It is a Ruskinian leaning – there is beauty in nature if only we take the time to quietly experience it.
It is wonderful moment to chance upon wild daffodils growing here as strongly and prettily as they do on the shores of Ullswater. What a great start to Spring in the Highlands. Can’t wait for the bluebells to come through; we’ve already seen signs of them starting to appear amongst the primroses…..
You start the day off a few hundred paces into a a walk and before you know it there’s a common lizard enjoying the first Spring weather, almost under your feet.
Focussing in on the pattern on his (or her – how can you tell?) body he (or she) is a beautiful patterns of chocolate, bronze and cream scales that form a chequer board of tiny counters; soft earthy colours that blend this little lizard perfectly into the winter grasses and stems. It’s breathtaking enough walking in the Scottish Mountains, and yet there are small worlds and landscapes existing beneath our feet that are just as magical.
We are spending the day walking up Alt Coire a’Mhusgain to the waterfall just below the col that leads onto Stob Ban. Looking back as we start the walk we can see the sweeping lines and strongly sculpted glacial valley that is Glen Nevis.
It is in this grassy turf that we come across a Common Lizard curled up in the winter grasses.
It’s not a typically sunny day with blue skies; the morning being more dull and overcast but it’s great to be outdoors and the mountain tops look promisingly atmospheric the higher we hike up the valley. Further up the interlocking V’s will get steeper and more characteristic of numerous geography lessons detailing the upland hills and mountains of the UK and which always seemed to me a gateway leading to a land of a different kind, where the everyday cares and worries of the population fall away allowing instead, a welcome period of calm and peace, where one might hear only the call of a buzzard or the more guttural throaty honk of a raven.
We’ve not gone too far before the footpath becomes a saturated splashy walk with deep puddles every few metres or so. One small rock under David’s descending boot sprouts legs and dives off the rocky step below; and then every puddle on the footpath is full of frogs and frogspawn.
Every other patch of water we come across is a roiling mass of froggy bodies which suddenly becomes comedically still apart from the surprised frogs which get lifted up out of the water as their companions try frantically to burrow down through the mud and hide unchivalrously under their recent conquest.
One particular frog allows us to get close enough to see the amazing webbing of his feet, whilst another two pretend we’re not there. Frogs expressions are very clear at times.
The footpath gets steeper and higher, and the atmosphere of the valley changes again. No more puddles of water and frog spawn. Now there are steeper lines and the first proper sight of the snow still definitely present and not melting away just yet.
Now we are into a different world, one of exposed hillsides and twisted tree shapes, trunks and branches formed in part by the tornadic gusts that can rip down through the Glen in Winter.
Exposed boulders mark the steep terraces and show off their own geological formation in perfect symmetrical patterns. My geology is woefully rusty but I still love the subject and research biotite and quartzite afterwards to learn more about the slice of rock that seems like a painting to me in it’s composition and appearance. I tuck it away mentally – one for the Linhof later on.
This area was originally a region of violent geological activity which can be seen today in stunning relief where the folds and uplifts are helpfully contrasted by the snows.
At this height, the wind suddenly picks up as we switchback up the path and the familiar icy knife hits my face. The northerly chilled wind is refreshing and exhilarating. Instinctively I want to recoil and stay warm and comfortable but stronger is the joy of that bracing freshness on the skin that only comes from being up in the snow line of the mountains wherever you are in the world. Here it is, Stob Ban, and that is just perfect.
This is the waterfall we’ve come to check out, and it’s also an appropriate place for a tea stop.
There’s so much to do here whether it’s photographing, wildlife watching, mountain biking and so on; it seems like we’ve only just scratched the surface. There are already primroses out down at Loch Linnhe, but up here Winter is not quite over yet.
In one walk there is to be found so much natural beauty, landscapes within landscapes, if only we will take the time to look.
In this vast Highland Glen we have enjoyed so much in one day’s walk. We’ve explored the minerals, colours and lichens in rocks at our feet, and marvelled at the fantastic shapes and uplifted rock strata over on the buttress whilst a snow cornice sags and threatens to detach on the ridge thankfully far opposite and above us.
Later that week I catch a sighting of my first sea otter near the shore of Loch Linnhe as I’m driving into Fort William. I couldn’t stop but he was there happily diving for shore crabs and surfacing with his head out of the water looking towards my direction, joyfully chomping on his lunch. One day I might even get the chance to stop and watch him for longer. And just maybe be lucky enough to get a photograph.
We seem to be locked in a continuous freeze thaw cycle this Winter as El Nino continues to anomalise the usually fairly predictable weather patterns.
In the Highlands we are experiencing either torrential rain, with wind gusts typifying 60mph, or we have days of high pressure weather patterns resulting in magical scenes of ice and snow.
The Spruces and Pines always work their magic shapes in snowy weather and the belt of conifers below, which run along the side of the road half way down Glen Nevis look especially picturesque when dusted with fresh dry snow but you have to work fast before little cyclonic wind eddies stir up from nowhere, and cause the branches to shake themselves free of the freshly fallen snow.
There are some particularly graceful water slides slicing their way down the mountain sides to join with the River Nevis and we plunge down through knee deep snow to admire the Spruces which cluster all the way along the water cascade. This slide is Allt a’Choire Dheirg which carves its way down from Coire Dearg off Mullch nan Coirean.
It’s nearly dark by the time David makes this photograph, and it’s bitterly cold, but happily the Thermos flask of hot tea is waiting ready to warm us up before we head home.