Tolsta Head Walk

Tolsta Head - A Naturalist’s Dream

 Thank you to Mick Blunt for this excellent article and for making us aware of just how varied the wildlife at Tolsta Head is.  Mick lives in Coll and runs a small walking holidays company, Hidden Hebrides.

 I have the great good fortune to earn my living by leading groups and individuals from all over the world on the finest walks in the Outer Hebrides. One of the very best is Tolsta Head, a mere 7 miles from my home in Coll. There is much historical interest around the headland, and Tolsta Historical Society has published an excellent booklet exploring this aspect of route. However, the walk is also a naturalist’s dream, and in this article I am going to share some of the many wonderful wildlife sights I have encountered over the past couple of years.

Plants in Tolsta Head

Seasonal changes are best shown by the many beautiful plants that are to be found along the route.  In April, the headland appears bleached out, white stalks of the previous year’s grasses contrasting against the brown heather. Look closely, though, and there are other plants here, especially if you peer over the cliff edges. Clinging to tiny ledges like intrepid mountaineers, low growing bushes of juniper and dwarf willow escape the jaws of grazing sheep. Here, too, are the fleshy, blue – green rosettes of roseroot and dense drifts of pink thrift splashed across the rock faces.

As April turns to May and June new flowers appear every week. Roseroot puts out its tight clusters of golden petals, whilst along the cliff edge often mats of English Stonecrop burst into bloom. The tiny red leaves of this tenacious plant store water, helping it to survive the hostile, salt laden winds. The flowers are exquisite white stars, noticeably pink at the centre.

From mid-summer the grassland above Tràigh Mhòr, on the northern side of the headland, takes centre stage. Here, winter storms have thrown shell-rich sand far up the hillsides, forming a high area of machair. Old dykes and lazybeds show that these fields were well cultivated in the past – testament to the fertility of the soil. From June onwards the area is a riot of colour, with yellow buttercups and birds foot trefoil slowly giving way to a more reddish -blue colour scheme – self heal, ragged robin and northern marsh orchids.

Here and there in the machair more unusual plants appear. Twayblade is an orchid with two wide, pointed leaves either side of its base, and pale white-green flowers atop a tall, slender stem.  Dense spikes of richly purple autumn gentians are also to be found here, in sheltered hollows close to the beach.

Birdlife

 In the waters off the southern coast red, black throated and great northern divers can be seen in early summer. These beautifully sleek-plumaged birds are perfectly adapted to swimming in pursuit of small fish, with legs set far back to provide maximum underwater propulsion. Red throated divers can often be seen flying overhead as they commute to and from their small moorland breeding lochs. Their repetitive croaking flight call is very distinctive and in Britain is a sound heard only in the Hebrides and remote parts of northern Scotland.  Walking along this southern section of the headland, away from Tràigh Ghiordail, numerous species can be seen. Shags are numerous, swimming off shore or huddled on the small islands that dot this part of the coastline. These small cormorants, with their glossy, black-green plumage and distinctive “quiff”, are easy to identify at a distance. They are the only seabirds which leap partly out of the water before diving. Greater black backed gulls are frequently seen, standing proudly and defiantly on the small rocks and skerries they have claimed as their own. Black guillemots are seen close inshore. Small black birds, with a prominent white bar above each leg, these are not particularly sociable creatures and are usually seen alone or in small groups of 2 or 3.

The most common seagull on Tolsta Head is not a gull at all, but a type of petrel, the fulmar -   a small gull with short, straight wings; when flying it appears like a soaring grey and white cross. Acrobatic and clearly not prone to vertigo, fulmars are magnificent gliders, taking advantage of updrafts and currents to cruise around the cliff faces.  Fulmars nest where other birds fear to tread, their tiny ledges, high on the seacliffs, often visible from a distance thanks to copious white guano splashes underneath.

Perhaps the most striking bird species on Tolsta Head is the bonxie, or Great Skua. The headland is a real stronghold of this notorious pirate bird.  Distinctive and unmistakable, they look like large, brown seagulls with distinctive white flashes on their wings. They nest in the centre of the headland.  Don’t be tempted to go and get a closer view: these are famously aggressive birds. Come too near their nest and you will almost certainly receive a clout on the head, as they dive-bomb relentlessly until you beat an undignified retreat.

Back on the cliff top path things are less scary. Though bonxies will often fly close overhead I have never been attacked here.  Other seabirds tend to be less fortunate. Bonxies are not called pirate birds for nothing and will chase down, rob and even kill many other smaller species, including gannets, terns and puffins.

An occasional spring time treat is a sighting of an arctic skua, the bonxie’s more slender and graceful cousin. Less of a killer, more a robber, the arctic skua makes a living by terrorising and stealing food from arctic terns. Terns are tiny, pointy winged gulls which are commonly seen off Tolsta Head in early summer (and which, since mink trapping began, are now breeding successfully behind Back Football Club). They have one of the longest annual migrations of any bird species in the world, spending each winter off the coast of Antartica before returning to their summer breeding grounds on the coasts of Iceland, Greenland and Scotland. That’s an annual 44,000 mile journey, for a dainty little bird that looks like it would struggle to fly in a Force 3 breeze!

