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Wild Flowers of Scotland
Chapter XII. Up the Glen


ON an August day, allied to the summer gone by in its cloudless sky and breathless warmth, rather than to the coming autumn with its crisper air and shaded sunlight, I found myself in Kirriemuir. J. M. Barrie was still unhatched— I mean in a literary sense—and Thrums had not yet wakened from its long sleep to find itself famous.

This was by no means the only visit. The place has a power to draw me for a distance of ten miles on all sides. Besides, it lies directly in the way of some of my favourite haunts; and I must needs pass through in order to reach them.

Kirriemuir is on the northern margin of Strathmore—the greatest, as its very name implies, and also the quietest of Scots valleys. It is a quaint other-worldly town—as becomes the site—of unspoiled folk with no more than their share of conceit in themselves. Not very long ago, outsiders of simple tastes sought it instead of some more stirring holiday resort, alike for its moorland air and soothing naturalness.

Sometimes I feel glad that I knew it in those days. The place must ever be most to those who loved it before others so much as heard of it. Whatever Kirrie may mean, muir or moor aptly enough describes the surroundings, and indeed the condition of that portion of the strath.

A short way to the north the Lowlands pass quite suddenly into the Highlands of Scotland— so suddenly indeed, that in some places it is easy to step from one to the other.

Once upon a time the strath was a glacier track, and frozen side-streams flowed out from among the hills, to join and swell the great river of ice. The path or channel of these tributaries is now marked out by just so many glens ; while all that remains to represent a volume once reaching to the mountain-tops is a streak of water running down, the centre.

It was yet early morning. The cool shadows cast by the irregular buildings lay across the street, some of the taller climbing far up on the opposite side. I must have passed the little house upon the hill, then, as at other times, quite unconscious of the immortality in reserve for that unpretentious structure, and the thriving trade it was destined to do in refreshments with those indefatigable pilgrims and hero worshippers who are determined to be disillusionised.

Which of these side glens, leading a varying number of miles into the very heart of the Highlands, was I to take? Three complete and several broken ones were available; to all of which Kirriemuir—with a possible rival in Alyth—was, so to speak, the lodge. This special morning I chose that of Clova.

The only way of getting there was on foot. On certain days a coach ran, but this did not happen to be one of them. Even had it been, it is questionable if I would have taken a seat. It was no privation. And I strongly advise those who love the Highlands, and wish their love to continue, never to get on a coach where the distance is walkable. One who has not a pair of legs, or the will to use them, should stay at home. The plague of cycles had not then broken out.

The delight of the start comes freshly up as I write—so vividly indeed, that I shall abandon myself to the thought that it is happening over again, and write in the present.

The hills at this point stand three miles back. As I pass over the open country the sun continues to climb higher, and the shadows shorten. At length I cross a considerable stream, issuing from Glen Prosen, and then I know that the very next valley I come to is Clova.

As one steps from the Lowland sandstones to the Highland schists, a change, like that of the strata, passes over the wild flowers. Familiar forms are missed, while others take their place and do their work. For each plant has its place to fill, and work to do; except perhaps a few gipsies, which settle on any waste piece of ground, where they are left in peace. For obvious reasons, such vagrants are not nearly so common in the Highlands.

It were long to tell everything which adds its little to the general change. Details are alike wearisome and unins tractive. Enough that I mention one of the larger, perhaps the very largest, contributors, leaving such of the rest as may strike me to be picked up as I go along.

The commonest flower of the plain is the daisy.

It is the white garment or tippet the earth puts on to show that spring has come. No meadow or pasture or green roadside, if the grass grow not too rank, is without it—except it may be some seaside moor—it loves not wild places. Nor can it be said to care for shadow. It haunts the margins, but barely enters the woods. And the daisy is one of the missing flowers.

Yet one scarcely misses it. There is the same sheen ahead; and, as all is rude grassland together here, the effect is so much the more widely spread. The unobservant are not even aware that another agent is at work; but so it is.

That other is the eyebright, not altogether pure, touched with purple. But is not the daisy also— “the wee, modest, crimson - tipped flower”? At a distance both seem white.

