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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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?
“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
"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
“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
“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?”