Flowers of Scotland Chapter IV. Whin and Broom
the later spring the country-side is touched all over with colourin
lines, and patches, and masses.
The lines mark out the rough margins of the ploughed fields, just
under the dividing fences, or light up the edges of woods, or follow
the course of the burns. The patches crown the knobs of hard rock
rising above the general level. The masses spread out over areas of
waste land, or along the lower slopes of the hills.
Yellow, as yet, is the only wear; yellow in its utmost glory and
spread, showing that spring is at the height. Ere long, the white,
breaking out over the hawthorn, will mark the transition to summer.
In the days, or weeks, during which the two seasons kiss without
parting, the beauty is exceedmg. At no other time is the earth so
delightful a place to live on.
As the yellow came, so it dies, first. Then the white passes into
the prevailing green of summer; after which there are no more colour
masses or patches that can be seen at a distance, till the fields
fade into straw or golden shades, and the woods take on the tints of
In this the showering season of the year, the hues are kept
incessantly pure. These cloud masses, with their lit summits and
dark defiles, resting on an ocean of vapoury haze, have retired to
the horizon to give the midday hours over to the sun. In the
afternoon they will come up again to wash the faces of the flowers
afresh; again to roll away from the west, that their edge may be
touched by the sunset.
After her morning, and again after her evening bath, at this
maidenly time of the year, nature looks very fresh and charming. It
is then that one falls in love with her, and never tires of looking
on her face. I can imagine no greater delight it is one I have
often known, and would not willingly missthan to turn towards the
largest mass of yellow within reach, in the interval between the
ceasing of the afternoon shower and the setting of the sun. The
blossoms are still trembling with the drops, and the linnets have
come out of their hiding from the rain for an evensong.
The yellow belongs to the whin and to the broomnot nearly so much
to the whin as to the broom. The fainter glow on these knobs of hard
rock is of the whin; the brighter hue, around the edges of the
field, and where the sloping bank retreats from the stream, is of
The whins may burn with an intenser if lower flame to one who is
near, but theirs is not a travelling shade. Besides, there are not
so many flowers, and some are half-hidden away amid the dark green
of the shrub. It does not scatter its energies in colour, but
conserves them for other uses.
The seedling begins life by putting forth very soft three-leaved
foliage. But in successive leaves the inid-lobe extends and
sharpens, until it becomes a very formidable spike. Thus this
innocent child of nature very early in life develops into a
veritable Becky Sharp, who, because of the spite of fortune, whose
beginnings she couldnt remember, never had been a girlshe had been
a woman since she was eight years old.
There must be some reason for this: there is for everything. Becky
Sharp was once an ingenuous child. There may have been a time, also,
when whins only put forth soft leaves. Wherefore, then, the change
in the plant and the girl? Many a dun had Becky talked to, and
turned away from her fathers door; many a tradesman had she coaxed
and wheedled into good-humour, and the granting of one meal more.
That seems sufficient to account for the departure of the green
leaves and the substitution of the bristles; together with the
disposition not to mind whom she pricked indeed, rather to enjoy
it, so long as she kept herself right.
Let us suppose that the whin was driven out into waste places, and
that there it was exposed to duns in the shape of grazing cattle,
and troublesome tradesmen in the shape of nibbling rodents. In this
hard school it would naturally acquire a certain precocity, quite
shocking in its way, to the sheltered growths of the inlands.
Even in its present condition, it is still nibbled by the rabbits
into compact masses of all manner of fantastic shapes. But as often
as the persecution, which first taught it to look after itself, is
repeated, it concentrates its forces, and redoubles its means of
The tender foliage of its days of innocence would prove the most
acceptable of bites. Unless some device were hit upon to stay the
spoiler, speedy extinction was inevitable. Suppose some of the
plants, by reason of the hardness of the leaf, to become less
agreeable ; suppose the hardness to increase until it pricked the
creatures mouth. Here we have some sort of explanation of a
soft-leaved plant becoming so formidable.
It may be asked why the broom did not change in the same way.
Several answers may be suggested. I imagine that there is a
bitterness about the broom, which makes it less sought after by
animals than the sweeter-juiced whin.
have seen cows pulling at every shrub round about, except the broom,
even when the branches were so intermingled that it was a matter of
some difficulty to disentangle themjust as I have seen them, with a
delicacy one could scarcely have looked for in such large-mouthed
creatures, picking the surrounding grass without disturbing the
tall, upright meadow buttercup. Do not these same buttercups owe
their name to the supposed partiality of the cow, which never tastes
them if it can help it, and the butter-producing qualities in the
milk they never enter? Or was it the cool, moist, fresh look in the
cup that suggested this cool, fresh name?
One may test this element in the shrub by putting a bit of the bark
in his mouth, just as he may discover why a cow avoids the buttercup
by chewing a bit of the stem.
