Flowers of Scotland Chapter XVI. The Saxifrages
IT is interesting to
ask the Lowland wild flowers: “Have you any kinsfolk among the
mountains?” They will be eager enough to confess, however roundabout
the relationship may be, since it is esteemed rather an honour, as
was his kinship with the Macgregors in the secret heart of Bailie
“My mother, Elspeth
MacFarlane, was the wife of my father, Deacon Nicol Jarvie—peace be
wi’ them baith—and Elspeth was the daughter of Parlane MacFarlane,
at the Sheeling o’ Loch Sloy. Now, this Parlane MacFarlane, as his
surviving daughter, Maggie MacFarlane, alias MacNab, wha married
Duncan MacNab o’ Stuckavrallachan, can testify, stood as near to
your gudeman, Robert MacGregor, as in the fourth degree o’ kindred.”
Dandelion, and Daisy shake their heads and say they are afraid not.
“Though I am so small
and as dainty as they,” says the Daisy sadly, “yet I am not an
alpine, nor the sister of one.”
Marguerite is least concerned, as being a soft eyed and rather
stately Lowland maiden, who has no wish to be stunted.
The Primrose answers,
rather vaguely, that she has heard of a relative, not in the hills
indeed, but beyond them, who dresses ever so prettily in lilac, not
in common yellow. Her cousin, the cowslip, once met her in Caithness.
“Lots,” says the
Lady’s-mantle. “Next time you go to the Highlands, just mention my
name, and they will come trooping down to the glen-mouth to meet
“Not so common as
that,” says that blushing coquette, the Day-catchfly. “There is just
one little clan of my family that lives apart and quite select on
their native hill. Some have been here on a visit, and seemed to
like the place very well, although they kept to the grand garden,
and never came out to see me here by the water-side.”
“We believe we have,”
says the blue-eyed Forget-me-not — who could forget her? — and
Veronica, “but they are far too high for such as we.”
One would like a word
with the gentians, if one only knew where to find them. They are
absent from the hedgerow. They do not enter the woods, or lodge by
the burn-side. There is not one, so far as I know, within miles of
where I am at the present moment. So that most people have never
seen any of them, and only a few know them, even by name.
accommodating of all still likes a matured piece of turf, or a firm
springy river-bank, such as is not to be found everywhere. One
appears here and there among the bents along the coast.
The handsomest of a
charming family is one of the few British alpines absent from
Scotland— alpine only as the crimson catchfly is—since it courts the
soft Atlantic winds on the mild west coast of Ireland, and sets up
its blue tent for a few spring weeks on the lower heights of
Teesdale. The snow form holds the ledges of one of our four mountain
I have met these
gentians in many situations, and never a tame one—in Shetland, in
Orkney, amid unbented sand-dunes and bare precipices.
And to me they
partake of the wildness, oft weirdness, of their haunts.
Say to the Saxifrage,
“Have you any Highland kin?”
“It would be more to
the purpose to ask if we have any Lowland ones,” will be the stiff
reply. “Or, should we be so unfortunate, will a stream of rushing
water acknowledge any relation with the portion withdrawn from it
for the mean domestic uses of those who dwell on the banks?”
So like their
Highland pride! And yet the boast would be true. They are our hill
plants par excellence. Nor is it enough to call them the alpine of
our alpines. They are that, and something more. They overflow the
hills into more distant and drearier regions.
Just about the time
when the blue violets are at their best, there appears among them a
showy-white flower, not recumbent as they are, but upright, and
twice as tall. It does not cover all the area of the violets—never,
so far as I know, straying into the woods. It selects where the turf
is fairly firm and old, with a marked preference for a slope. Such
is the only Lowland relation of the saxifrages; but for which they
could claim, as far at least as Scotland is concerned, to be a
purely Highland clan.
