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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.