Like his illustrious predecessor, Jean Sibelius, contemporary Finnish composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara (b.1928) draws inspiration for his work from the natural world. His Flute Concerto, for instance, is subtitled ‘Dances with the Winds’ and that is precisely what we felt we were doing when we braved the gusto of Mother Nature’s lungs during a recent ascent of Beinn a’ Ghraig (the croaking mountain) in Mull’s Central Highlands. The ‘croaking’ aspect of this mountain’s Gaelic name is interesting and we wonder if it, indeed, refers to the vocal rattling of that most mythical of the Isle of Mull’s birdlife, the Ptarmigan. Having had a tip-off that a pair of these White Grouse had been seen recently on the summit of this mini-mountain, the Mull Magic obsession with these incredible birds kicked in…
Beinn a’ Ghraig at a mere 591 metres (1938 ft) may fall some way short of its more lofty and renowned neighbour, Ben More (966 m or 3,169 ft), yet it represents a steep ascent from its base at the mouth of the Scarisdale River. However, the slog over boulder and heather was worth every aching limb and sinew, as we mounted the scree-screwn plateau that lies below the summit. This was another world and one that we couldn’t have imagined as we looked up at the mountain from 1,800 feet below when we parked the Mull Magic (Auto)Mobile on the southern shore of Loch na Keal. The hill mist that rolled around us may have reduced visibility to almost dangerous levels at times, yet we were enraptured to know that we were the only people in the world (out of a near 8 billion) to be doing what we were doing: dipping out in our search for Mull’s elusive White Grouse!
Beinn a’ Ghraig represents a wonderful microcosm of subalpine life and besides being perfect habitat for Ptarmigan (at least from a human’s perspective)! the boulders and scree make tremendous natural containers for Mother Nature’s rock garden, full of the architecture, colours and textures of various mosses and lichens. The forked, grey-white ‘antlers’ of Cladonia uncialis (above) poked their branches through the moss and soil-filled hollows were populated by the upright stems of Fir Clubmoss, whose yellow-green stems contrasted with the cobalt staining lichens that encrusted the parent rocks. We would challenge even the most creatively verbose to adequately describe the beauty and wildness that we experienced. It is that indescribable quality that will lure us back up this mountain, time and time again!
Living in close association with fungi present in the soil, clubmosses represent an ancient group of plants that, along with mosses and lichens, are among the oldest organisms known to mankind. The crimson leaves of Sphagnum capillifolium made an eye-catching display, nestling as they did below the dormant sprigs of heather as we made our way down off the hill. The mountain landscape of the Isle of Mull is a primeval environment that represents a timeline linking the past with the present. With the imminent threat of global warming, it is to these mountains that conservationists, scientists and naturalists will look to in order to assess the likely impact of climate change. The plants and animals of the mountain are highly specialised and will act as natural barometers to the changes that will, inevitably, take place in the future.
We may have missed out on an opportunity to finally catch up with the island’s isolated population of Ptarmigan, but the faecal evidence of their whereabouts was to be found in latrines that littered the summit. Living on a dry diet of plant seeds and stems, Ptarmigan have to try to conserve as much water in their bodies as possible. Consequently, they produce equally dry, fibrous stools and recycle around 80% of their water intake. This is just another way which these montane birds have evolved to be able to survive in one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth.
Finding Ptarmigan on the Isle of Mull could best be described as the ornithological equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack. Regardless of the enormity of the task we have set ourselves, we are very much up to the challenge of our obsession and would be only too happy to continue to be led a merry dance before setting eyes on these marvellous birds. It feels like we already have! Each of Mull’s mountains has an individuality of character of its own. The exhilaration and freedom that comes with the invitation to explore this uniqueness is something Mull Magic could never forget or grow tired of, regardless of whether we ever see a Ptarmigan!