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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part III.—Natural History of Gairloch

Chapter IV.—Lower Forms of Life


THE scientist tells us that every drop of water, fresh or salt, and every portion of the air we breathe, teems with living organisms. The phosphorescence of the sea is due to infusoria; so also is the luminosity of footprints on boggy ground. I have often noticed this last phenomenon when walking behind another man across wet moorland on a dark night, his footprints being plainly defined by a lambent glow of light. There can be little doubt but that the notion of the " will o' the wisp " had its origin in something of this kind.

A few remarks seem to be required with regard to the forms of organic life in the wide region between the birds and beasts on the one hand, and those minute organisms on the other hand.

The reptiles of Gairloch are snakes, slow-worms, lizards, frogs, and toads; the two latter common, the others rarely seen. I have not met with or heard of any adders in Gairloch. It is said that frogs and toads were formerly unknown here, as they still are in the Lews.

The only fish that live in fresh water in Gairloch are trout, pike, eels, and char. Salmon and bull-trout, sea-trout, and finnocks divide their time between fresh water and salt water. Remarks on these fish will be found in Part IV., as also some notes on salt-water fish.

There are many shells to be found in both salt and fresh water, all inhabited or recently inhabited by creatures allied to the fishy creation. The fresh-water mussel is found in most of the burns and rivers, and yields a few small pearls to those who undergo the labour of gathering, opening, and examining a vast number of shells. The promiscuous gathering of these mussels in Gairloch has almost exterminated them. Oysters, clams, and cockles have also been nearly exterminated, and are now protected, though still much poached.

The spout-fish, whose long angular shell—sometimes nine inches in length—is popularly called the razor-shell, is abundant on all sandy beaches in Gairloch. It is commonly used for bait at the spring cod fishing. It is not easily captured. The following is Dr Mackenzie's account, slightly abridged, of the mode in which the fish can be .taken :—"Go to the sands at the ebb of a spring tide, —always at Gairloch between twelve and two p.m.,—armed with a small spud and fishing-basket. Walking backwards close to the edge of the sea, up flies a spout of water from an inch-wide hole in the wet sand, which instantly fills it up. Experienced spout-fish catchers in a second have the spud slanted into the sand a few inches nearer themselves than where the spout-hole was seen, pushing down till something stops it. Then they carefully remove the sand above the spud, and uncover the top of the spout-fish. Do not touch the top of the shell, or you may draw blood. Scoop the sand away at the side till finger and thumb are able to grip the shell, and basket it. Take care you do not pull violently, or the shell may come up without the fish. By repeating this process you may, if skilled and fortunate, secure a nice basket of spout-fish. The fish, when properly cleared from sand, make the best of stock for a rich soup which has peculiarly nutritive qualities."

Sea anemones are abundant on the Gairloch coast. I understand there are some rare varieties. Will any reader who is knowing about these beautiful things make us a catalogue of them?

The love of flowers and plants is older than the appreciation of fine scenery, if we may judge by the poetry of bygone days. Surely the man, woman, or child who takes no pleasure in the jewels of the vegetable world is greatly to be pitied. It is sad to find how the introduction of sheep has diminished the number and variety of Gairloch flowers. Rocky places, and flat ground near the sea-shore, are commended to the wandering botanist as localities where good plants may still be found. Any person who would add to the list given further on of Gairloch plants would deserve our gratitude. The true lover of flowers will surely abstain from rooting up anything rare that may be discovered.

Besides what are commonly known as flowering plants, there are numbers of other forms of vegetable life, including the grasses, mosses, lichens, seaweeds, fresh-water weeds, and fungi. Complete lists of all these are wanted.

Of the grasses, the most noticeable is that species of bent-grass which so abounds on all the moorlands and hill sides, mingling with the heather, ferns, and flowers. It is this grass which, with its orange tinge of colour in autumn, gives to hills and moors a rich deep colour like old gold.

Of the mosses, the deer-grass, or stag's-horn moss, which is the badge of the Mackenzie clan, is appropriately plentiful in some spots in this land of the Mackenzies. The club-moss, somewhat similar, is commoner. The sphagnum-moss is the most noticeable of all; it forms in some places enormous lumps. I have measured a few lumps four to five feet high, and with bases six to eight feet in diameter. The sphagnum-moss presents lovely colouring, varying from deep crimson and rosy red to pale primrose. The fern-moss is very abundant in and about the margins of all woods, and is easily distinguished by its beautiful little branches, so closely resembling the fronds of a fern. There must be hundreds of different species of moss in Gairloch. A Devonshire botanist told me he had identified nearly three hundred different mosses in a two days' ramble in that county. Gairloch cannot be far behind.

