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Plant Life in the Scottish Highlands
The Distribution and Affinities of the Scottish Mountain Flora


The question of the origin and distribution of the Highland flora is one that cannot be answered with any certainty.  We can, however, speculate with some accuracy upon the main events leading up to its present development.

To find the answer I shall take you back to those far days when man was still more ape than human and was hunted rather than the hunter.

In that distant epoch Ireland was united to Britain and Britain to the Continent.  The Highlands of those days were much higher than they are now, and must have had many impressive peaks rivaling the Alps in splendour.

The mountains had an Alpine flora just as they have today, and the far north had an ancient Arctic flora which was continuous round the whole of the northern regions of the globe.  The rest of the country was covered by a flora allied to that of tropical regions of today.

The climate in those far away times was warm and dry, and the Britain of those days was a very different place from what it is today.

Gradually, however, the climate changed.  The Polar Ice Sheet extended farther and farther southward, and glaciers developed in the high Scottish mountains.  The existing flora migrated slowly southward before the advancing menace of ice, snow and extermination.  In the course of time, the whole of Britain north of the Thames was covered by a huge ice sheet.

The ancient Arctic and Alpine plants were either destroyed or found survival in flight and formed the flora of southern England and northern France.  These plants were the ancestors of our present Alpine and Arctic floras.  The world they lived in must have been very grim indeed.  An enormous ice barrier must have stretched across the southern Britain much like the great Antarctic Ice Barrier today.  During the long winter, the whole country was gripped by terrible frost, but the existing vegetation was saved from complete extermination by a deep snow mantle.  In the short summer vast dust clouds swept up by terrific winds obscured the sun.  The now disappeared south of the Ice Sheet, and the hardy Arctic plants starred the ground with their flowers, much as the Northern Tundra scintillates with colour in our present epoch.

We are, of course, unable to tell if all the plants to the north of Thames were destroyed.  In Greenland today many high peaks stand above the Ice Sheet as bare rock and it may be that in Scotland the higher peaks were free of ice and snow in the summer period.  Hardy Alpine species may have been able to survive the rigorous conditions which must have prevailed in those exposed positions.

The Ice Sheet was not stationary during the whole of the Great Ice Age.  Periods of milder weather intervened during which the ice retired temporarily.  Glaciers and minor ice sheets still covered the Highland mountains even in these mild periods.  The great ice rivers gouged out deep valleys which today are filled by beautiful lakes like that of Loch Einich and the sea lochs of Long Long, Loch Fyne and Loch Linnhe.  Rocks and earth were shaved and rasped off the mountains and deposited as huge moraines over the lower lands.

Gradually the climate became less rigorous and throughout the course of long centuries, the Ice Sheet retreated farther and farther northwards.  As conditions became warmer, other plants intruded into the mix Alpine and Arctic flora and being better suited to the changing conditions, gradually forced them out of the lower lands.  Thus the old flora retreated with the ice age, climbing the mountains and seeking refuge on the inaccessible crags and cliffs.

Rivers, lakes and naked precipices acted as barriers to the retreating flora and these unfortunates, their progress stopped, would have been exterminated by more enterprising lowland plants.  For this reason many of our native Alpine plants are restricted to very small areas.  The Drooping Saxifrage found only on Ben Lawers, the Purple Oxytropis in Glen Clova, the Alpine Lychnis on Little Kilrannoch and the rare Menziesia confined to the Sow of Atholl, all owe their very restricted range to the vagaries of that long retreat from the warm southlands.

Today our British mountains have a flora very similar to that of Scandinavia and the Arctic regions.  Many species also occur on the Rocky Mountains of Canada and America.

There are a few species which are also found in Alpine Switzerland, e.g. the Moss Campion, the Snow Gentian and the Mountain Dryas.  These plants probably belonged to the original Alpine flora and were found on both Swiss and British mountains before the commencement of the Ice Age.

That our theory is based upon good reasons is supported by the fact that in many places in southern England ancient peats and deposits are found in which the remains of an old Arctic flora is mixed with the bones of such Arctic animals as lemmings, seals and mammoths.  This proves that the Arctic flora once covered the south of England.

What immense vistas of time are opened up before us, as we contemplate the eons that have passed since the commencement of the Great Ice Age!  How amazing to think that our present Scottish flora owes its peculiar distribution to events that took place almost before man had entered the scene!  Yet, during the whole vast interval, natural selection has been acting relentlessly to mould the plant more and more to its habitat and life conditions.  How many species have been eclipsed and exterminated during this period and how many new species have been evolved!

We must remember that the process has not stopped.  In the world of Nature change is the dominating note; this means either progress and success or decadence and extinction.  If we study the present flora of any particular area, we can see the whole process in action.  Year by year certain species extend their realm, and year by year others decrease in numbers and finally disappear.  Thus the Heather in many places fights a losing battle with the Bracken, which in turn is replaced by the Birch, and finally by Pine Forests.  Fire or man destroys the Pine Forests and the Heather again invades the area.  Thus we see that the green mantle covering the earth is not static, but is perpetually changing.

In the same way the length of the corolla, the depth of colour, the perfume, the size and the form of the flower are continually changing.  In this case the change is much more gradual and more subtle, but in the infinite time at the disposal of Nature, new species, new genera and new families are constantly being evolved, and from the ashes of the old flora new and more vigorous floras arise. Thus we see what immense periods of time have passed since the magnificent orchids were evolved from their green flowered, scentless, inconspicuous progenitors, or the perfumed lily arose from the rush-like ancestors.

Thus, my readers, if you have the patience to study the methods and processes of Nature, what fascinating fields are opened up before you.  The more we know about a single species, the less we seem to know about it, until we find that a single lifetime is completely inadequate to discover all the mysteries and hidden wonder of even a single species.  But, if we can help to unfold only a few of these hidden pages we shall find a fascinating story written there.

We shall realize, even more so, that beyond and above the great plan of Nature there must be a Master Minds to whom the mystery of life is no mystery and who is evolving some unknown perfection out of chaos and disorder.  Through the beauty of the flowers, we gain a greater and nearer insight into that mysterious thing called Life, which can alone create.

You will then find, as I have done, that the most beautiful and glorious works of God are to be found in the Plant World.  The grandeur of trees, the splendour of the Rose, the chaste beauty of the Lily, the strange form of the Orchis, the perfume of the Violet and the glorious colour of the Heather and Bluebell, where in all the works of God or man shall we find their equal?

Upon this note I will end this humble account of the Plant World, hoping that some, at least of my readers, will found something of interest and instruction within its pages.


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