WFS Diapensia expedition No 1 June 8th 2006


ascent view View of Loch Shiel and Glenfinnan as we ascended

Pedicularis sylvatica Pedicularis sylvatica (Lousewort)

Empetrum nigrum Empetrum nigrum (Crowberry)

Vaccinium myrtillus Vaccinium myrtillus (Blaeberry)

Meetings beget meetings

Inspired perhaps by the 2005 WFS Teesdale meeting where on the last day we had to climb to the top of Cronkley Fell to try to find the only site for Helianthemum oelandicum ssp laevigatum (Hoary Rock-rose), two members of that expedition decided to plan a identical trips to a Scottish mountain the following year.

Both Janet MacPherson and Peter Llewellyn had separately decided to try to find Diapensia lapponica (Diapensia) which is supposed to grow the summit of a remote mountain somewhere in Scotland. They eventually joined forces with Peter Hilton to form an ad hoc WFS meeting.

In the new year the same idea occurred to a few members of the official WFS Assynt "come-and-find" meeting. Naturally they had chosen a date close to the Assynt meeting but which was according to our information possibly near the end of Diapensia’s flowering period.

We stuck to our timetable, allowing ourselves the choice of one of two days for the expedition to allow for indifferent weather. Eventually we settled on June 8th as a possible day when the weather wasn’t forecast to be too bad and when, according to our information, the plant would still be in flower.

Discovered as late as 1951, the UK population of Diapensia fascinates many botanists because of the remoteness and inaccessibility of its habitat and the fact that it was found relatively recently by a bird watcher: C.F. Tebutt. It is still only known from the summit of a single peak at 2,815 feet near Glenfinnan a small settlement at the head of Loch Shiel.

It's always better to travel in company in the hills than alone and soon the party planning the No 1 expedition had become three WFS members with five other interested Scottish friends together with Bridie the Lurcher.

None of us had seen Diapensia before and so were informed only by botanical gossip. We understood that there was just one small clump only of this plant on a bare rock towards the back of the mountain summit not far from Ben Nevis with no discernable tracks leading to the site. Diapensia has a very short flowering period sometimes beginning in Mid May and only opens in sunshine.

So we needed a morning of good climbing weather, the right time of year, good navigation skills, an exact location for this one clump, plenty of energy and an afternoon of summer sunshine on top of a remote Scottish mountain.

Easy peasy.

The Ascent

Our group was led by Janet's husband Neil Macpherson an experienced mountain walker who, by way of a warm-up, had strolled 15 miles with friends in the Cairngorms the day before.

When we arrived at the Glenfinnan car park the cloud base was below 2,000 feet so if it stayed there was no chance of seeing the flowers even if we found the one and only clump - assuming we'd guessed correctly about the flowering period. The leaves of Diapensia lapponica are also easily confused with Loiseleuria procumbens (Trailing Azalea) so we really did need to see the plant in flower.

We had details of where to start and how to approach the climb from someone who had successfully done the trip a few years before. This included the essential GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) references for the plant. Sometimes GPS references are dismissed as new fangled nonsense by those who prefer traditional methods of navigation but we felt we needed every little bit of help we could get. Moreover we were aware that only a short while before our attempt, the Inverness naturalists had failed to find Diapensia when armed with maps, compasses, correct grid references but no GPS.

For those unfamiliar with hand held GPS equipment you should know that there is only a little screen with information about your height and a 10 figure grid reference which you can relate directly to your OS map. Unlike the ones in a car no soothing voice tells you to turn left at the Huperzia selago (Fir clubmoss) and carry straight, for 400 metres past the Vaccinium uliginosum (Bog Bilberry) looking out for Loiseleuria procumbens (Trailing azalea) by the large rock which looks like Mick Jagger's nose.

We had carefully printed out the ascent guidance which was totally ignored by our leader who decided to invent his own way up. We started at the splendid Glenfinnan railway viaduct, over a stile and straight into a bog.

So far so good.