Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Living the high life on Ben MacDui

The summit areas of the Cairngorms form the most arctic-like environment in Britain, winter here can last for nine months of the year and the conditions for any plant or animal are extreme.  Winds scour the plateaux, the ground can be frozen, buried in snow, subject to heavy rain and endure drought conditions during the course of a year.  To live the "high life" on these plateaux you have to be tough.  But there are a surprising amount of  species who choose this environment.  Birds like Ptarmigan don't do well at lower altitudes, while scarce breeders such as Dotterel and Snow bunting find the Cairngorm tops much like their core sub-arctic ranges.

The boulderfields look bare at first glance, just granite boulders, some moss and a few lichens - and even these need to be very resistant to extremes.

But look around a bit and you start to find other species.  On the granite gravel patches are tufts of Deer Grass (Tricophorum cespitosum).  The plant isn't particularly favoured by deer, the name coming from the warm brown and orange colours of the shoots as they die back in late summer and autumn.

Sedge, Rush or Grass?  I see this species a lot on the hills and haven't definitely identified it, so if anyone knows what it is please let me know!

The undoubted superstar of the high plateaux in summer is Moss Campion (Silene acaulis).  Occurring in clumps sheltered behind boulders up to about 1150 metres, the dense cushions of green dotted with jewel-like purple flowers are a startling sight on the bare slopes.

The flowers are just 6-10mm across and sit tight on the cushion of the plant.  Superbly adapted for the high life, Moss Campion has a deeply penetrating tap root and a compact cushion which give it a good degree of wind resistance.  Up here, the wind rules everything, even eroding the rock itself by blowing gravels around.   Plants have adapted though.......


This heath has grown prostrate from a crack on a granite boulder.  The plant has grown downwind and as the wind has damaged the part nearest the root it has found  a toehold on the lee side of the boulder and put down roots.  Soon the original root will die and break off as the plant finds a better position in the shelter of the rock.

 My descent to Glen Luibeg took me down off the summit boulderfields and onto the grassy ground a bit lower down.  Lochan Uaine (the green lochan) in its wild corrie was one of the places I'd considered camping.  Maybe next time.....


  1. wow, nice photo as usual. It looks like the stones have to tough as well in the height. ;ø)

  2. That boulder field is amazing. It rocks! Great photo as well.

  3. Such a variety of climactic zones in this country! Coming from Canada, we don't think of a boreal climate in Scotland - not all that far from where palm trees grow in areas moderated by the Gulf Stream! Great pics and narrative, Ian. Warm wishes. Duncan.

  4. Thank you Leif, Rolf and Duncan - our mountains aren't so high but there is quite a range of environments in a short distance :-)

    Kind Regards