This meadow haunter
never ventures north so as to enter the home of the Macgregors, the
stronghold of the saxifrages. Did it seek to scale the “promontory
by one or two rapid zigzags along the precipitous face of a slaty-grey
rock, which would otherwise have been inaccessible,” it would only
be to find these rude places held by relatives indeed, but such as
might give it scant welcome. The feud between Celt and Saxon has
been healed, but not that between Highland and Lowland plants.
Much about the same
time that the white is adding to the brightness of the plain, the
opposite leaved saxifrage is lending an early flush of purple to the
hills. This is the form so very popular in our gardens as a rockery
plant. It grows wild in these early months, when few are there to
One must wait a month
or two after the spring meadow form has faded, and the autumn
holiday enables him to leave the plains for the hills, before he
will see any more saxifrages.
The first to greet
him as he breasts the slopes, just after the earliest flush of
heather has crept over them, is the yellow mountain saxifrage—not a
form requiring to be searched for; it runs along the fenceless paths
which wind round the mountains, between the bracken and the heather,
with all the freedom and at-homeness of one of our commonest plants.
A hillman would no more think of turning to look at it, than we at
so many daisies and buttercups.
And yet, if it be the
first time in those parts, one needs to waken up, so strangely
unlike are they to anything he is accustomed to. Even now, often as
I have been with them, I find myself pausing in wonder. There is
that about alpines which makes them wild flowers indeed, and not
simply by courtesy. They are rare, in the most delicate sense of
Such experiences as
these bring out the differences between mountain and lowland. The
Highlands are a new world of fresh forms, and owe their attractive
as well as recuperating influence to the fact. On the Glen Isla
hills this yellow may be gathered by the cart load.
The range of the
white starry saxifrage comes not quite so far down, though it is
found on the lower slopes of the hills. In many places it seems to
be the more abundant of the two. *One who has not seen it
growing—say, in some rift of the rock exposed by the wearing of the
mountain torrent—cannot even imagine how lovely it is, or how fitly
it is named. White, and starry, and saxifrage—how charming must
that, which has three such names, be!"
Indeed, both these
forms are lovely—at once the fairest and the commonest of the tribe.
If it were not for fear of consequences, I should say to all
Lowlanders, “See them this very autumn, and learn what natural
loveliness, when in its proper environment, is.” Learn, too, how
altogether the saxifrage is a child of the mist and of the rocks—
not a stone breaker, but a stone adorner, in which the spirit of the
scene looks out.
From these, which
thus cluster round the dividing line between hill and plain, I pass
at a stride over many interesting forms to the rarest of all— those
that are in the act of disappearing from the mountain-top into
If one climbs
Lochnagar and searches diligently enough, he may find the snowy and
the brook saxifrages. And if one knows where to look on Ben Lawers,
he will see the one site in Scotland where grows the drooping
These two, Ben Lawers
and Lochnagar, are the Aberdeen and Perthshire wild-gardens
respectively, just as Caenloclian and Glen Doile are those of Forfar.
The four form the alpine haunts of Scotland. Other mountains and
gorges have forms, it may be, even peculiar to themselves, but in
none are so many gathered into one place.
All who have seen the
cotyledon growing in gardens must have rejoiced in it, wondered if
anything so perfect could be wild, and, if so, what land was
favoured with its presence. Yet it grows in Norway, amid other
saxifrages — not sparingly, but so freely as to form a marked
feature of many scenes. Those who have seen it in the open, with its
great top-heavy trusses, speak of it with the utmost enthusiasm.
From Norway the
saxifrages tend farther northward till they enter within the arctic
There are really
three divisions among our alpines, with no very distinct lines
between, but still rudely separable. Some are simply stunted Lowland
plants, whose tendency is distinctly southward. These I have spoken
of as Shetland pony alpines.
Others are in their
proper places on the hills, where they lead the little intense life
peculiar to the fairy kind, in pure enjoyment. They exult in their
lofty dwelling-place; their favourite food is the schist, their
breath the hill breezes. They tend neither northward nor southward.
These are the true alpines.
