Life in the Scottish Highlands
The Native Forests of the Scottish Highlands
Scottish Highlands as a whole do not support a very large amount of
forest, and much of what there is, is not native forest, but has been
planted by man. Fairly extensive areas of mixed woods occur in the west
as at Beasdale in Morar, and in most of the glens of the Southern
Highlands, but extensive woodlands are the exception in this great
we find in the Highlands one of the largest areas of forest in Britain.
This, the great pine forest of Rothniemurchus is over twenty miles in
length and three to seven miles in width, covering the whole of the floor
of the Spey Valley between the Cairngorms and Aviemore and stretching more
brokenly beyond that to Kingussie and Boat of Garten. Much of this great
forest has been felled, much has been planted by man, but large areas of
native forest exist to show us what the forest was like in its ancient
pine is to be found in smaller groups on the edge of the Moor of Rannoch
between Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy and around Loch Tulla. It is t be
found again in Deeside, where some of the oldest pine in Britain area to
be found. Most of the glens have scattered patches of pine in their lower
I am not
going to describe the many great plantations of pine and spruce to be
found in many corners of the Highlands, for most of them are of recent
origin and do not possess the associated plants to be found in the old
my descriptions of the pine forest and its associates will be of
Rothiemurchus Forest, which if the finest pine forest to be found in the
Highlands and contains many interesting plants which are only to be found
beneath the shade of its ancient trees.
many delightful memories of Rothiemurchus, and the sough of the wind in
the dark leaves of its pines is always with me. No one who has wandered
amid the noble trees of this forest could feel anything else but a sense
of uplift in its magnificent setting. Nestling into the bosom of the
noble Cairngorms whose grand skyline shows up magnificently in a framework
of pines, this forest is full of hidden lochs, of noisy mountain torrents
and of quiet glades where the roe-deer pass like phantoms among the red
trunks of the trees.
June the hot sun brings out the perfume of the pines, a
never-to-be-forgotten, delightful odour that one wishes to pull into the
lungs along with the sparkling mountain air. The gnarled and twisted
pines growing out of every precipice and bank look like the bodies of
tortured giants, their shaggy head still held aloft in proud defiance.
Peace, a deep and soul-easing peace, is here. A mountain torrent babbles
eternally among it rocks and secret pools, a curlew pipes mournfully from
a distant bog and the wind soughs in the pine needles like the sea on some
forgotten strand, hissing gently as it caresses the sand. Beyond that,
silence, deep uncanny silence, as if one were in the presence of God and
in the presence of the centuries which these great trees span.
one reflects, one thinks of those huge forgotten forests that for all but
their roots have disappeared from the face of the hills. The lost forest
of Rannoch; what titanic disaster uprooted and destroyed this huge pine
forest and turned its pleasant glades into a wilderness of bog and stone
where death awaits the unwary and the winter gales how with unbroken
ferocity? In every glen and valley we find the stumps and roots of
ancient pines. Departed probably as are the men that felled them or the
fires that destroyed them, departed, never to return.
And as I
recline on an uprooted giant in this secluded corner, the setting sun
throws vast shadows across the forest. A silence even more profound seems
to grip the trees, as if all Nature waited in awed silence for the night.
Beyond, the Cairngorms are bathed in an ethereal pink glow; dusk descends
on the forest, but for more than half an hour that pink glow remains as if
the sun were loath to quit the corries and deep glens. At last the faint
glow leaves the highest peak of Cairngorm and the twilight falls. An owl
commences to hoot among the dim pines and I realize that I must be off,
for many a man has been lost as night fell in this labyrinth of trees and
paths, and the spectre of the Bloody Hand is still supposed to wait for
those who are lost after nightfall in this black forest.
Rothiemurchus forest are associated some of the most delightful spots in
Scotland. How much the pines have contributed to this! What would
Loch-an-Eilean be without its encircling mantle of pines?
jewel of the Highlands lying among the black pines like a diamond on black
velvet, where in Britain shall we match its beauty? Loch Morlich, Glen
Feshie and Loch Garten, what would they be without the pine trees which
soften their otherwise barren shores and the rock-strewn wastes around
them? We have our answer in upper Glen Einich and Loch Avon, whose stark
somber grandeur cannot be matched elsewhere in Britain. What a difference
the pines which once clothed upper Glen Einich would make! How they would
soften its grimness!
