I IMAGINE that the
woods round about are old. They show every sign of being mere
patches of a woodland of much greater size,—covering the whole space
they mark out,—and were probably left on the less promising spots,
mainly bare and exposed ridges, when the rest was broken up into
farms. Many of these patches are still joined at the corners, and
zigzag about in a manner which will admit of no other explanation.
Very curiously shaped
some of these farms are, as they run in and out among the trees in a
game of hide-and-seek. One part is cut off from another by an
intervening strip, which the ploughman or the reaper must skirt or
cross. So closely are some of the fields invested, that in broken
seasons the farmer finds it hard to get the grain to ripen, until it
is so late in the year that the sun only shows his face above the
ridge for two hours at midday. Sometimes he is fain to cut it down
for green food.
The age of the wood
is shown in several ways, chiefly by the trees. The backbone, so to
speak, is Scots fir. One half-expects this from the ridgy nature of
the ground, and the bareness of the soil, which help to account for
any trees being left at all.
The rest is mainly
oak. Let no one suppose these to be of the brawny or spreading kind,
out of whose giant trunks battleships were wont to be made. Such are
not Scots oaks; at least, not those that share old woods with the
fir trees. Straggling growths are these, suffering from poverty
beneath, and shooting up their starved and lanky length in search of
the upper light and air.
A few beech trees
touch the sombreness with their fresh spring green. Though not
perhaps to the manner born, or so ancient in their date, the beeches
of our Scots woods more than hold their own. They grow to even
greater size than the oaks, or carry more width along with their
height. Than their shining trunks nothing statelier is there. Scots
rooks select the branches for their nests.
Ash and poplar are
more in the open, and run along the lanes which join the wood
Under the fir trees,
the under-growth is whin. Where the beech tells of deeper soil, the
broom flowers, though less freely, and with more appearance of leaf,
than out in the sun.
The floor, too, is
tell-tale: it is rude and unkempt. No one ever planted a forest
there. The site is elevated, reached by a sudden rise of several
feet from the river. It is really a moorland stretch, in a shallow
depression of a chain of hills, whose summits are about three miles
No soft wood-meadow
grasses grow here; the hard yet graceful waved-heath grasses are a
little more silvery of hue than those of the open; that is, in so
far as there is room for grasses of any kind, amid the blaeberries
and other moorland and mountain shrubs.
These woods of fir,
with their mingling of oak and sprinkling of beech, and their rude
undergrowth and carpet, are typical of Scotland.
The patch I most care
for is two miles away, and involves a climb of another two hundred
feet. It has a further mark of antiquity in its name. It is called
“The Emmocks,” probably the wood of the ants. A cart-road, marked by
two running streams down the wheel tracks in winter, and scarred by
two dry stony channels in summer, leads up the face of the ridge.
Why the farm at the
top was called Balmy-down, no casual visitor could ever find out.
But those who knew the scene best, and loved it most, guessed that
it must have been christened on one of these summer days when it
plainly suggested its name; that is, if the word means what it seems
to do, which I by no means vouch for.
Looking down over the
grass park, or the whispering heads of the wheat to the stream
below, and beyond to the picturesque patches, whose wounds time had
healed, cool in their firry -darkness, and relieved by touches of
soft green, the natural eye, aided by some association, could
scarcely seek for anything more fair.
The cart-road passes
behind the farmyard, and leads along the crest of the ridge to the
wood, some half a mile beyond. At one time, no doubt, all this was
shadowed by trees. The path-side vegetation still bears traces of
the ancient state of things; for it is a long time before the
natural growths can be entirely rooted out, and the rudeness refined
A dry-stone dyke
separates the wood from a road which has been cut through its midst.
Long enough time had passed for nature to soften and level the top,
under a layer of turf, woven of rare moorland grasses, over which
dainty panicles danced. The curious among the woodland plants leapt
~up where they could see both ways, and so an ungainly fence was
made into a linear garden of wild flowers. To step across is to be
with nature. One finds himself under tall, graceful, silver-barked
birches. The birch is accommodating. In exposed situations it can
shorten itself, and yet remain the chief ornament of its rude,
rocky, and elevated sites. The fir hard by is gnarled and twisted by
the storms which sweep the mountain - side, though often intensely
picturesque and characteristic in its way. The willow becomes
stunted, and takes refuge in lowliness; the birch clings and cowers
with feminine grace—or when a woodland tree, as here, it can
lengthen itself in competition with the tallest, until its topmost
branches emerge into the upper air and light, even beyond those of
the statelier beech, and all without losing aught of its proportion.
The oak has struggled up, too; but what an overgrown, long-drawn-out
gawk it looks in comparison!
The wood floor is
distinctly moorland—more so even than that of the patches farther
down. To the waved hair grass has been added the ruder,
stiffer—altogether less graceful—mat grass. The moorland shrubs,
too, have been considerably increased. In addition to the blaeberry,
common to all the woods, I can gather the rose and white flower of
the cowberry, and, here and there, the purple vase of the crowberry.
