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.
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
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
Cladonia pyxidata.—Also grows
on the ground; has cups or stems half inch high, red inside.
vermicularis, but much finer; almost resembling lace.
Cladonia digitalis and extensa.—Both
have stems like pyxidata; the former finer, the latter coarser, with
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.
sulphur-coloured stain on rocks.
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
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
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
Hydnum repandum.—Buff fungus, without gills;
Cantharellus cibarius.—Yellow; edible; the "chantarelle."
HygropJwrus pumicens.—Red, with orange gills ; poisonous.
heterophylla.—White; top variable in colour ; edible.
Agaricus muscarius.—Crimson; spotted; poisonous.
phalloides.—White, with pale yellow or green top ; poisonous.
edulis.—Umber; white flesh; edible.
Agaricus campestris.—The common
mushroom; edible; only abundant here at rare intervals.
giganteum.—White; the "puff-ball"; edible.
Russula fceteris,—Reddish brown; poisonous.
There are many other fungi and
toadstools to be met with in Gairloch, even by the wayside; they need
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."