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Wild 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 Nicol Jarvie.

“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.”

Marguerite, 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.”

Perhaps the 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 you.”

“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.

The most 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 gardens.

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 see.

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 that word.

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 space.

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 saxifrage.

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 circle.

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 saxifrages.

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 saxifrages.

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 hill plants.

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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