that we have described the beauty and charm of the pine forest let us
study the reasons why these trees flourish in these places. Let us study
the individual tree and see how it is fitted to the land it has chosen for
its own, and how it differs from other plants in its leaves, flowers and
lastly, let us study the lowly shrubs and flowering plants that are
associated almost exclusively with the pines and are rarely found beyond
Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris)
Pine flourished on soil which is always well drained, as it cannot stand
water-logged soil around its roots. Debris washed down from ancient
moraines and consisting mainly of sand and pebbles makes an ideal soil for
this tree and, for this reason, it flourished exceedingly well in glacial
debris of the Spey Valley. Similar conditions exist on the Rannoch Moor
area and in Upper Deeside. It also grows on steep hillsides, especially
those of a granite nature, its roots penetrating into the cracks and
crevices of the rock in order to find a safe anchorage. These trees are
often contorted into queer shapes.
Pine has deep-striking roots which penetrate to the moister layers beneath
the surface. It will face conditions of drought without fear and
flourishes on soil that is practically sterile. It also produces many
horizontal spreading roots which ramify in the surface soil, rich in
We do not
find the Scots Pine at very great altitudes in the Highlands. In the
Rothiemurchus area on the north-western face of the Cairnogrms the limit
of the pine is 1,750 feet. Above this limit there are no pines. On the
fringe of this frontier area the pine is very dwarfed and stunted,
sometimes of an espalier growth. On southerly slopes the limit is
reason for this upward limitation is to be found in the force of the wind,
the intensity of the cold and the shortness of the growing season. This
upward limit is very important for it marks the frontier between the
lowlands and sub-alpine regions and the real alpine regions.
Pines is easily recognized from other conifers by its reddish coloured
bark and by the fact that it usually only has branches near the summit of
the trunk, the lower ones dying off as the tree grows. The crown of
branches has a somewhat shaggy appearance, and this, with the rugged
grandeur of the trunk, makes the tree blend magnificently with its wild
growing in exposed or rocky places the Scots Pine often branches near the
base and the trunks may be greatly contorted. It attains a height of 100
feet in the sheltered valley of Speyside, but it is little more than a
shrub at its highest limit.
is different in many respects from other plants. We must remember that it
is a member of the group of plants call Gymnosperms, which was well
established millions of years before the trees and plants with which we
are familiar today, and it still retains many primitive features.
leaves are peculiar in being borne on short deciduous shoots, known as
dwarf shoots. Two leaves are produced on each of these very short
branches. They live for several years but are eventually shed, and when
this happens not only the leaves but the dwarf shoot also is lost. The
leaf is thick and needle-like in form with one flat face and one rounded
one, and possesses a very thick, leathery epidermis which prevents excess
transpiration. The stomata are deeply sunk in the epidermis to the same
needle-like leaves expose a small surface to the wind and give little
surface to which the snow can cling in winter-time.
flowers of the Scots Pine are very different from those of other plants.
It would require a very long and technical description to show how their
flowers differ from those of ordinary plants. Suffice it to say that the
females flowers possess no style or stigma and no ovary, the ovules being
quite unprotected by an outer covering, whilst the stamens consist of
anthers only , produced on the under side of a sale. This shows us that
the pine belongs to a much more ancient flora than our other much further
advanced flowers and trees with their complicated arrangements of petals
and sepals, stigmas and ovaries and colour and perfume. The ancient
world, before the evolution of the bees, must have been a grim and
dreadful place where flowers with their beautiful colours and perfumes had
not yet arrived.
flowers are wind pollinated and on a dry sunny day in spring the pollen
drifts in golden clouds among the somber trees. The pollen grains possess
two bladders which act as wings and are beautiful objects under the
microscope. These aid the pollen in its journey from the stamens to the
pollination, the female catkin becomes woody and forms the familiar pine
cone consisting of hardened scales arranged like the tiles on the roof.
Each scale covers two winged seeds. These cones hang on the tree till the
following year, when on dry sunny days the scales open and the winged
seeds fly away, often to considerable distances from the parent plant.
