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
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
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 ladys-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
attentionthe 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 ladys 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 ones 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 placewhose whereabouts, in the opinion of some, all the
mountains were placed there to hideis 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 years 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-thistlenot a thistleis 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 days 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 ones 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 fatein 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 workthe 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 childrento look at everything and touch
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
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 jealousyif, 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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