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Wild Flowers of Scotland
Chapter XV. On the Mountains


IN passing from glen to glen, a break helps one to assimilate experiences which follow so hard upon. A pause between each spell of climbing gives impressions time to print, as well as sort themselves out. Like the scene it represents, a mental picture needs space. If blurred and crowded, it is rather worse than none. Objects must stand a certain distance apart. Haste, so far from being any real gain, finds one at the end of his rambles as well informed as if he had been on a conventional tour over the Continent.

A day or two spent in training the eye to read the mountain-sides from a distance, to tell what wild plant yields that particular hue, to pick out the clump of sphagnum touched with the sundew, to trace the long-leaved cranberry amid the ovalleaved cowberry and blaeberry, is time-saving in the long-run. It absolves one ever afterward from the need of zig-zagging over many a mile in search of what he wants. One does not know birds who can repeat their names when they light on the fence; but only he who can tell them at half a mile away, by their flight and a thousand nameless traits, marking them off from the rest.

A little pure loitering even, such as a full-length stretch at midday under the black shadow of the pine wood, with a run of water and an ample supply of berries within reach; or a change of occupation, such as a twilight cast in the stream, has its uses in freshening both body and mind. Jaded energies do not profit much.

Fishing a pool lying in an elbow of the channel, where the largest trout are known to be, I find myself breast-high amid the tall purple heads of the melancholy thistle. This is perhaps about the highest reach of the most nearly sub-alpine of the thistles.

The side-burns I cross at intervals, in passing down the banks, have their edges touched with the showy purple of the livelong. This sedum is common enough all the way downward to the plain. Immediately overhead, it gives place to the yellow-flowered rose-root, which in its turn reaches nearly to the summit of the surrounding mountains. '

My lodging, so much pleasanter than that of last night, is in itself a temptation to prolong my stay. It consists of a room in a cottage overhanging the stream, where the ripple sings me into dreamland, and then pleasantly fills up the intervals of sleep. If the odour of cheese is not altogether absent, it is not oppressive, and has to be tolerated in districts so apt to be cut off from supplies, that the people lay up stores against a long winter.

The haze of yesterday thickens into vapour, which passes away in rain. I make the experiment of ascending a mist-covered hill. All knowledge of direction is at once lost. Even the sense of going up and coming down can no longer be trusted. But, with a compass, perfect selfpossession, and a close acquaintance with the sounds and aspects of the scene, one may find his way. Shepherds and gamekeepers are not puzzled.

On a delightfully fresh morning, in a rain-cooled and purified atmosphere, I face toward the ridge where the glen comes to a dead pause. Isla is not so mature in its majesty as Clova. It is even raw and ragged, as if the ploughing glacier had passed over so recently that the lapse of time was too short for mellowing away the effects.

The close, however, is dramatic enough. From the signs of fierce conflict scattered about, there might have been a tussle to force a way through to Aberdeenshire. Wildness has broken loose, and yet the scene is not savage. Picturesqueness is scarcely the word ; it is too awe-inspiring for that. One scarce likes to be left alone in its midst, and is all the better of a companion.

The walk is not tiring. No need is there to squeeze into the narrow margin of midday shadow, nor to cool the feet in the somewhat swollen stream.

Wild flowers are even more distinctly sub-alpine than those of Clova. The turf is lit with eye-bright, as gaily as ever Lowland meadow with daisies; while alpine lady’s-mantle carpets long stretches of the road.

Through a peat bog I approach the tremendous gateway of the glen, or caen, whose left pillar stands nearly four thousand feet high. I do not enter by the gate, but essay to scale the mighty wall. Turning up the hillside, I ascend into the alpine country. Trailing azalea and other early plants, which make the June hills bright, are past the flowering stage, and, in their sober dress, easily overlooked from a distance.

That pleasant scent is not of whin, but of the bog myrtle on the moister portions of the lower slopes. The shrub of the mountains is not broom, but juniper. As it struggles upward, it dwindles into a bush, which is quite needlessly spoken of as if it were not the same.

