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Wild Flowers of Scotland
Chapter XIII. The Heather


THE freshness, for which I have panted all the 1 day, dwells up here. The tail stream from the tarn, coming out of the mist, passes about fifty yards to the right. Though its motion, as it rushes down the slope and falls headlong into the frequent pools, is so boisterous, it awakens no longer the sensation of heat, but of coolness. The glare has gone out of the light. Mountain shadows fall across the glen, as the house shadows fell across Thrum’s streets in the morning.

The contrast of this evening lounge on the hillside, compared with the involuntary siesta on the way up the glen, is great. How pleasant is the South Esk as it runs down the valley, with a margin of cool black shadow under its banks! How tempting the distant ripple of currents that scarce cooled the feet at midday!

Not far off is a moist patch. Round cushions of pale sphagnum are touched here and there with red by our native insect-eater. I find that the sundew. almost always chooses cushions of sphagnum, where they are to be found. It may be because these retain sufficient moisture in all states of the air; and also, that they offer a background against which it more easily catches the eye of its insect prey. There is scarcely any other white background over all its hillside or moorland haunts.

On the same marshy spot grows the cross-leaved heather, easily known by its pale downy look. From the shape of its very large flowers, it gets its familiar name of bell heather, though the so-called bells are almost closed at the mouth into little balloons.

This is-the earliest of the year’s heather. Pale at first, the blossoms blush on the exposed side, where they are kissed by the sun into rose; after which they swiftly fade into an unsightly brown mass. As these three stages are very often present in the same cluster, one has sometimes to search a long time for a perfect sprig of rose-and-white.

Of sprawling and somewhat slovenly habit, it presents a frequent dishevelled washed-out appearance. Under the most favourable circumstances, like many another rose-and-white beauty, it looks better at a distance.

The hue of the opposite hill-slope, extending far and wide on either side, is not rose, but purple. This purple form is the next to flower, and seems to be the only one some people know. The sole talk we hear is of purple heather, as if all heather must be the same. Now, purple is not very common, and this is the only native species of that colour.

The association of purple with heather is a very natural one, and doubtless owes its origin to the fact that this species lends the delightful autumn glow to the hill-slopes, just at the very time when the tourist is on the alert and all the world is in the Highlands. Whereas the delicate rose of the bell heather appeals only to those who are as near as I am now, the mass and glow of the purple is caught from the glen, even by those who are many miles away.

He has enjoyed a rare privilege who has seen this heather darken under the passing cloud, and blush vividly out again when the shadow has passed over; or the richer, deeper effects as the crimson light of evening comes slant-wise across the purple, as it is doing now. The hue will rest upon the spirit, to fall on the page of the ledger or manuscript, months after, amid the dulness of short winter days and the fog of cities. Little wonder that the dream is of purple heather.

Why it should be called Erica cinerea, or grey heath, is not very obvious. In ordinary circumstances its appearance is not grey, but vivid green, supporting one tier or dividing several tiers of bright purple. It retains its glory through many summer and early autumn weeks, and then fades, without, like the rose, becoming ugly.

Widely spread as it is, this is not the commonest heather. A third species is within reach of my hand. Indeed I am reclining on some, half raised , above the ground by its wiry springiness. The last to bloom, it is now fully out. The flowers are numerous—small, pink, and pretty. Though there is plenty of it on the far side, I cannot make out the colour at this distance.

It is very vigorous in its growth, and more of a shrub than any of the others; only, it is a lazy shrub. It trails. Were the stems stiff enough to stand upright, it would present the appearance of a dense thicket, through which pathways up the mountain-side would have to be cut. I disentangle one, and pull it out to its full height. Its stature is three feet. Hence its common name — Ling, or Long. Ling is the Highland for heather.

Perhaps it is most widely and popularly known species amid which visitors wade knee-deep, totally unconscious of fatigue, for many hours, in their eager search for white heather, contented, if, in the evening, they bring back ever so little. It appears as the breezy title to one of William Black’s freshest novels. In this way it may be distinguished from the purple in the heatherology of those who before were ignorant of its existence.

Pinks and kindred colours growing at any considerable height have a tendency to bleach into shrub. It trails. Were the stems stiff enough to stand upright, it would present the appearance of a dense thicket, through which pathways up the mountain-side would have to be cut. I disentangle one, and pull it out to its full height. Its stature is three feet. Hence its white. Looking over the face of the hill from where I lie, I can see several distinct shades, some much lighter than the rest. Near the sea the bleaching is still more pronounced. On coast moors I have gathered the fine-leaved heather, with its larger flowers and more decided colour, from purple, through crimson and pink, to purest white. The reasons why ling yields a greater and more certain harvest are probably that it is nearer white, to begin with; and also that, so far as the hills are concerned, it grows, as we shall see directly, in more exposed situations.

It seems a somewhat strange whim that wishes pink heather to be white when there are so many white flowers about. It is the taste, less of a naturalist than a gardener. I understand that a prize has been offered for a blue rose. Were the ling white, there would be the same rush after pink or any other curiosity.

I know several lethargic folk who would not climb a dozen yards for all that nature has to offer, and yet think no labour thrown away in the search for something abnormal. I have seen the precious sprig carefully unwrapped, and displayed as the chief outcome of a month in the Highlands.

The only thing that can be said for the craze is, that it does not hurt anyone else, and probably results in certain indirect benefits. The flush removed from the heather may be confidently looked for in the cheek of the searcher.

These are the only heathers within reach or sight, or for miles around. Indeed there are only three heathers in Scotland; unless I include the trailing azalea on the ridge overhead, and the yewleaved menziesia confined to the Sow of Atholl. But these, though belonging to the same family, and somewhat resembling them in outside appearance, are not heaths in any strict sense, but mountain plants.

