Inspired by a talk at the National Trust for Scotland offices in Killin, I set off the next day to explore the wildflowers of Ben Lawers and Beinn Ghlas. Ben Lawers is the highest mountain in Perthshire and the tenth highest Munro in Scotland; at 1214m it reaches nearly 4,000ft. Its altitude provides a suitably harsh habitat for a wide range of arctic and alpine species of plants that are otherwise rare in the UK. The flora is particularly rich because calcareous schists and limestones outcrop at very high altitude, providing more fertile soil than is normal in the highlands. The mountains are part of the Ben Lawers National Nature Reserve, which is managed by the National Trust for Scotland.
I had been meaning to visit Ben Lawers in July to shoot photographs for a feature I’m writing about hill wildflowers, but the persistently wet weather had deterred me. By August I knew some flowers would have gone over, but I was hoping that at high altitude on shady north-facing slopes many plants would still be in bloom.
The forecast was good and I found the car park in sunshine with mist wreathing Loch Tay below and the summits above. Setting off at a good pace, I climbed through the fenced nature trail area, passing harebells, yarrow, tormentil and many other common flowers of grassy hillsides. With one person out in front of me and one behind, I continued up the Beinn Ghlas path, gaining height rapidly via the many rock steps. After an hour and a half, I reached the summit cairn. The cloud had largely burnt off, or perhaps blown away in the stiff wind blowing from the south, leaving me a good view all round.
The next two and a half hours I spent investigating the crags of Beinn Ghlas’s north face. They are not readily accessible, being on extremely steep ground, and I went half way down the north ridge before finding what I felt was a safe approach. Taking care, I traversed the uncomfortably vertiginous grass slopes between the sheer crags and gradually worked back uphill.
The mountain appeared to be even more closely grazed than I remembered, so that very few flowers were visible in the grass sward and most were confined to rock ledges beyond the reach of the sheep scattered across the slopes. My trusty friend Braan followed me up some of the scrambles, but got a bit uncomfortable when hands were needed in addition to four paws, so I had to tell her to stay at the bottom while I captured images of alpine forget-me-not, rock whitlowgrass and roseroot. She soon realised I was into photography and left me to get on with it. Occasionally I would look round to see her regally standing on a boulder, surveying sheep grazing far below. Fortunately we have trained her to look at and not chase sheep, so I could confidently take my eye off her for a while.
Although shaded from the sun, I was sheltered from the wind so stayed reasonably warm without adding layers. It was a different world on top when I emerged back to the summit: bright sunshine, cutting wind and hoards of people. Having been peacefully communing with the mountain away from external stimuli, it quite was an assault my the senses.
Within 45 minutes I had descended to the bealach, where Braan had a good drink from an attractive wee lochan, and ascended to the trig point on Ben Lawers. Here it was standing room only, with one couple using a selfie stick to photograph themselves and others on mobile phones or eating lunch. Braan and I didn’t linger but swiftly moved off down the south ridge to find a quiet spot. I remembered on a previous visit having seen a ruin used as a shelter when the first Ordnance Survey was done of Ben Lawers in the 1870s, so I headed to it for lunch. It is set in a rocky defile with crags on the south side that protected me from the wind.
After eating, I spent another two hours botanising on the south and west slopes of Ben Lawers before descending back to the bealach. Exposed to more sunshine, some flowers I’d seen on Beinn Ghlas had gone over here, but I still found plenty of nooks and crannies in the crags with a variety species. I just wish I knew more about ferns, mosses and liverworts, which were abundant and, I understand, include several rare species.
My descent route was via the path that traverses the north side of Beinn Ghlas to the col between it and Meall Corranaich, then straight down Coire Odhar and back to the car park. I was out nine hours and half of that time was spent hunting for and photographing wild flowers. It was good to be able to walk uphill at my own pace, not having to keep up with or stop for companions, though the best part of the day was crawling over the ‘skin and bones’ of the mountains and poking around places that few people visit. Being totally absorbed in the environment left me feeling calm and connected to the natural world.
Less than hour after reaching the car I was home and back in the so called ‘real’ world of everyday concerns: checking my emails and thinking about what to cook for dinner. But days like this remind me that those things are of secondary importance.
Being no expert, I am now trying to identify all the plants I photographed, but will need assistance to pin down those where there is a choice of several closely related species. The extremely rare snow pearlwort, which featured in the NTS talk, eluded me – probably because it has tiny insignificant looking flowers and only grows in a couple of ledges. However, I was happy to find a variety of other arctic alpine wildflowers, which are arguably more photogenic.
PS. This post isn’t intended to encourage others to do what I sometimes do: walking/scrambling alone on steep slopes, which I developed a taste for from doing mountain marathons with deviously placed controls. My advice to anyone going into the hills is to weigh up the dangers and minimise them by keeping well within your own limits. Also be aware that rare plants and habitats are easily damaged, so tread lightly on the land. Better to view from a distance than risk trampling or causing a disturbance to wildlife.
PPS. I’ve made my best guess where I’m unsure of a wildflower species. Please email me if you spot any I wrongly identified and can tell me the correct name.
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