In ascending, it is interesting to watch the trees. There are only three to attract attention—the Scots fir, the birch, and the willow. The Scots fir has no alpine representative. It lessens, but is allowed to remain the same species throughout. When it has reached the minimum of size, it is still only a little fir.

The birch cowers closer and closer to the mountain-side or to the rock, until it becomes less a tree than a bush; and each step in the intervening process is represented, so that the eye can follow the passage from one extreme to the other. But the wise conservatism in the case of the Scots fir is departed from; and, as with the juniper, the stunted birch is spoken of as if it were another. The probability is that bush birches are alpines of the Shetland pony kind, which could be passed, in the reverse order, on to the full stature again.

The willow seems to be the only one of the three with truly alpine forms which would probably defy the utmost ingenuity to reconvert into anything else. I see them in increasing numbers as I ascend higher, lying against the face of the slope— little fairy shrubs about the length of a quill-pen, or even less. As one expresses it, root and all might be hidden between the leaves of a lady’s pocket-book. Most of them have circular leaves, distinctly and prettily veined and netted. These are not the dwindled forms of the trees at the foot, or the bushes I passed by the way, but differ from both in very many ways.

I begin to notice certain marks, placed evidently by human agency, at stated intervals, and leading in one direction. There are too many of them to be meant for shepherds, who presumably are very much at home on the hills; and they are evidently guides to a more general public.

Glen Isla is a cul-de-sac, much more complete than Clova. The only way out at the top end is to climb. And this route, rising steeply to upwards of three thousand feet, to drop as far on the other side, must be the way to Braemar. The thought calls up the finger-posts of yesterday, with the amusing sequel. Happily, there are not two ways. Nor does there seem scope for any choice up here.

A gamekeeper is on the outlook for me, but this time with no hostile intent. These hills are free to the curious, under the not unreasonable conditions that visitors shall be as careful as possible not to disturb the deer when it is getting near the shooting season. It is a big playground for two to have hide-and-seek in, especially when one is not sufficiently acquainted with the local names to profit by minute directions. With the best intentions in the world, we fail to meet until I call at his cottage in the evening on my way back.

I daresay I missed a little in consequence, for he seemed to be an intelligent man, who had made himself acquainted with all that was interesting in the district. From his knowledge of the hills, he might have guided me more directly to where I wished to go. But there is a good deal in searching out for one’s self; for, even if one does not find out so much, he keeps a better grip of what he has. O11 this and other visits, I managed to stumble across what was best worth seeing; and I do not think I have forgotten anything.

I had looked on all the forms many times before; and I- seek to keep myself as free as possible from that form of curiosity which dearly loves to snare a secret, and would fain worm out of every pawky gamekeeper what he has to tell or to sell.

The chief treasure of the place—whose whereabouts, in the opinion of some, all the mountains were placed there to hide—is the snowy gentian. The man who is able to say “I know” is an object of envy. It is a pale blue annual of some three inches high, which peeps over the ledges overlooking the caen in July and August, and rains down its seed alongside and on the ledges beneath, for next year’s bloom.

It seems to grow only here and on Ben Lawers. One can account for widely-spread alpines that are found in every likely situation, more easily than for those isolated forms, such as this snowy gentian, or the yellow oxytropis, whose whole area may only extend over a few ledges of rock or a few square yards of turf. How was the seed or pea from which they sprang dropped down? If their tenure is as ancient as it seems to be, then how, in the many ages before botanists existed, did they not manage to spread farther?

In contrast with this minute snowy gentian is the blue sow-thistle. It is a case of the giant and the dwarf. This sow-thistle—not a thistle—is a curiosity in its way. The typical alpine is a fairy. Such is a necessity of its existence. The scanty food, the exposure, the frequent need to pass rapidly through the flowering and seeding stages, all forbid strong or leisurely growth. Minuteness is the broad distinction between a hill plant and that of the plain.

The sow-thistle is the only, or at least the chief, exception. It is an alpine, and yet has the robust growth of a Lowland form. It grows up the wildest branch of the gorge. I wish to visit it, and struggle up under increasing difficulties by the side of a torrent which rushes ever more rudely down its boulder-strewn bed. Exhausted, I sit on a loose rock, upon whose surface, in course of time, a soil has gathered and shrubs rooted themselves. Never were such blaeberries, for number and size, as grow on that rock.

