The Actual Beginning of the Quest… A Heathland Hike & Searching at Sandwood.

Leaving Ullapool felt like the real start of my adventure. As described in my previous post here, the Great Yellow Bumblebee (GYB) is only found in a few areas on the very North coast of Scotland and some off laying islands. Thanks to Ida & Katy at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT) I had a list of seven prospective GYB sites in Sutherland and Caithness which are managed by different organisations including Highland Council Countryside Rangers. Scotland has two thirds of the world’s machair: a wildflower – rich calcareous sandy grassland unique to Scotland’s North West Coast and Ireland and home to many rare species including the GYB and corncrake. GYB forage particularly on plants from the pea family (Fabaceae) such as red clover, vetches and trefoil before moving on to the Asteraceae family (specifically knapweeds and thistles) later in the flowering season. Intensive farming methods have cleared wildflower meadows across most of the UK but machair habitat, rich in these flowers, is protected by the traditional crofting and farming techniques such as carefully managed cycles of cultivation and grazing that are still widely used in the Highlands and therefore provides much needed sanctuary for the UK’s rarest bumblebee.

I left Ullapool around midday on Sunday 10th July, after a quick ‘farewell’ swim in Loch Broom, and drove North on the A835 towards Kinlochbervie. I had picked up a useful map of the recently marketed ‘North Coast 500’in Ullapool Bookshop and my seven GYB sites were conveniently spread along the route. The first site was Oldshoremore – approximately 60 miles north of Ullapool. It wouldn’t take long to get there but I thought that I might want a few view/photo stops along the way and I wasn’t wrong. I said goodbye to Wester Ross, driving past Knockan Crag (which I haven’t visited in years but will definitely make a point of dropping into next time I’m in the Geopark). The cloud was beginning to come down and there were spittings of rain but rather than detracting from my journey, it made the scenery more moody, dramatic and exciting.

The A894 through Unapool gave the most spectacular views of the hills and inlet around Loch Beag and Loch Gleann Dubh. Before long I reached Kylesku Bridge. I’m not often a  fan of modern architecture but something about this bridge was stunning – the photos really don’t do it justice. It’s tall and open and seemed to add even more grandeur to the surroundings. I stopped to stretch my legs on the other side at the little view point car park, and of course,couldn’t help but rootle through the heather a little looking for interesting inverts.

My next stop was Scourie; a little village about halfway from Ullapool to Durness, and just over Kylesku Bridge. I’ve visited Scourie a couple of times before. It has a pretty little beach and a nice walk over to the headland but the main point of interest (for me at least) is the Handa ferry that leaves from nearby and takes you to Handa Island – a 3km² nature reserve managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, host to one of the largest breeding sea bird colonies in North-West Europe . I visited Handa last year with my family and was lucky enough to see my first puffins on the ride over. Unfortunately the mist came down while we were on the island and completely obscured any views of the spectacular sea cliffs which are home to razorbills, guillemots, fulmars and kittwakes in the breeding season. My grandmother did however get bombed by a pair of nesting Arctic skuas (Stercorarius parasiticus) and I spent half an hour chasing a very pale moss carder bee (Bombus muscorum) around the thistles thinking it could be a GYB. I thought about going back this year but my trip had a reasonably tight time schedule and an even tighter budget so although generally it is well worth the £12.50 boat fare to visit this beautiful island, I couldn’t justify it on this trip.

It was around 5.30pm when I arrived at the car park for Sandwood Bay and it had begun to drizzle again. I had packed my bag with all the camping essentials before leaving Ullapool so I was ready to go but the beach is a 4 and a half mile walk across heathland from the nearest road/parking place and I know how difficult it is to dry out in a tent/car so I thought I should hang around for a bit to see if the rain cleared up. Six o’clock came and I decided I’d have to brave it otherwise I’d be putting up the tent and cooking in the dark (although I later realised it never actually gets dark?!). My rucksack was heavy; full of tins, bottled water, tent, sleeping bag, all of my field guides and a woolen blanket. I imagined that I would be exhausted by the time I arrived at the beach and I set off with a smile that I didn’t expect to last long.

