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In the Shadow of Cairngorm
XLI. Ower the Muir amang the Heather


THE hills are almost totally covered with dark heath, and even that appears checked in its growth. What is not heath is nakedness, a little diversified now and then by a stream rushing down the steep. An eye accustomed to flowery pastures and waving harvests is astonished and repelled by this wide extent of hopeless sterility." Such is Dr Johnson’s picture of a Highland landscape. Captain Burt writes to the same effect, and calls the hills monstrous excrescences," rude and offensive to the sight," "of a dismal gloomy brown," and, most of all, disagreeable when the heath is in bloom." He says that if an inhabitant of the south of England were to be brought blindfold into some narrow, rocky hollow, enclosed with these horrid prospects, amid there to have his bandage taken off, he would be ready to die with fear, as thinking it impossible he should ever get out to return to his native country." Our Gaelic poets, from Ossian downwards, had a higher idea of highland scenery, and they have found many in these last days to agree with them. Shelley says—

"I love all waste
And solitary places where we taste
The pleasure of believing what we see
Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be."

Currer Bell tells us that her "sister Emily loved the moors. Flowers brighter than the rose bloomed in the bleakest of the heath for her; out of a sullen hollow in a livid hillside her mind could make an Eden. She found in time bleak solitude many and dear delights, and not the least and best loved was-liberty." Dora Wordsworth writes—"I can always walk over a moor with a light foot; I seem to be drawn more closely to nature in such places than anywhere else, or rather I feel more strongly the power of nature over me, and am better satisfied with myself for being able to find enjoyment in what unfortunately to many persons is either dismal or insipid." Sir Walter Scott writes to Washington Irving (Introduction to the "Lay of the Last Minstrel"—"I like the very nakedness of the land; it has some thing bold, stern, and solitary about it. When I have been for some time in the rich scenery about Edinburgh, which is like ornamental garden land, I begin to wish myself back again among my own honest grey hills," and then he adds, in words that cannot but touch the heart of all true Scotsmen, "and if 1 did not see the heather at least once a year I think I should die!" Dr Johnson used to say, "Let us take a walk down Fleet Street" -let us take a walk now and again to the moors, to Connage, Sliamore, or Lurg, and if we know anything of their secret, instead of being "astonished and repelled," we shall be sure "to find enjoyment," and return invigorated in mind and body.

"And what comes next? a lovely moor
Without a beaten way,
And grey clouds sailing slow before
A wind that will not stay."
- George Macdonald.

As we look around, one thing that strikes us is the number of terraces. They are very marked in the line of the Nethy, and speak powerfully of the far-off days of ice and glaciers. Another thing very notable is the wonderful effects of water power. We see this in miniature in the tiny stream that ‘‘trickles under moss, whose liveliest green betrays the secret of its silent course." We see it still more clearly in the deep channels cut by the streams through the mosses, but we see it on time grandest scale in the ravines made by the rivers through the drift amid gravel in the course of the ages. Habakkuk (iii. 9), sees in this the hand of God, "Thou didst cleave the earth with rivers." in many places on the moors and hillsides we may observe cairns and hut circles, the latter generally near a spring, memorials of our rude forefathers.

The plant that thrives best in the moors is the Heather. It is hard and wiry, and adapted to the moors as the camel is to the desert. Other plants have no chance against it, save in specially favoured spots. Everywhere we find the struggle for existence. As Mr Grant Allen says—"The very fact that plants can hardly move at all from the spot where they grow makes the competition in the end all the fiercer. They are perpetually intriguing among stones and crannies to insert their roots here, and to get beforehand on their rivals with their seedlings there; they fight for drops of water after summer showers, like the victims shut up in the Black Hole of Calcutta; they spread their leaves close in rosettes along the ground, so as to monopolise space, and kill down competition; they press upwards towards the sun, so as to catch the first glance of the beautiful rays, and to grasp before their neighbours at any floating speck of carbonic acid. This is no poetic fancy. it is sober, and literal, biological truth." Besides the Heather, or Ling (Calluna vulgaris), and the two heaths (Erica cincrea and E. tetralis), there are many other plants worth noticing. Here you may find the oldest of plants, the Lycopodium, which dates back to the geological period called the Silurian. Of this there are two varieties, the Stags’ Horn Club Moss and the finer and rarer Alpine (L. Alpinum). Club mosses were formerly thought good for eye complaints. The yellow dust from the seed burns rapidly, and was at one time used for producing imitation lightning on the stage. Here also you may find the curiousest of plants, the Flesh-eating Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia). Like the Butterwort and Venus Fly—trap, the Sundew has the power of feeding upon insects. When a fly alights on the leaf, it is held fast. The hairs or tentacles bend slowly inward towards it, and on touching it they pour out an acid fluid, that acts like digestive juice, enabling the plant to absorb the dissolved matter as food.