The names of the two (that do the same office in different scenes—reigning, the one over Highland, the other over Lowland turf) are strangely alike— days-eye and eyebright. One lifts the crimson lids, which have been dropped during the dark, to greet the morning, and exposes the golden ball without blinking throughout the hot and bright hours; the other, from its specific name, officinalis, seems to have been credited with some medicinal virtue—probably that of adding lustre to the eye of beauty.

The eyebright is not unfrequent on the plain, but is generally found in such rude places as the daisy does not care to invade; so that their domains, though they often touch, sometimes even intersect, remain essentially distinct. Both appear on the links; but the one haunts the older and maturer, the other the younger and rougher portions. The eyebright has not the same objection to shade, and is common in the older Lowland woods.

Steady walking, without a break, is not for such a forenoon as this. It is quite a delusion to suppose that there is freshness in a Highland glen when the day is warm, or shelter when the sun is high. The rays beat down with pitiless severity; the heat gathers into ovenlike intensity; there is no gully anywhere on the investing heights deep enough to create a breath. One often sighs or gasps for the open plain, where he is at least sure of what wind there is, just as a dweller on the plain sighs for the seaside. Happily, there is always the escape to the mountain-tops.

Everywhere one is within hearing of the water, with its suggestion of coolness. But there are days when the very ripple speaks of motion ; and the sense of motion begets heat.

I seldom go abroad without my rod. It serves as walking - stick or alpenstock, is convenient for pushing aside the thorns, and is ever ready to be turned to its legitimate use. I sit down by the alder, and lazily fit in the pieces and string through the line. The shadow is oppressive; the very heat seems to be taking refuge from itself under the same bush. It rests upon one with the weight of another garment. I wonder if there is more air in the open.

The bed is rocky; the stones stand out like the ribs of a lean man. The stream is broken into many separate currents, which flow in attenuated channels, and only gather here and there behind the larger boulders into triangular mid - stream pools.

One such still place, more promising than the rest, is well over to the other side. A cast may bring something.

Phew! how hot it is! And only a two-inch trout, after all the trouble! How he disappears beneath the nearest stone on being returned to the water, after his first visit to the upper air! A trout in a much-fished stream must have a lively time of it! Ten miles at this rate means ten hours; it will be cool enough then!

A few such diversions to the water-side, with the needful slipping down and climbing up steep banks, and leaping from boulder to boulder to get at some likely pool, or climbing such awkward fences as only crofters know how to put up and black-faced sheep to get over, especially when the encouragement is of the slightest, prove enough. And the face is turned a little more steadily toward the goal.

Next to the daisy, the dandelion is the-most familiar of plants. The one is gathered by the Lowland girls for stringing into bracelets, the other by the boys for feeding their rabbits.

And the dandelion is being replaced by the hawk weeds. Nine out of ten of our hawk weeds— many of which have a beauty of their own—are mountain forms, the majority belonging to the Scottish mountains. A few outliers come down to the glen, and a few intermediate species connect these with the flowers of the plain.

Crossing freely from the glen to the lowlands is the pale yellow mouse-eared hawk weed. It just enters within the domain of the dandelion, and in certain neutral places the two grow side by side. But the lemon hawk weed is found where the orange dandelion is not, and vice versa.

On the links are a few dandelions and many mouse-eared hawkweeds; but there they observe much the same limits as the daisy and the eye-bright. Dandelion and daisy are found consorting on the newer, eyebright and hawkweed on the older, portions. One reason may be found in the long milky taproot of the dandelion and the creeping stolons of the hawkweed. Such provisions seem to mark each off for its mode of life. While the dandelion, like the daisy, keeps very much to sunny places, the lemon hawkweed, like the eyebright, creeps under the shadow of the older woods.

The common ragworts, with the unequal lobing which gives them their torn look, are left behind. On moist ground, the marsh species, less deserving the ugly name because of the greater regularity of the leaves, appears. As a rule, marsh species are extremely accommodating.

Here and there, mainly in shady places, grows the somewhat similar, but much more graceful, golden-rod, with its long lance-shaped leaves and pretty spikes of yellow flowers. This is a characteristic sub-alpine form, and strikes one who approaches the hills as something new.

The buttercups, with their much-cut foliage, are down on the plain. And only the marsh species, with their usual indifference to the presence of anything but water, care to climb. Such are found in moist places so far away as the arctic lowlands, water seeming to remain the same wherever it is found.

