To pass from the
Highlands to the Borders is of the nature of an anti-climax. Nothing
here was lofty enough to give shelter to such snow plants as may
have retreated up their sides. The southern uplands are moorland and
What rare wild
flowers there are, may best be shaded off by what are missing. No
rare saxifrages, no snowy gentian, no rock speedwell, no mountain
forget-me-not, of the northern alpine area, grows on those more
moderate heights with their shallower glens.
I am settled by the
Border stream, and looking forward to a long walk over the hills.
This is in the yearly round. It has been my delight to make myself
as much at home on the heights above the Tweed as on those of the
Perthshire Tay and the Forfar Isla and Esks.
Several days are
spent in getting myself into condition. In my day and night fishing
I have done a good deal of tumbling up and down the banks; but
climbing is a thing apart, and needs a training by itself.
I start up one of the
wild side-glens of this portion of the valley. The burn,
innocent-looking as it is to-day, responds like an untamed colt to
the lightest lash of a cloud, by breaking into a gallop, or clean
taking the bit between its teeth and careering headlong down.
and lonely at first, these glens take possession of one after a
while, and become wonderfully attractive. A day with the rod is
pleasant, if only as a strong contrast to casting along the milder
course of the Tweed. One gets used to the crossing and recrossing of
the sheep over the stony channel. So, too, do the trout. The
paddling of the “trotters” does not seem to scare or keep them from
taking the hook.
springs, without the strength to form a channel or a current to lend
them character, sipe through the grass on to the road, to find some
hidden way into the stream. Their moist track down the slope is
marked by the purple of hairy sedum, by the pink of alpine willow
herb, and the yellow of the marsh buttercup.
The goal is
Windlestrae Law—the highest hill in the neighbourhood. The peak—more
than two thousand feet above—is, as yet, hidden from sight by
intervening ridges. A slope, not very steep in itself, is so beset
with shrubs as to put one’s endurance to the test. There is no
escaping a wide belt of heather. Ling, in this case, certainly
deserves its name, being longer than usual.
knee-deep, so that one cannot very conveniently lift each step clear
over the top, is very troublesome to walk among. From its recumbent
habit, it has a nasty tendency to catch one just above the boot.
Three feet of ling,
two of which are trailing, is not only a drag, but very much of a
trap as well.
In case of undue
haste, one is apt to be tripped up and rolled over and over among
the pink blossom. The latter experience mainly overtakes one in
running down-hill. Climbing is too serious a business in itself for
any such frivolity.
The moist places are
thickly dotted with sphagnum, both stout and fragile; and of all
pleasant shades, from very pale to ruby-tipped. The fleecy water
variety floats out on the little dark pools of the peat. Much of
it—more, I think, than ever I saw before—is in fruit. In my mental
register, that experience is noted down as “A day among the
sphagnums.” In my little map, which no one ever sees, Windlestrae is
named Sphagnum Hill.
A day among the
cloudberries, too. These smallest of our native brambles seem
well-nigh to cover the summit. Many bear fruit. Some are in flower—a
very pretty white blossom, like the rest of the brambles. One entire
cloudberry, root and all, I put into my buttonhole, and wear for the
rest of the day.
ground—rather too boggy, in some places, for comfort—seems to suit
the plant. It is pretty widely distributed under similar conditions,
and is perhaps more characteristic of these uplands than any other
form. It is as near an approach to an alpine as we are likely to
find. Since there can be no rivalry between a moss and a wild
flower, Windiestrae also appears on my map as “Cloudberry Hill.”
A very early hour of
the second morning after finds me dropping behind a curtaining
ridge, out of sight of the placid Tweed. Before me, a pastoral
region slopes down to form the banks of the stream, and melts away
over the gently rounded hilltops. .
The vale is
suggestive of undefined emotions and pensive thoughts. Appealing to
the imaginative and impressionable of bygone days, it has found
utterance in sad and tragic ballads. Who says that a scene may not
have a character? Is it fancy that there are lines of ineffaceable
sorrow? I sit down by Yarrow-side to rest. The way left behind,
though not long,—only ten miles,—needed a good deal of stiff
The whole morning had
been delightful. As yet there is no hint of change to quicken the
pace :—only a little mist on the distant hills ahead, whence the
gentle airs come. A leisurely saunter along the even ground will be
a pleasant contrast to the ups and downs.
The lake is a part,
the eye of the scene. . As in the case of other eyes, much of the
expression is there —reflection among the rest. Its shadows are
reflections, in the deeper sense. Sad St. Mary’s! A good deal is in
that “sad.” In its silent depths, memories lie. When I come in
sight, it is in one of its quieter moods, not cheerful; it never
Even as I look, the
aspect changes: the trouble comes to the surface, the face darkens,
the spirit of gloom sweeps over it with a moan. Out of the dark
cloud comes the rain. Storm on St. Mary’s has something of a human
outburst in it. Rain falls with the bitter significance of tears.