There are those which
are at once alpines and arctics. They appear at a certain high
altitude, from which they climb up to the loftiest summits; and
beyond that, they are found at sea-level in the polar regions, where
they grow with the freedom of natives. To this division belong the
Several of our hill,
and even of our heath plants, chiefly among the shrubs, go north.
Even a few denizens of the plain are given to eccentric movements.
The poppy—that vagrant of our waste places and cornfields—passes
over our hills without stopping (possibly because they are too windy
to light on), and beautifies the arctic lowlands. The summer there,
if short, is thus made gay while it lasts.
To those who
associate only desolation with the far north, the following picture
from the dreary east coast of Greenland, by the hand of Nansen, may
come as a surprise.
“A little past noon
we reached a small island, which seemed to us the loveliest spot we
had ever seen on the face of the earth.” And we must remember that
Nansen was familiar with the rich alpine flora of Norway. “There was
grass, heather” (which must have been the ling), “sorrel, and
numbers of bright flowers. It was a simple paradise, and wonderfully
delightful we found it, to be stretched on the green sward, in the
full blaze of the sun. There we gathered a few flowers, in memory of
the little Greenland idyl.”
The bright flowers
would doubtless include many poppies—it may be, in marshy places, a
few buttercups; but by far the greater number would be the various
The saxifrage is the
arctic flower. As soon as the snows rise, it appears. Wherever black
earth or black rock is exposed, it takes possession. It is the first
and most daring of explorers. No place so northemly that it may not
visit. It seems to be able to cross barriers of white that never
melt. In one of the recent Arctic Expeditions the saxifrage was seen
to cling to a piece of rock protruding from the snow—
It comes before the
snowbird dares, and takes The northern wind with beauty. Everyone
knows that once upon a time the icefield lay very much farther down
over the Continent, banishing every living thing to the South of
Europe. Our own land was practically wiped out, buried fathoms deep.
As the sheet slowly shrank and retreated northwards, life followed
and took possession.
Among plants, the
hardier and smaller were in advance; the larger and more succulent
waited till the chilled and sodden earth was warmed and dried, and
the danger of devastating floods was past. The English Channel was
then a land valley, so that no obstacle checked the onward march.
For a while the first
comers had all this land to themselves. They were satisfied with
little, could endure much, and were able to cling to any support,
above the reach of the tumbling waters, caused by the melting of the
ice. They held possession of the lowlands, the hills being capped
with white, and the glens blocked with glaciers.
As the climate became
still milder, and the ice-field shrank farther back, the main body
of big strong plants ventured forward. Unable to contend with those
luxuriant growers on their own ground, the snow flowers took to the
hill-slopes. Closely followed, they clambered yet higher up, seizing
on every nook and coign of vantage, rooting themselves wherever they
could find a sprinkling of soil or a crack in the rock. Thus snow
plants were changed into alpines.
At length they
reached an altitude where they could defy competition. There they
have remained from that distant time till now, and there they will
remain so long as they are fairly dealt by. Districts where the land
was mainly flat, or the heights were only moderate, —less, say, than
two thousand feet,—gave no refuge to the first comers against their
pursuers. Those that ventured to climb were caught as in a trap, and
killed out. Such places number no alpines in their flora.
But Forfar, Aberdeen,
and Perth, chiefly near where the three counties meet, offered the
heights of Monega, Mad Crag, Lochnagar, and, a little farther off,
Ben Lawers, together with such stern defiles as Caenlochan, Caenness,
and Glen Doile. Therefore it comes to pass that we are so rich in
Certain of the
fugitives planted garrisons or contingents on the hills by the way,
while the main body followed on the track of the ice, after it had
left our land bare from Tweed to Shetland. Chief among such were the
saxifrages, which thus became at once hill plants and snow plants,
alpines and arctics.
And so the division
arose between our arctic alpines, which followed on—our alpines,
which made themselves at home on the hills, and sent no
representatives north, and our plain plants, which were not robust
enough either to climb or to follow.
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