Pine is the only indigenous pine in Britain and is only native in the
Scottish Highlands. Other conifers such as Spruce, Silver Fir and Larch,
although often forming extensive plantations in the Highlands, are
planted, these trees not being native to any part of Britain.
forests and woods of the Highlands are the home of many interesting plants
which are either only found beneath the shade of the pines, or, if not
entirely associated with them, are at least typical of these black
include the beautiful Pyrolas, of which all the British species are found
in our northern forest; the Orchid (Foodyera repens), which is
peculiar to the Rothiemurchus area and (Corallorhiza trifida), a
strange saprophytic orchid found very rarely in the pine woods of the
eastern Highlands; and the two shrubby plants Whortleberry (Vaccinium
Myrtillus) and Juniper (Juniperus communis).
plants such as the Yellow Cow-wheat, the Red Bearberry, etc., are found in
the pine woods, but they are just as common on the moors or in other types
of woodland and so have been described under their appropriate headings.
Juniper (Juniperus communis)
shade of the black pines we do not find the dense undergrowth of the mixed
woods. For one thing the amount of shade is greater, and secondly many
plants cannot live on the humus formed by the pine needles.
the large plants that thrives among the pines if the Common Juniper. This
shrub or small tree, usually two to five feet tall, but sometimes
attaining twenty feet, is, like the pine, a conifer. It thrives on dry
soil, being like the pine a xerophyte. It is very bushy and much branched
and is clothed with a dense, evergreen foliage. The leaves themselves are
in whorls of three and are like fine, short needles, ending in a prickly
point. They are bright green on the under surface, but are glaucous and
of a blue-green above, so that when viewed from a distance the plant has a
Juniper is also a Gymnosperm and its flowers, as in the pine, are of
peculiar character. Both male and female flowers are found on the same
plant; the females consist of three to six fleshy scales surrounding the
naked ovule and forming a rudimentary carpel; the males consist of broad,
shield-shaped scales containing three to six anthers and arranged in small
catkins. As in the case of the pine, the flowers are wind pollinated.
The wood, leaves and branches have a sweet resinous odour.
pollination the female flowers form globular, dark purple-blue berries
which are greedily eaten by such birds as black-cock, grouse and
Whortleberry (Vaccinium Myrtillus)
acquaintance with this lowly shrub was among the pine woods and heaths of
Surrey, where I spent some of my happiest boyhood days, and I have many
happy memories of halcyon days in July and August among the purple
heather, as I helped to fill the purple-stained baskets with the luscious
purple-black fruit of this prolific plant.
It is a
far cry from the balmy hills of Surrey to the bracing northern forest of
Inverness-shire where we find the Whortleberry as abundant under the pines
as on the southern heathlands. Its fruit in the north is much finer
flavoured than in the south.
Whortleberry is a small glabrous shrub which barely exceeds six inches to
one foot in height. Its roots are creeping and send up a tough woody
stock which is covered in green, slender branches, which are quite sharply
angular. They produce very thin ovate leaves, which are shed each autumn;
at this time the pine woods exhibit a magnificent picture. The leaves
fade to a bright reddish-yellow and form a carpet of brilliant hue beneath
the sombre trees.
flowers are in bloom in early spring, about April or May, and are not very
conspicuous, being like small globular bells which are greenish at the to
shading into white, the edge of the mouth being tinged with red.
flowers are very interesting structures and their manner of pollination,
which is the same with small modifications as in the other species of
Vaccinium, is well worth studying.
little bell contains a pistil consisting of a long style, which is
surmounted by a round stigma which projects from the mouth of the bell.
Each stamen commences at the base of the bell and its style is a flattened
stalk which is surmounted by two flagon-shaped structures, which are in
effect two half-anthers. Behind each of them are two horn-like
structures, each of which has a pore-like opening. When a bee visits the
flower, it grips the smooth bell by its slightly recurved rim and its body
comes in contact with the stigma which matures before the stamens. It
leaves any pollen obtained from an older flower on the stigma, thus
pollinating the flower. On going to an older flower, the bee pushed its
tongue between the stamens in order to reach the nectar secreted at their
base. Its head touches the horns on the back of the anthers and the
pollen is jerked out over the bee.
fertilization the flower fades and a green berry takes its place. By
August the berry is the purple-blue fruit covered with bloom which we love
in our preserves and is so greedily eaten by the forest birds.
The Wintergreens (Pyrola)
Highlands are rich in members of the Heath Family for besides the three
common heaths, we have the Whortleberries, the Bearberries, the Menziesia,
the Trailing Azalea and five Wintergreens, so we can see that this family
is certainly very successful in our mountains.
Wintergreens contain five beautiful British species all of which are to be
found among the pines of Rothiemurchus.