When one turns his face backward after a day’s ups and downs, he begins to feel his sores. There is now nothing ahead to make him forgetful. His pace settles down into a certain dogged, uninterested, out-kneed paddling along, which has been likened to that of the German band,

On looking in upon the gamekeeper, I find him wonderfully good - tempered after his fruitless errand. He shakes his head over the idea of climbing in the mist as foolhardy, and relates some harrowing incidents which had recently occurred on these same hills.

And then he proceeds to describe, in a certain dramatic fashion of his own, the different characters that come there in search of flowers, and the need there is to discriminate. Some of these sketches were worth reproducing, but that there are those who might persist in finding in these pages a looking-glass. From similar reports, and from my own observations, I feel that too much caution can scarcely be exercised if we are to retain the proud distinction of being the land of flowers of a certain very rare and excellent sort.

The risks to our wild plants are not exactly the same, or likely to be so speedily destructive, as those which threaten our wild animals. Any losses up to the present time must be sought for among Lowland forms, through cultivation, drainage, easy access, and other obvious causes.

Probably no upland species has been reduced to the dire straits of some of the birds of prey which dare to find a meal on the moor or in the covert.

They lead a passive and innocent existence, and are in no one’s way. Dwelling in a zone of their own, which nothing cares to dispute, they flush the bare slopes with colour, gladden the desolate heights with the signs of life, and furnish a welcome bite to the ptarmigan.

The danger lies rather in the indifference than the hostility of the proprietors, who are careless as to their fate—in many cases ignorant of their very existence. If they keep back the would-be spoiler, it is lest he disturb the game, and not lest he root out the wild flower.

The gamekeeper is more aggressive. His Highland fastness is invaded every summer by eager spirits from the south, such as my friend so graphically described, and he is besieged by questions as to the whereabouts of the alpines. He has taken the hint to look round about him when he is out, and mark the places where anything unfamiliar grows. He uses his advantage skilfully.

He is now ready to supply whatever is wanted for a consideration, and even to guide the more liberal to the spot. Such perquisites make a sensible addition to his wages. Once informed, each newcomer is master of the situation, and may become a guide in turn.

The footsteps of greed desecrate the stillnesses, and the hand of greed lays more waste even than curiosity or false enthusiasm. Where so many are anxious to possess and willing to pay, there are sure to arise sellers; and so quite a trade goes on in alpines. In addition to the amateur who forages for himself and his friends, the professional plant collector is abroad, whose business in life is to hawk on his own account from door to door, or to act on behalf of some man who keeps a nursery.

Two forces are thus at work—the man who lives by it; and a certain uninteresting type of tourists and lodgers, who have not yet learned the first lesson taught to all well-bred children—to look at everything and touch nothing.

It is not so easy to draw the line between a wise conservatism and an unwise interference as many seem to think. There is another side to the access to mountains agitation not visible to those who simply theorise from the plain. Sometimes when abroad on the wilds, with blue cloud-flaked sky overhead, and many-shaded plain three thousand feet beneath, I have been annoyed at the restriction placed on my freedom of movement by some officious gamekeeper.

And before the day was out I have been equally annoyed at the liberty allowed to another, who was digging and tearing at his own sweet will, and generally doing as much as he could to make the hills not worth climbing.

Something might be accomplished if proprietors once more rose above the commercial spirit, which was wont to be no part of the furnishing of a gentleman, and, setting themselves to find out what was best worth preserving on their respective properties, watched over these with the utmost jealousy—if, among other things, they took as much trouble to make themselves acquainted with their wealth of alpines as some of their servants find it profitable to do.

It might seem Quixotic to suggest a close-time for rare and beautiful plants, to be fixed, as in the case of animals at the breeding-season, when they are flowering and seeding for another generation. But surely the same restrictions which guard our game should be placed around those relics of a glacial age,—which belong to Scotland because she is what she is, which were there before the Celt, or even the earlier race he dispossessed, and are still more a part of the scene than the grouse or the ptarmigan.


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