The whole three have been adopted, once and for all, by different Highland clans; from which it appears that these interesting Celts believe them to be distinctive of their elevated regions. I remember an Edinburgh student who wore an eagle’s feather in his cap; and it was said that he alone had a right to it, because he was the son of a chief. Since eagles have been bartered by Highland chiefs for grouse, the prejudice ought not to be quite so strong. In some such hostile spirit the favoured tribes may regard any unauthorised Lowlander or foreigner who affects the rose, the purple, or the pink.

Towards their summits the highest hills have a barer look. The heather seems to be thinning out, as if it were approaching its limit in that direction. Into this seeming bare region I shall ascend tomorrow.

From my feet, and also down the opposite slope, the heather runs away to meet below, or only to be divided by the breadth of the stream. There is no appearance of exhaustion, no sign of reaching any limit that way.

On seaside moor, protected only by the sand-dunes from the invasion of the waves, I have found all three round about me, as I do here. Moorland stretches on the sheltered inlands, very little above sea-level, yield heather which seems very vigorous and very much at home.

However low down I am, there I find myself with the heather; whereas, if I ascend, I increasingly leave the heather behind. Not all three at once, but one after the other.

The purple flush does not reach to the top of the heather region. It ranges only to some fifteen hundred feet high. By looking keenly, I can just make out the irregular line where it ceases, or fades into the duller shade above.

The rose heather grows in patches, and nowhere covers a great area. It must be sought after by those who desire it, and may be found in almost any moist place up to about two thousand feet.

That into which the purple fades away is the pink. Hardiest of the three, the ling continues to climb. It alone forms the broad belt of dark shrub, scarcely lit by its blossoms up to the higher alpines. Through it, mainly, one wades for the third thousand feet of the ascent. It is in these higher reaches that the white sprays should be sought for.

This is the Highland heather, in so far as there is such a thing. The crofter puts it to endless uses, and finds it invaluable. To its services as a broom it is said to owe its name, Galluna, to cleanse. The more poetic rendering, to adorn, refers to the charm it lends to the surroundings.

The common view, therefore, that Scotland is the natural home of the heaths, because it is so mountainous, is only very partially true. It would be much nearer the truth to say that Scotland marks well-nigh the northernmost limit of the heath zone, and only three of the hardiest of an immense family have been able to penetrate so far.

If hills and hardship had anything to do with it, then the east side of the North Sea is still more favourable. The scene is more broken, the climate severer, and more arctic than our own. If this were a northern type, we should expect to find it flourishing there; whereas the first thing that strikes a visitor to Norway, next to the abundance of alpines, is the scarcity of heaths. This came as a surprise to the experienced members of the Scottish Alpine Club.

“I climbed,” says Archibald Geikie, “a slope, clothed with luxuriant masses of ferns, bilberries, and cloudberries;” but no mention of heaths.

We are accustomed to associate grouse and heather. Yet the Norwegian willow grouse, in the absence of that shrub, thrives on something else. Our own grouse are heather birds indeed, alike in tint and diet; but not hill birds, seeing that heather is not a hill shrub. Some were doubtless driven to the slopes, whose sole advantage is their dryness, as a last refuge from the plough. As many still live on the plain as the scanty patches of lowland moor left will support.

The ling alone seems able to bear the severity of an extreme climate. It penetrates within the polar circle, and appears on the arctic lowlands.

If this is the case toward the north, what about the other direction?

Scarce in Norway, and poorly represented here, the heaths increase in the number of species as they tend farther south. Passing down, in a not very broad belt, they culminate in the south of Africa, where they are known to grow in endless variety and loveliness. Thence all the delightful species which glorify our greenhouses, and may sometimes be coaxed to grow outside, come. The heathers of the Cape, and the primulas of Europe, are the just boast of all who possess them.

Thus, if anyone is justified in using the shrubs as badges, it is not the Highlander, but the South African. I can imagine a Scottish emigrant opening his eyes at the unexpected revelation, and a visitor from the Cape saying, “Do you call that a heath?”

Of the non-Scottish, though British, heathers, there are other three—the spring flowering Irish heath, with racemes of pink flowers, made more attractive by the dark exserted anthers; the large-belled, fringe-leaved heath of Dorset; and the dull, heavy Cornish heath.

These, with their varieties, prefer the milder conditions of the west of Ireland and the south of England; and their affinities are with southern rather than with northern species. Thus the ling of the arctic lowlands, and the vast profusion of the Cape of Good Hope, represent the two extremes.

All this has been said in the interests of exactness, and with no intention of destroying illusions which I most fervently share. There is still enough heather in the Highlands, both for man and grouse.

Long may it be before the search for the white sprig ceases to put the pink of the blossom into the pale cheeks of maidens, and the vision of the purple, even though it actually reveal itself nearer home, lure men “north again.”

Long may the holiday seeker—already half recuperated by the prospect—from his corner in “The Flying Scotsman,” cry gaily to envious friends on the platform, “For the heather!”

Even if there is not much that is new in her rose or purple or pink, Scotland has still an unapproachable background against which to present them. Never heather on the plain looked like this.

The sun has long dropped out of sight, and the summits are fast losing their distinctness of outline. The hill-burn is beginning its twilight song, so different, if only in imagination, from that of broad daylight. Shadows are deepening under the woods. The stream runs like a thread of silver down the dimming glen.

Tidy housewives come out to the cottage doors. Their voices reach me here. The saunter down is worse than the climb. I feel wondrous stiff; and tired enough to sleep soundly, even on my procrustean couch.


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