One of the wonderful things about Tolsta Head is that you never know what you are going to see next. One day in June last year I spent half an hour watching a peregrine falcon mobbing a raven, just above the picnic tables at Slagan Chuil Neisdeil. Again and again the sleek, grey falcon would fly towards the seacliff, then hitting the updrafts soar rapidly upwards, before closing its wings and diving viciously at a lone raven, perched on the cliff edge. Just before striking the raven, the peregrine would veer away before repeating the whole process. The raven never flinched, or appeared to move a muscle. This was baffling – it was all wrong. Normally birds mob and harass birds of prey, not the other way round.  Follow any eagle or buzzard, and invariably it will be accompanied by a retinue of smaller birds, diving, swooping, calling, and generally doing their best to make the raptor’s life so miserable that it heads off elsewhere.  This was the first time I had seen the process in reverse, with a bird of prey doing the same to a raven.  On reflection, however, it began to make sense. People don’t think of ravens as birds of prey, but they share many of their characteristics – intelligence, keen eyesight, and an eye for a quick killing so the sighting was really one bird of prey harassing another.  It was a memorable sight – one of the best views of a peregrine falcon I have ever witnessed.

The Sea

One August Monday I led a small group around the headland in dense mist. The walk was transformed – despite having walked the route countless times I was struggling to work out where I was. The fog was distorting perspective, making it difficult to judge distance. Small breaks would suddenly appear in the grey wall surrounding us, allowing narrow glimpses of sea and cliff, before disappearing after a few seconds. The group was a little disappointed, as they could sense but not see the dramatic drops to their right.  I was elated. This was like magic – a place I knew so well suddenly transformed into a mysterious realm of monochrome beauty. As we drew near to Heisgeir these dramatic rock needles slowly became visible through the mist. But something definitely wasn’t right.

For a moment I struggled to identify what was wrong – but then realisation dawned. We were standing on the cliff edge and all around us were the sounds of a deafening storm. The sea was a maelstrom of foam as huge breakers crashed onto the rocks below where we stood.  The Minch was roaring and the sense of elemental force was overwhelming. It felt like we were standing in the midst of a terrifying, raging storm and yet there was not a breath of wind. Nothing stirred, but still the mighty roaring continued. It was the sound of the sea in a Force 11 gale, on a calm and windless afternoon.  A tremendous swell must have set in, after a few days of northerly winds – but this knowledge did nothing to diminish the sheer, eerie strangeness of the experience…

My absolute highlight of 2014 occurred on a calm day in mid September, as part of a 10 day tour of the Outer Hebrides with 6 delightful Canadians. We had stopped for lunch at the picnic tables at Slagan Chuil Neisdeil – a favourite spot of mine. Just before I reach them, I usually say something along the lines of “shall we stop at a picnic table for lunch?” My clients invariably laugh at the thought of picnic tables out here! They are sure I’m joking, and it is always a pleasure to see their jaws drop as we come round the corner and see the two tables below us. My thanks go to the people who installed these tables – I have had great use out of them over the last couple of years!

As my clients were tucking into their packed lunches, I decided to see if there was anything interesting visible on the sea – the calm conditions meant the surface was glassy smooth in places. After a minute or so I suddenly had a very strong sense that something was out there.  I knew we had company but where was it?

Staring east along the line of cliffs I saw a lone porpoise repeatedly breaking the surface. A nice sight, but I felt sure there was something else.  I continued to scan the sea. At last, my perseverance paid off. Over in the distance towards Tiumpan Head a smoothly rolling rounded back broke the surface of the water - the unmistakable outline of an adult minke whale. I waited, and again it appeared. And again, but this time quite a way away – surely it couldn’t have swum that far so quickly? There it was again, but this time appearing much smaller than before. Gradually I realised I was witnessing a family group of minkes – two adults and calf – feeding in the plankton rich waters of Broad Bay. And they were coming our way!

As they came closer, the views became more and more dramatic, to the great excitement of my Canadian clients, who don’t get to see whales very often from their homes by Lake Ontario. The minkes were being most helpful, not diving for 10 minutes at a time as they are prone to do, but kindly staying near the surface. By now we were also seeing and hearing their blows – great gusts of air and water expelled at force from the blowholes on top of their heads. It was a beautiful and heart-warming sight, and we watched entranced for more than 20 minutes before the happy family slowly swam away in the direction of Gress.

The Tolsta Head path is surely one of the finest walking routes in Scotland and we are fortunate to have it on our doorsteps. As I have learned over the past couple of years it never stays the same – walk this path with an open eye and you will always see new and wonderful sights. What I have described is a small fraction of the delights on offer – I haven’t mentioned, the singing seals at Sròn a’ Champair, the basking sharks at Heisgeir, or the still-living colony of goose barnacles I discovered on a piece of plastic flotsam on Tràigh Mhòr.

I’ll be back walking the route again many a time this summer, so if you see a baldy man in a red jacket leading a group of walkers, make sure you stop and say hello!

Mick Blunt Hidden Hebrides www.hiddenhebrides.co.uk       January 2015

*The wildlife photos were taken by Laurie Campbell and the views by Mick Blunt