Lichens, though so dimunutive and slow of growth, give the principal colouring to most of the rocky parts of Gairloch landscapes. Several species are still much used in Gairloch in producing red and brown dyes, into which the wool is dipped before being spun and formed into hose or tweed. Lichens are a singular class of plant;: sometimes they grow on rocks, sometimes on trees, sometimes on detached pieces of wood, sometimes on boggy moorland, sometimes on the bare ground, sometimes on old buildings, sometimes on loose stones, and sometimes on nothing but themselves. In Dr Lindsay's book on British lichens, it is recorded that "a curious erratic parmelia was discovered in Dorsetshire by Sir W. C. Trevelyan, lying loose on the ground, and rolling freely along before the wind."' There may be similar eccentricities of nature in Gairloch.

The following are a few lichens common in Gairloch, mostly named for me by Dr C. F. Newcombe :—

Cladonia vermicularis,—The pale greenish grey, almost white, tubular lichen; growing abundantly on peaty grounds.

Cladonia pyxidata.—Also grows on the ground; has cups or stems half inch high, red inside.

Cladonia rangiferina.—Like vermicularis, but much finer; almost resembling lace.

Cladonia digitalis and extensa.—Both have stems like pyxidata; the former finer, the latter coarser, with scarlet tops.

Cladonia cervicornis.—Small antler-like pale greenish grey or white-lichen; growing on the ground.

Lecidea geographica.—Bright green and black growth on rocks,. scarcely perceptible to the touch; named from the resemblance to a map.

Lecidea ferruginea.—A bright rust-coloured stain on rocks.

Lecidea sulphurea.—A sulphur-coloured stain on rocks.

Stereocaulon paschale.—Pale greenish grey in colour; growing one and a half inch high on rocks.

Lecanora tartarea subfusca and parella.—Grows on rocks; one-eighth of an inch thick; pale green, with dark crimson or blackish spots; the "cudbear" lichen, gathered in the Highlands and largely exported in the early part of this century for producing purple and crimson dyes.

Parmelia saxatilis.—Grey and black with brown spots; much used in making a brown or brownish-red dye or crottle.

Parmelia parietina.—Bright orange; flat growth on old trees and on rocks, especially on the sea-shore; very noticeable and beautiful.

Sticta puhnonaria.—On trees, standing out an inch or two in scales; pale green on surface, brown underneath. P

Armelia herbacea.—Like the last, but greyer ; it grows on the ground.

Peliidea canina.—Resembles the two last, but coarser.

Gyrophora erosa.—On rocks, like a soft black button; up to two inches in diameter.

Cornicularia prolixa and cana.—Pendent from trees; brownish. Seaweeds grow profusely on Gairloch shores; they are largely used as manure, and were formerly the source whence kelp was obtained. Some of the kinds growing in deep water are of brilliant colour; specimens of these, detached by storms, may often be collected on the beach, and when pressed are highly decorative. Freshwater weeds are oot so various, but both classes are well worthy of study.

The fungi of Gairloch include several edible species. Whether edible or poisonous many of them are very beautiful. There are brilliant scarlet fungi with orange or white spots; others are purple, yellow, chestnut-brown, green, pale lilac, cream-coloured, or white. The following are a few Gairloch species, mostly identified for me by Mr A. S. Bicknell, a skilled fungologist and daring fungus eater:—

Agaricus laccatus.—Purple.
Hydnum repandum.—Buff fungus, without gills; edible.
Cantharellus cibarius.—Yellow; edible; the "chantarelle."
HygropJwrus pumicens.—Red, with orange gills ; poisonous.
Russula heterophylla.—White; top variable in colour ; edible.
Amanita muscaria.—Red; poisonous.
Agaricus muscarius.—Crimson; spotted; poisonous.
Agaricus phalloides.—White, with pale yellow or green top ; poisonous.
Boletus edulis.—Umber; white flesh; edible.
Agaricus campestris.—The common mushroom; edible; only abundant here at rare intervals.
Lycoperdon giganteum.—White; the "puff-ball"; edible.
Agaricus semiglobatus.—Yellowish; poisonous.
Russula fceteris,—Reddish brown; poisonous.

There are many other fungi and toadstools to be met with in Gairloch, even by the wayside; they need identification.

These are all my notes on these branches of nature. Of course many forms of life have been scarcely alluded to ; it is even difficult, if not impossible, for the scientist to define where organised life ceases. The farther research is carried, the more marvels it reveals. Have we not here plain indications of the work and design of the Divine Being, either direct or through the medium of some law of evolution? It may be commonplace, but it is none the less rational, to believe that for our enjoyment of nature we are indebted to a benign Providence.

"Thou, Lord, hast made me glad through Thy work."


 


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