It was a
glorious July afternoon when I first made my acquaintance with this
lovely genus. The morning had been wet, but the clouds had parted, and
from a brilliant blue, rain-washed sky the un shone down with added
splendour. Large, white, woolly clouds sailed across the sky like great
galleons, bringing out in fine relief the majestic outline of the
the forest the rain drops dripped from the pine needles, and that
delightful aroma of deep earth and vegetation, augmented by the hot sun,
mad the forest more beautiful than ever. In grassy glades, where each
blade of grass was adorned by rainbow-coloured drops of water, the
brilliant blue flowers of the field gentian shone like jewels.
among the Whortleberries, heaths and mosses below a great pine, I saw w
white spike of flowers which from a distance looked like the
lily-of-the-valley. I pushed my way through the wet undergrowth and on
arriving at the place where I had seen this strange plant I found that it
was a beautiful Wintergreen, its tall stem adorned with a spike of little
white, bell-like flowers, shading to pink near the base. Closer
examination proved it to be the Lesser Wintergreen (Pyrola minor).
Lesser Wintergreen has a tough, almost woody underground stem from which
arise one or two tufts of ovate leaves. These are three to four leaves in
each tuft and these are on very long stalks. They are thick and shiny on
the upper surface and a few usually exist throughout the winter. In late
spring the tufts send up a long naked stalk which sometimes has one or two
small scales near the top. This stalk produces a spike of several white
flowers, each of which hangs downwards like a small bell and has a small
bract at the base of its fragile stalk. It is a bell-shaped structure,
but the petals are not united as in most bell-shaped flowers, and they
curve inwards at the tips to close over the stamens. They are a beautiful
smooth white, delicately tinged with pale rose-pink. In this species the
style is longer than the stamens which are enclosed in the corolla.
pollination of this flower occurs in a very interesting manner. The
stalks of the stamens are bent backwards in the form of an S, and are in a
state of tension like a bent spring, being kept in position by the
petals. The opening of the anthers at this time faces downwards, towards
the base of the bell. When a bee arrives at a flower, It grips the
slightly recurved rim of the bell with its feet, and pushes its tongue
among the stamens to reach the nectar-secreted by the nectaries at their
base. This releases the stamens, which uncurl and throw their pollen over
the face and head of the bee. On going to another flower it leaves some
pollen on the projecting stigma. Bees and flies also arrive for the
Round-leaved Wintergreen (Pyrola rotund folia)
Rothiemurchus we can also find, quite frequently, the beautiful
Round-leaved Wintergreen (P. rotund folia) and its variety P.
media. It has fewer and larger flowers than P. minor, being
larger in all its parts. It is an exquisitely beautiful flower which
looks as though carved in ivory. It differ also in the length of its
style, but otherwise is much like P. minor.
One-sided Wintergreen (P. secunda) is another plant which is
comparatively rare in Britain, but is frequently found in the
Rothiemurchus area. Its habit is rather different, the stock being more
woody and creeping and sending up many leafy shoots. The leaves are thin
and finely toothed, being oval in shape and not round as in the other
species. The flowers are arranged in one-sided spike and are small and of
a greenish-white. It Is found at higher elevations than the other species
and is much rarer.
One-flowered Wintergreen (Moneses uniform)
remaining species, the One-flowered Wintergreen (Moneses uniform)
as beautiful and dainty a flower as one can find in Britain.
I know a
spot in a deep, secluded glen in the Cairngorms where a wild torrent roars
ceaselessly over its boulder-strewn bed, and a fine spray caresses the
feathery ferns which retain their vernal freshness almost into the
autumn. No path disturbs the tranquility of this delightful spot, where
only the roe-deer brushes the dew-drops from the bracken, as it slips like
a phantom between the trunks of the pines. Hidden deep in a mossy dell at
the foot of a shattered precipice, one can find a small natural grotto
among the fallen rocks and here nestling in the damp moss is a colony of
this delightful wintergreen.
one of our rarest British plants and one can only find it in a few
secluded spots in the pine forests of Inverness-shire and Aberdeen-shire,
where it conceals its fresh loveliness like a beautiful nun who hides from
the world behind the convent walls.
It is the
almost wood stock of the other species, while the leaves are thick and
shiny like those of Pyrola minor. It send up a flower stalk
surmounted by a single, very beautiful, blossom.