Quite a jubilant
shout summons me to the back of the wood, whither my companion has
gone foraging on his own account. I find him lying all his length on
the ground, gazing intently at something. It is quite an unconscious
tribute, and all the more eloquent on that account, since he did not
know what he was looking at, only that it was beautiful.
Twining in and out
among the shrubs are certain pink branches, at first sight scarcely
distinguishable from the blaeberry twigs, except from their habit of
running long distances along the ground, instead of standing more or
less erect in compact bushes. Every here and there, from these
recumbent stems, rises a flower-stalk, suspending, some half a foot
in the air, and clear above the blossoms of surrounding shrubs, two
of the most delightfully shaded and shaped bells imaginable.
There is no mistaking
this flower for a moment. No other approaches it in exquisiteness,
except, perhaps, that second moorland plant, the bog pimpernel, and
that only from a great distance. It is that which awakened the
enthusiasm of the great botanist, and after him was called Linncea
borealis. Its presence is another sign of ‘age. It is not uncommon
in Scots woods that have been undisturbed. If only occasionally
noticed, that is because it is so easily overlooked, even when in
flower, by the unobservant. We swear a vow of secrecy over that
Linncea, because we know that many would be glad to take it away.
The trailing willow
is all over the floor of the wood, lighting it up with its long
yellow male catkins. A great space is beautified by the mountain
globe flower, found in these patches, and not again till the
mountains are reached. It is the largest, and certainly the most
graceful, of our yellow wild flowers, with great soft balls of
loosely incurved petals, as big as the closed hand of a lady.
At least four orchids
grow in this wood—among them the rose-coloured, sweet-scented
orchid, and that other with the black spots on the green leaves.
Moreover, the floor
is inlaid all over with patines of bright silver, relieving the
shades by countless stars. No flower, wild or cultivated, has the
simple purity of the wood winter green.
Many of these, and
more I could mention, are found all over the sub-alpine region of
the hills, which extends upward for the first fifteen hundred feet.
The wood is a
delightfully cool wood; that is the charm of it. It is worth
climbing the ridge and getting heated in the July sun, just to
plunge into it. It is like a water bath on a hot day, only
infinitely more delicately tempered. It is not the shadow alone.
Every wood has a shadow, and yet there are days when they are not
cool. It is the moisture that is never absent from the air. Part of
the floor is mossy and spongy. In winter one goes over the ankles
there, and even in the height of a warm summer one always wets the
sole of his boots.
These grey marshy
stretches are relieved by the bright crimson and rose of the two
louseworts, and diversified by the flat wan leaves of the butter-wort.
There, too, rise the wax-like spikes of the round-leaved pyrola.
Thus, these fir, beech, and oak trees cover over what, if exposed,
would appear as moor and marsh, and be found to contain a fairly
exhaustive representation of the characteristic flowers of both. The
sundew is the only notable absentee.
The creepies of the
gipsies, or, rather, tinkers, are visible on a bare place among the
under-growth. These not altogether uninteresting survivors of a
previous condition of existence, seem to have a partiality for the
old woods. Their knowledge of the country is enviable, having been
handed down from generation to generation. Many a hint have I got
from seeing them turning up a pathway which seemed to lead to
nowhere. I marked that way out for future investigation.
The donkey is
luxuriating on the richest grass he can find, with an asinine
contempt for absent thistles and present whins. Your donkey is an
epicure, whatever people may say; and if he sometimes eats coarse
food, it is because he is a philosopher as well, and takes what he
can get without grumbling. By what sweet stream-sides and in what
cool glades have I seen the gipsy’s donkey grazing, while ordinary
donkeys had to content themselves with the sparse dust-covered grass
by the roadside. What an innocent face he has, almost touching in
its rude gentleness !
“Poor Neddy! Poor
Ned! ” Open-mouthed, the gentle animal rushes at the well-meaning
intruder, who is extremely relieved when he gets beyond the reach of
his tether. Moral: Never trifle with gipsies’ donkeys.
Just beyond the
creepie the floor descends into a little cup, completely isolating
one, even from the life of the surrounding wood. No fellow-loiterer
can see down until he comes to the edge, and even then, he finds it
hard to peer through the screen of branches. Unless he hears the
voices, he may pass on, unaware that anyone is there.
In the centre of the
cup, the autumn and winter rains form a pool, which persists through
all but the driest summers. An accommodating willow has stretched a
gnarled branch over the pool, whence, in comfort and safety, one can
watch the water-beetles coming to the surface and bearing down with
them their silver globule of air. From just beyond the wood comes
the low of kine, and in the most out-of-the-way corner of the world
nestles a farm, where lives a farmer’s wife, who is seldom without,
and never refuses, fresh milk and floury scones.
A month later, when
all these waxen flowers have given place to berries, black and red,
which happily occurs at school-holiday time, children’s voices are
heard in every part of the wood. Tired at length the young
berry-hunters, with blackened faces, gather on the willow, and
chatter among the branches like so many starlings or monkeys.
And when the sun
begins to dip they fill their baskets, and leave only the lessening
echoes of their retreating voices to die into the silence of the