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Wild Flowers of Scotland
Chapter XI. Flowers of the Far North


THE wild flowers of one corner of Scotland are so exceptional in their interest, so characteristic of their haunts, that they ask to be treated apart; especially as they are so shy at crossing their very narrow boundaries, and are so seldom visited in districts which offer less attraction to the many.

The north-east dip of sandstone which forms the county of Caithness is mainly of rough moorland, rising very little above sea-level. It passes under the shallow Pentland Firth, to be continued, in a certain broken way, in the sandstones of Orkney.

This whole district, though northern, is not highland; the climate, though on the Polar side of us, is rather milder than our own; the wild flowers, though boreal, are neither alpine nor arctic.

A few of the hill plants come down the slopes, and make themselves at home near sea-level. This is by no means strange. Hardy mountain forms are known to grow on coast moors, chiefly such as are so rude and exposed as this. Among others the eight-rayed mountain avens — Dryas octo-petala—appears on the flats of Caithness, and crosses to the low heights of Hoy.

Some few years ago I spent part of the summer in Orkney, under the soothing ripple of canvas. Within half a stone’s-throw was a lake, constricted in the middle, and swelling out at each end, somewhat after the shape of an ancient hour-glass.

Down the slope we ran with a towel for a morning bath, and again with our rods for a forenoon’s cast. As fishing sheets, the weakness of this and other Orkney lakes is the abundance of pond-weed, rising to the surface as the season advances, and covering large areas when the sport is at its height. In July and August much of the water is unfishable, and a rise too near the forest, leads to the twisting of the line round the stems by the running trout. This nuisance is on the increase from year to year, and will soon have to be dealt with.

Round the lake margin was a circlet, broken here and there, of the pink bells of the bog pimpernel. This is to the wastes what Linncea is to the woods, and is well-nigh as graceful and delicately-tinted as the wild flower which seemed so charming to Linnaeus. The difference in appearance may be because the one grows under shelter, and the other in such places as stunt the growth.

The colour was pale—the result, no doubt, of exposure to the sea breeze, whichever way the wind blows. Some of the bells were white. The same bleaching process appeared in the purple scabious, the crimson ragged robin, and the violet self-heal. All showed many white flowers.

The scene was unrelieved. No trees were visible. The crofters’ houses, dotted down here and there, only increased the impression of bareness—they were so. rude themselves.

“I very much long for trees,” said one who had never left the island. “If I were not so old”—he was beyond the four score—“I should go south yet.”

It seems strange how one gets accustomed to anything. After the first few days I was not conscious of the want.

Immediately round the crofts, were patches reclaimed from the universal moor. The cereals were oats, and bere—a six-rowed form of barley. These strips, sparsely covered as they were, frequently came out in vivid contrast to their duller surroundings; while, in that moist air of diffused rainbows, the dull shades themselves became marvellously bright. The changes to beauty were sudden as surprising. On the rude background of untamed Orkney, beyond the crofts, I have seen atmospheric effects like the flush of distant flowers, only lovelier and brighter.

If the crops were thus thin, the space between the stalks was fully occupied—for better or worse, according to the point of view. What was lacking in use had been given over to beauty. I never saw so many cornflowers.

The fields were simply inlaid with heartsease —not the ordinary long-stalked, small-flowered field variety of the south, scarce deserving to rank above a weed. Round as a sixpence, with space for each of the shades to come distinctly out, they were such flowers as we find on the dry short turf here, and even larger than our best.

All this would seem to show that our field violet is simply the miserable outcome of competition with the taller and stronger grain. If the heartsease first came here as a wild flower of cultivation, it must have been as it appears in the meadows or on these Orkney crofts, and it has slowly degenerated with improved methods.

These rude fields, thus carpeted out of all comparison, more delightfully than our own, were o’ertopped and almost o’er-canopied with gowans. Though this was doubtless owing to the bad soil and worse tillage, still it made them gardens of quite exceptional beauty. Within the dry-stone dykes, in many instances, grew elder bushes (bourtree). It seems almost unaccountable at first that such a soft-wooded bush should flourish in places so exposed and windy that not even the hardiest of shrubs has a chance. But so it is! And but for this fact the outlook from the windows of Orkney crofts would be still drearier.

It chanced one day that a gentleman farmer—or as near an approach to one as the different conditions of Orkney agricultural life permitted— passed our way. Struck with the strange phenomenon of a tent where no tent should be, and which, like Jonah’s gourd, seemed to have sprung in the night, he called to see what it might mean; and before leaving he courteously invited us to return the visit at his house, some few miles away.

Two days later found us out on the search in the direction indicated; for, after three or four weeks gipsying, a little social life of the unexpected sort comes as a relief. Hidden by a plastered wall of considerable height from the passing gaze, the cottage had undoubted claims to picturesqueness.

The inmates seemed to counterbalance the desolate surroundings by a cheerful inner life.

There may have been a little philosophy in it, such as common sense people cultivate where matters cannot be mended; but there seemed to be a good deal of nature as well.

Certainly, I never witnessed such bubbling over of animal spirit even in the brightest scenes, especially on the part of those who were no longer children. The example was contagious, which would not have been the case had the gaiety been forced. One could not help laughing along with them, and he would have been very dull and ill-natured who tried. There was wit, too. There generally is with persons who still see both sides of life, even when one of them is not so obvious as it might be.

In bad weather, when the brown shades looked black, and there was no relief anywhere, they didn’t require to look beyond the garden wall; and like wise folk, who refuse to meet depression half-way, probably they did not try. All of the soaked and blackened earth they could, command from the windows, were the tops of the hills.