This curious process is well described in the quaint lines by Mr Alfred Knight—

"You really mean it? You round—leaved plant of modest size
Eats little moths and ants and flies?
Whv,
yes, I’ve seen it!
Those clammy paws are gills and snares:
The gems that crown those ruddy hairs
And look like drips of morning dew
Are baits, ye insect world, for you,
And hide a purpose dire and bloody,
Ye thirsty strollers,
O’er each honeyed
flow'r and stem and leaf
Which each for you its dewdrop wears,
If ever you should come
to grief
On yonder hairs,
How vain your dolours!
They’ll hold
you with their balls of glue
Till they have made a meal of you.
Then shun,
ye little insect bands,
The Drosera, whose pepsin glands
Do work for stomach, claws, and
molars!"

Here also von may find the usefullesr of plants—the Grass, in various forms. The Cotton-grass (Eriophorum), with its white, silky, cotton-like heads, is conspicuous in the miry places. This plant sends out at first a dark shoot, called in Gaelic Ceann dubh, black head. At this stage it is sweet and juicy, and deer come from far to feed upon t. In Sutherland it is found very useful, and supplies sheep with nourishment when other food is scarce. Mr Dixon, in " Field and Fern," says:—"The Cotton plant or mossy grasses in the lower ranges lie very little above sea level, and tide the sheep through the winter and spring months, when those on the Border hills are generally hid in snow wreaths on the summits. This plant is, in fact, as much the making of Sutherland as its prototype is of Manchester." Mr Ruskin has the following beautiful passage as to the "Grass of the Field":— Follow but for a little time the thought of all that we ought to recognise in these words. All spring and summer is in them, the walks by silent scented paths, the rests in noonday heat, the joy of the herds and flocks, the power of all shepherd life and meditation, the life of sunlight upon the world falling in emerald streaks and soft blue shadows, when else it would have struck on the dark mould or scorching dust ; pastures beside the pacing brooks, soft banks and knolls of lowly hills; thymy slopes of down overlooked by the blue line of lifted sea crisp lawns all dim with early dew, or smooth in evening warmth of barred sunshine, dinted by happy feet softening in their fall the sound of loving voices."

Here in the moor you may also find the beautifullest of our plants. Tastes differ. Some would put one flower first and some another. Linnaaeus knelt before the gorse or broom when he first saw it in its golden splendour. Burns also sings its praises as more loved than the flowers of foreign lands—

"Far dearer to me are yon humble broom bowers,
Where the blue-bell and gowan lurk lowly unseen,
And where, lightly tripping among the sweet flowers,
A-listening the linnet, oft wanders my Jean."

But perhaps with most the Fox-glove has the pre-eminence. The proper name is Folks-glove, that is, the Glove of the Fairies. In Gaelic it is called Lus mòr, for its height and stateliness, and Meuran-na-muathan sith, "Fairy Thimbles." It was believed to be peculiarly sensitive to the presence of these good folk, and its frequent bendings and bowings were regarded as salutations made to them. The Fox-glove does not grow amongst the heather, but in gravel banks and sunny places by the streams.

The moors are largely frequented by birds, especially in summer. Here you may watch the curious flight of the peewit, and listen to the shrill cry of the curlew, the whistle of the plover, and the sweet song of the lark, now rarely heard in our fields. Grouse are common. Once when crossing a moor in winter a curious thing happened. There was a very strong breeze, and a covey of grouse that had been started flew down the wind close to the ground with amazing swiftness. A little ahead there was a wire fence, and it seemed likely some of the birds had come against it. This turned out to be the case. One bird lay at the foot of the fence quite dead, and following on two more were found, stiff and frozen, that had come to grief previously. What we see and what we feel in moorland rambles depends mostly on ourselves. "We receive but what we give." Memories and associations will vary with various minds.

"I cross’d a moor with a name of its own,
And a use in the world no doubt;
Yet a handsbreadth shines alone of it,
Mid the blank miles round about.
For I picked up in the heather,
And there I put aside in my breast
A moulted feather—an Eagle’s feather—
Well, I forget the rest."

Once in the Cathedral of Antwerp a grand funeral service was being performed. When the procession had passed out, I picked up a spray of heath that had fallen from the coffin. It spake to me then of the clear homeland, but now it has another voice, and tells of friends that have passed away, and glorious things to he seen no more.


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