The distinctive cups of the glen are mainly white; and among them is the most attractive of white cups, alike in its perfect shape and in its proud and graceful pose. The grass of Parnassus —for so runs its stately and fitting name—comes as a revelation of unexpected beauty to those who see it for the first time, where it grows side by side with the bright yellow of the bog asphodel.

In Scotland I find that the foxglove, though not unknown on the plains, affects the glens and hill slopes up to a certain low altitude, marked perhaps by the upper limit of the bracken region. A favourite site is the heap of stones, representing some ancient moraine, or piled up by the simple disintegration of rocks. There it pushes its way through, together with the oak fern and the colourless spike of the wood germander. Or it forms the somewhat lurid undergrowth of the thin strips of dark fir, above where the whin ventures. It seems to have much the same claim as the golden-rod to be treated as a sub-alpine.

Seaside wild flowers reappear. The mosses change; the grasses change. The stone dykes, where such there be, show a transformation of roadside forms. Among ferns, for instance, there is a lessening proportion of the common polypody, so familiar on similar old Lowland fences.

“Phew! How hot! ”

The sun has passed the meridian, but the warmth has not, and I am afraid never will. A shadow rests on the sloping bank ahead—not a very long one; for at this hour of the day, at this time of the year, shadows are at the shortest.

I shall sit down for a minute or two—not more than five! Why keep bolt upright, when one can lie! As well be comfortable for the short time! This slope just fits into the back! My head is out of the glare, and I can gather my hands under it thus ! What matter that my boots roast! One o’clock! Eight miles yet! Two miles an hour! Five! Just nice time! Heat and cold make one slee— !

And the shadow of that tree must have stolen, unwatched, over my boots, and crept stealthily across the road, while I lay in deeper shadow still. Ere I see it again, it is already beyond the dyke on the opposite side; there is no more time for trifling. The pace is now persistently forward, though still extremely moderate, for the margin of a summer day is large.

The common lady’s-mantle grows by every dusty roadside down below, washes its flower racemes of dull yellow in every burn that waters the plain.-If it is sometimes hard to see how some plants ever got their popular names, there is no difficulty in this case. When held downwards by its stalk, the leaf is a miniature of a green mantle just taken out of its folds.

Not less familiar, by Highland pathways and stream-sides, is the alpine lady’s-mantle. It is often one of the first of the flowers to tell that the dividing line between lowland and mountain has been crossed. In many places it carpets the glen. The name would seem to have been given to the plain form first, and afterwards applied to that of the hills. The creases or folds have been divided into five little leaflets, which quite take away the appearance of a mantle. The flowers remain the same. In gardens or rockeries it has a tendency to increase the number of leaflets indefinitely.

There are ragged glens, which shoot up a majestic peak here, and are comparatively tame there. The strength of this one lies in its cumulative impressiveness. Nowhere sensational, it is everywhere calmly majestic. It gains upon the spirit by degrees, until it takes full possession. On entering, one feels that he is constantly passing on to something greater. On returning, one feels that he is being let down, so to speak, to the plain.

A few scattered houses appear, in a magnificent amphitheatre. One must concentrate his attention before he can see them, so little are they in comparison with their surrounding. There I must stay; if anywhere, under a roof. The first cottage is not promising. The door is shut, the chimney smokeless; a black-and-white pig is gardening in the front plot; the knock yields only the echo of an empty house. Never mind! the ground is dry, the heather springy, and I can sleep a mile or two farther on, in the solitude of hills.

A second application is somewhat more successful. There is a room, not in this cottage, but in some older structure behind, of whose accommodation the woman speaks with perfect plainness and a becoming modesty. I follow her to the back premises and up a narrow wooden stair.

The bed is a procrustean concern, in a very tight corner of the wall. The atmosphere is provided by six drying cheeses. On the other hand, the skylight is innocent of glass—a very distinct advantage on such a night. Possibly, much to her surprise, I say it will do. I refrain from telling her that I have put up with worse.

Half an hour afterwards I am climbing the slope. Two tarns overhead are steaming like volcanoes, with craters formed by the surrounding mountains. The day exhalations are being condensed by the nightly fall of temperature. About five hundred feet above my lodging for the night, I lie down to watch the sun dipping behind an elevated horizon, picturesquely broken by the mountain-tops; and the mystic light coming out below.


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