The start point for the walk to Sandwood Bay.

I had underestimated myself. My rucksack (borrowed from my housemate – I couldn’t work out the waist clip. I had to tie and untie it every time I wanted to take it off which was often because it kept threatening to topple me over when I was crouching over plants and insects) was huge and cumbersome but my mood was light and buoyant. I found a wonderful magpie moth (Abraxas grossulariata) and later many more amongst the heather, including some ovipositing. I was struck by the amount of orchids poking spiky bright heads up alongside the heather and cotton grass. I was literally stopped in my tracks by a highland cow that stubbornly refused to move off the path and why should she? It’s every bit as much her land as mine (more in fact!) so I gingerly sidestepped her horns and continued towards the beach. Every step felt like adventure and I found myself wondering: in years to come if I’m lucky enough to have family, will my children tell their children about the time crazy Granny Annie travelled the Highlands looking for a bee and inspiring them to have their own adventures? I hope so.

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Occasionally the rain cut out for a few minutes and allowed a few brave bumblebees to forage in the heather. There were a couple of big heath bumblebees around and for one heartstopping moment I saw a flash of pale yellow-orange and thought I’d got my GYB! I slammed my net down and got my bug pot and sample tube ready but quickly realised that it was a carder bumblebee; either moss (B. muscorum) or common (B. pascuorum). Across the UK, B. pascuorum colouration varies significantly and it can be almost impossible to tell apart from the usually paler, yellowish B.muscorum in the field especially in Scotland where one important identifying feature – the absence of black hairs on the rarer B.muscorum – is no longer applicable as B. pascuorum also sometimes lack them in the Highlands!

After almost two hours walking, insect hunting and scenery admiring, I finally got a sight of the bay where I would be camping. I’d been advised by a friend that the best spots are on the far side (although I now wonder if he just said that so I’d have to walk further).

My first view of Sandwood 🙂

I trudged up and down the sand dunes and across a river until I found the ideal place to put up my tent, After making it homely with my car blanket, I sat there for a while thinking and taking in my surroundings. I couldn’t stop staring at the amazing stack rising up at the southern end of the bay, coming in and out of focus through the sea mist. This 240ft vertical formation of Torridonian sandstone (the sedimentary rock responsible for much of the Northwest Highland landscape) named Am Buachaille (translated as The Herdsman, probably due to the waves crashing at its base and whipping up white water reminiscent of a frisky flock of sheep) was up there with the top 10 sights on my trip. However cliché it sounds, I felt so small camping there; on one side a hill with towering rock faces and on the other a vast expanse of white sand bordered by unspoiled heathland and a wild sea. I felt small but still important and strong, and most of all: happy.

View over Sandwood Bay from my tent, with Am Buachaille on the left.

As dusk came about, I started on dinner with my very basic camping equipment – solid fuel stove, fuel tablets and a mess tin. Drawing from my experiences on the fire workshop at Lindley Festival of Outdoor Education last year, I’d packed plenty of cotton wool and Vaseline to make firelighters. It wasn’t a bad tea of pilau rice, kidney beans and tomatoes 🙂 After eating I settled down in my sleeping bag with my field guides and maps, wrote a few postcard and planned for the next day… The search for GYB had begun!


To be continued…

All images subject to copyright. All opinions expressed on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent the view of Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust for whom I volunteer, or any other organisation.


3 thoughts on “The Actual Beginning of the Quest… A Heathland Hike & Searching at Sandwood.

  1. Engrossing and captivating . I love it as I do all the other tales. One of these days I am going back , but I need to fitten up firstly. A recent prog (last week) on Nat Geo called Wild Scotland held my attention over 4 episodes – catch it if you can – Ewan MacGregor narrates it incredibly well.

    This was a beautiful account and again I am so looking forward to the next “epispade” (made that up)


  2. Did you visit Handa? It’s a wonderful place, although I’d say that about everywhere around there really! I bet Sandwood was lovely in the sunshine – unfortunately I didn’t get that pleasure but it was spectacular nevertheless 🙂


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