Again, I imagine that the broom has not been so long here; nor has
it passed through anything like the hard discipline to sour its
temper, raise its bristles, and put it on the defensive. And,
lastly, the broom is not nearly so much a child of the wastes, where
the chief danger lies.
The simple distinction between the areas of broom and whin is, that
the whin frequents bare, arid, and sandy stretches; while the broom
finds out unoccupied places, with a certain depth and richness of
soil, such as the margin left where the plough could reach no nearer
to the hedge.
Of course they cross into each others domain. Especially is this
the case with the whin. The poor, though quite able to exist on what
they have, never object to a better home. Often they are seen to
mingle their dark and light green foliage; their dusky, and bright
yellow blossoms. But there are limits in the direction of bareness
which the broom positively refuses to cross.
The whin covers the knobs of hard rock, and pays for its lodging by
helping to keep the thin sprinkling of soil, gathered from the waste
of the stone, from being blown off by the wind or washed down by the
rain. Because of its tenant, the rock gets the common name of
Long straggling roots give the whin a lot of purchase, thus making
it independent of depth. So much one will learn who tries to grub it
up. This habit of root-growth it may have acquired along with the
prickles. In the way, where there was enough of earth to strike
straight down into, it became a simple necessity of existence, as
soon as the shrub was driven beyond the limits of cultivation. It
takes advantage of every crack to tighten its grasp.
It is a veritable fir tree among shrubs, and has much the same place
and function in nature. In passing through fir forest or whin scrub,
one has to watch his feet very carefully lest he trip over the
exposed roots. The fall is to be avoided as either very rough or
very thorny. Should the hard rock form a ridge, the fir tree and
whin share it between them. Nothing is commoner than the dull glow
of whin under the deep shadow of the fir needles. In such a
situation, with its downward tending roots, the broom would starve
or be stunted and easily torn up.
The sandy stretch of links around our coasts is the domain of the
whin, occasionally shared by a clump of fir trees. Seldom or never
is this area invaded by the broom. Round St. Andrews we have
abundance of whin, with some fir trees, but not a single broom bush.
And this is fairly representative of similar scenes elsewhere. The
glow at the seaside, so pleasant in the cool sunshine, so suggestive
of a day among the bents with club and ball, is still a
comparatively dull glow. It is the glow of whin. Anyone who has seen
whin and broom growing together will never mistake the one for the
The inland yellow is the yellow of broom. It is that which touches
spring with masses and patches of colour. It is that which lights up
our sweet, fresh country-sides. It is that which marks out the
curved line of beauty of the burns, with their suggestions of rising
trout. It is that which washes itself twice a day in the April
showers, and then shines out in the April sunshine.
No wildling blossoms so freely as the broom.
This generous habit alone, but for its abundance, would make it a
favourite in the garden. As lief imprison a little of the sunlight,
or the blue of the sea, when all that is needed is a window, or an
eye to let it in.
Sometimes the hawthorn strives to cover itself with white, but it
seldom or never altogether succeedsthere is generally some bare
spot left; whereas the broom will not rest from flowering till every
leaf is hidden away. This may well have been the bush that burned
nec tamen con-sumebatur No wonder that it makes the scene so
bright, and gives a character to spring.
Blossom, blossom, everywhere, until the very bees theirselves are
puzzled with the embarras de richesse.
The special mechanism for dusting the insects back with pollen seems
thrown away, when the very weight, as it lights, seems sufficient to
bring down a yellow shower. The very atmosphere surrounding the
plant, even when undisturbed, is filled with pollen rain.
The dark birds are dusted yellow as they pass out from their nests.
One requires no dusting. It is probable that the head of the
yellow-hammer has no other meaning than the blue cap of the
chaffinch, or the light spot of the white-throat, and that the bird
made no conscious selection of the spring brake for nesting. But it
is no fancy that the yellow head affords it some concealment, as it
sings its simple lay from the broom bush, or even amid the scantier
blossoms of the whin.
One would naturally expect to find such seeming-hardy,
free-spreading plants among the hills. And, even should the broom
fail, after a certain altitude, because there was no depth of soil
there, the whinso habituated to bad treatment, able, through much
practice, to cling on to any rock, and, through much privation, to
subsist on any dietshould climb as high as other plants.
And yet both reach but a comparatively low altitude, beyond which no
spring yellow is visible. Both are found sparingly at the Castleton
of Brae-mar, some twelve hundred feet above sea-level, but do not
manage to struggle beyond.
The whin is an interesting instance of a comparatively hardy shrub,
that can face anything but a mountain. Its lowland companion, the
fir tree, climbs away beyond, and leaves it lagging behind. In these
windy regions one would imagine the advantage to lie with the
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