It is of
pure white and unlike the other species is not bell-shaped, the petals
spreading. The stamens are not kept in position by petals, but their
stalks are spring-like and on being visited by an insect they dust it with
pollen as in the case of the other species. It does not produce any
honey, hence it has not adopted the bell-shape which is a device to keep
the nectar for long-tongued bees. It is visited by pollen-collecting bees
such as the masons and by flies.
ORCHIDS OF THE PINE FORESTS
forest of Rothiemurchus contains yet another flower which is peculiar to
its particular area. This is the Creeping Goodyear (Goodyera repens),
a member of the aristocratic family of plants, the Orchidaceate,
the only member of the family to be found in the Rothiemurchus forest. In
certain remote pine woods of the eastern Cairngorms and Highlands we can
also find the Coralroot (Corallorhiza trifida), a saprophytic
orchid. The Highlands are rich in orchids, but these two rare species are
the only ones to be found in the pine forests.
Creeping Goodyear (Goodyera repens)
orchid is very common in the Rothiemurchus and other forests of Speyside,
but is very rarely found beyond the valley of that river. In many places
countless numbers of this little plant carpet the ground beneath the
pines, often being the only plant to be found among the pine needles. The
reason for this will be given later.
It has a
shortly creeping rootstock which sends up a single stalk to a height of
six inches to one foot. Near the base are a few thin, ovate leaves. The
flowers are arranged in a one-sided spike and are inconspicuous and of a
greenish-yellow colour. Each one grows in the axil of a small, greenish
fertilization of these flowers like that of all orchids is very
interesting and is a marvelous insight into the inner workings of plant
life. I will endeavour to describe it In an ensuing chapter dealing with
our other Highland orchids (see Chapter XIX).
Coralroot (Coralorhiza trifida)
this strange plant we must search for it in certain remote pine woods of
the eastern Highlands. It is a very interesting plant for, unlike the
other plants that we have met, it is a saphrophyte, ie. a plant that lives
on decaying vegetable matter like a fungus.
I know a
secluded glen not far from Glen Clova where a colony of pines clings to
the steep hillsides and fills the head of the deep valley. Here is the
darkest corner, where the light seldom penetrates, it a family of
Coralroots. They stand among the gnarled roots of the pine like ghosts,
for in their stems and bract-like leaves there is no colour. Pale,
brownish-white or pale yellow, they are more like fungi than flowering
plants and a closer study of an individual plant will show us why they are
so different to ordinary plants.
vegetable world most plants obtain their nourishment by means of their
roots and leaves. The roots, especially the fine hairy rootlets, absorb
the salts held in solution in the moist soil (ie. nitrates, phosphates,
etc.) The leaves, with the aid of the chlorophyll contained in
specialized cells, absorb by day the carbon-dioxide of the air to form
carbo-hydrates (ie. starch and sugar). These are stored by the plant to
be used as it grows. When in autumn the leaves fall to the ground they
contain some of the stored-up carbo-hydrates.
world, however, contains plants known as saprophytes which have given up
this way of living. The Coralroot belongs to this section.
on the nutriment contained in fallen leaves and dead mosses, and as these
contain the ready-made products required by plants it follows that leaves
and roots as possessed by them are not required; but it cannot make use of
this foodstuff directly.
got over this difficulty as follows. In this plant we meet the phenomenon
of symbiosis, ie. the combination of two organisms to the mutual benefit
of each other. A kind of fungus, know as a mycorrhiza, lives n the outer
tissues of the rootlets. This fungus absorbs nutriment from the
surrounding decaying vegetable matter, making it available to the orchid.
At the same time the fungus obtains nutriment such as carbo-hydrates from
the plant. Without this fungus the very seeds of the orchid cannot
germinate. This amazing interdependence of plants and fungi is common in
the plant world, especially in those living in soil containing much humus.
The pyrolas, heathers, the pine and goodyera all above their own
ground we find that the plant has no chlorophyll and is of a yellowish
colour. It has no leaves, these being reduced to thin scale-like bracts.
this plant, like all other saprophytes, and their cousins, the parasites,
who have given up an honest way of life and stoop to theft and easy
methods to obtain a living, is branded by the loss of its leaves, its
colour and its roots.
flowers are inconspicuous and devoid of beauty when compared with other
orchids. They are of greenish-yellow colour and form a loose spike of
five or six flowers, each one being contained by a scale-like bract.
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