Within the enclosure, the scene was as if I had been suddenly transported south again. It must have been only so much the brighter on the duller day, and thus helped to preserve the balance. Garden vegetables grew to the usual height, and were bordered by bright annuals.

In a snug corner, shut in between the gable and the wall, where the blast would pass over without sending down so much air as would disturb the dust on its glass roof, nestled a little conservatory. It was just such a spot as one would choose out for telling a world-forgetting story in. And, I daresay, those northern imaginations sometimes used it for the purpose in the dull winter-time.

That autumn day it was suggestive of something milder. The retreating shelves were hidden away amid the colours of geranium, pelargonium, and fuchsia. All this brightness was backed by the green of native ferns. For the presiding spirits were lovers of nature, even more than florists. There many a summer afternoon was dreamt away, in sweet forgetfulness of monotony and dulness.

The ladies were enthusiastic gardeners—indeed must have been, to have achieved such results as these under prevailing conditions. They trembled between the humorous and the pathetic in their description of the difficulties and disappointments of horticulture in Orkney.

“It’s all very well for you to admire now,” said one, half poutingly; “but if you only knew what trouble they have been, and how much anxiety they represent. When we have just coaxed them above ground, and are saying to ourselves, ‘Soul, take thine ease, sleep in peace,’ a south-wester will rise through the night, and in the morning great foam flakes are flying over the island, crusting the garden with salt, and destroying the promise for the year.”

“You have great storms, then?” I inquired.

“Storms! I should think we have,” and the fun came dancing back to her face. “There are days when, if you open your mouth to the windward, you must turn round before you can get it shut again.”

The idea of the wind keeping the mouth open, as it might do an umbrella, was certainly original. The only improvement were to carry the parallel further, and suggest the blowing inside out.

“But I love Orkney,” she went on, with the northern light in her eye. “You are too late for the finest and rarest of our wild flowers. You say that you have never been here in the spring? Then you must come.”

And she spoke with much enthusiasm of the beauty of the vernal squill; and of the delightful surprise, at the close of winter, of going out some morning when the sun was shining through and glorifying a veil of moist air, to find it already scattered far and wide over the landscape.

“You, who are so rich in wild flowers, will laugh at my innocence,” she said, with an assumption of humility.

I assured her that we had nothing in the south more beautiful than the few-flowered blue lily, except perhaps its sister, the bluebell of the woods. “And sisters don’t quarrel,” I added.

“No,” she said doubtfully; “at least not in Orkney—there are too few of us. And we have the scilla all to ourselves?”

“Not quite, but almost. It crosses to Caithness. Caithness, you know, is only a part of Orkney.”

I put it the wrong way about, to smooth her ruffled susceptibilities.

“Well!” she said, in a hard, questioning voice.

“It crawls down the east coast—very reluctantly, perhaps—as far as Banff.”

I have since discovered it on St. Andrews links, and have little doubt that it grows on similar exposed situations elsewhere. My experience teaches me to be exceedingly suspicious of any hard-and-fast limits assigned to species. But of all this she is happily ignorant, and so was I at the time.

“Is that all?”

“And as for the west. Why, of course it crosses into Sutherland. You couldn’t help it doing that, seeing that county lies next to Caithness, without any brick wall between.”

“Sutherland, does it? Any more?”

“It appears just here and there down the coast, always near the water. It never forgets that it was born of the Orkney sea breezes, and scattered over your island by the first spring west wind. It nowhere seems to meet its woodland sister, the bluebell; at least I never heard of the meeting*.

"Your scilla is not bright blue like the other?”

“No, it is pale.”

“That is because it is a child of the sea. Now, the bluebell creeps up the centre of the country, disappears into dens and other snug places by the way; shivers back from the coast unless there is abundant shelter; and positively refuses to venture into Sutherland or Caithness. Your pale seaside bell forms a sort of ring, very thin and interrupted, round the inland and woodland bluebell.”

“I wonder if they really do meet anywhere?” The idea of two sisters held apart affected her imagination, and sentiment for the moment prevailed over her common sense.

“If I hear of it, I shall let you know.”

In St. Andrews they are divided only by the breadth of the town—the scilla growing on the links to the north, and the harebell in sheltered places of the cliffs to the south.

“You have missed another Orkney flower, which, but for the dryness of the season, would have been here yet. It is not so easily seen, but worth searching for, and when found worth looking at. You have no lilac primroses where you are?"

“No. There is said to be one somewhere; but I never saw it, or met a person who had done. At most, there can only be a few plants.”

“Not our primrose?”

“No, it is taller. Yours positively refuses to grow on our hills, although we can’t tell why; has not been found on our sheltered lowlands, and probably would be choked if it tried. It seems to belong to such exposed sea-breezy places as this. It strikes me as the Shetland pony among plants —so minute is it, so much at home in its own domain, so sensitive to change, and so perversely determined not to oblige those who would grow it elsewhere, however kind they may be.”

“Long may it keep in that mind.”

“I am of opinion that it owes its minuteness to the hard living; and, even if it could be coaxed into settling farther south, it would after a while begin to grow bigger. But the chances are that it would die before that came about.”

“What a spirited little plant! I shall think twice as much of it in future. You can’t rob us of that.”

“Of course it crosses into Caithness, which, you know, is so very like Orkney.”

“Well, I suppose I must give in about Caithness,” she said, with a pout. “But why wasn’t the Pentland Firth on the other side?”


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