Five minutes are long
enough to wet one through. The seven miles to “Tibbie’s” become a
dogged walk with water—water everywhere, from cap and finger-tips to
boots. The Selkirk coach has just come in, full of' passengers.
There is no getting near the fire, and the floor looks miserable
with the drippings.
A lull tempts me out
again. Along the shores of “the Lake of Lowes” the mist-winged storm
comes along worse than ever. Now all is natural. The sadness has
dropped behind—only, the wildness is in the mountain fastness, from
which the wind and the mist come forth, to play roughly on the
The ascending road
leads into the midst of the fray—into the very presence of the
raider. The storm takes visible form in the mist which sweeps
past—swirls, lifts for a moment to reveal a few yards of the
hillside, and then, for a like brief interval, settles round,
wrapping me to my very clothes.
Two hours later, when
I am beginning to think that I have been the plaything of the
elements about long enough, I come suddenly on shelter. I do not see
the cottage until I can almost touch it. In some of the stiller
moments of the storm I must have passed unawares; but the veil
lifts, and there it is.
The thought of
lodging had not troubled me when I started, nor in the earlier hours
of the day. If it came, good and well; if not, then the earth was
big enough. But I had not reckoned on this. Certain who preceded me,
tell of their experience in the same neighbourhood :—,
“As there were large
quantities of the common bracken, we unanimously resolved to bivouac
there for the night; and having partaken of our evening meal, and
drunk from the clear gushing stream, we laid ourselves down to
sleep, with the sky above as our curtain, and the majestic hill at
our backs and on either side as our bed-posts. Our love for the
romantic seemed now to be indulged to the full; and what strange
thoughts came into our heads as we peeped out through the ferns
which grew so thickly around us!
“One by one we
dropped to sleep; but scarce had we shut our eyes, when our hands,
which we had left outside the covering as barometers, told us of a
change of weather. We should soon have been drenched had we not
taken up our beds and adjourned to a hut, which, to all appearance,
served as a maternity hospital for all the sheep in the
“It was now twelve
o’clock, with the rain pouring in torrents, and the wind whistling
in fitful gusts through our fragile domicile, and one of our
sorrowing friends was heard to whisper—
"Sic a niglit As
ne’er puir sinner was abroad in.”
Sic another night was
this, and such mayhap would have been my fate had the storm delayed
its coming. In my weakness, the prospect of a tighter roof brings a
sense of relief. I had been here before.
A shepherd’s cottage
has been converted into a sort of hostelry, for the behoof of
passers through the defile. In old days it might have been called a
“Spital.” The house is full; there is not much to fill. I might not
have been lodged at all, but that it was a night
Wherein the cub-drawn
bear would couch,
The lion and the belly-pinched wolf
Keep their fur dry.
Even the four dogs are inside.
The shepherd’s wife
not only takes me in, but clothes me. The suit is her husband’s. I
never saw the wearer, who was away at Peebles Fair with the season’s
lambs; but I have good reason to suppose that he is twice my weight.
For two whole days I
live and move and have my being in these clothes. I revel in them,
tent in them, roll about in them, insist that my own are not dry,
until the kindly lender laughingly asks if I would like to take them
away with me.
Anglers gather in
from the streams, or are blown in by the gusts which set every door
a-rattling and every inmate a-shivering. No one has been successful.
Rising water seldom yields a basket. Trout are too much concerned in
looking after themselves, and in seeking the eddies which are last
to be blotted out.
These men have been
tempted up from Moffat by the rain-bearing clouds, which blew from
that direction, and had got more than they wanted. The coach rattles
up and takes them off. The house is left to those who are to stay
“I would just hae to
be doin’ wi’ a seat at the kitchen fire, as the room was let to a
lady and gentleman frae Liverpool.”
That is how my
hostess puts it. Worse fate by far might have befallen me.
gentleman overhears, and courteously invites me to join them. The
blind is drawn, the lamp lit, and chairs placed round the table. In
a rubber of whist we forget the storm, or only hear it at intervals,
to the increase of our sense of comfort by contrast. The louder it
raves, the more we hug ourselves. Had you ever a rubber of whist
under similar conditions ? If so, you. will know all it means.
I am abroad, bright
and early. Never fresher morning broke over these or any other
hills. The son, a shepherd like his father, is called in, and gives
minute directions how to go so as to avoid the peat-hags. I am sure
I understand him, and so take my way up the slope. The sundew grows
in moist places; so does the water forget-me-not, the rarest of its
kind to be found on these hills.
Of course I do not
avoid the peat-hags. Indeed I get into the very midst of them; and
having once lost a track, at best so faintly indicated that only a
shepherd could follow, I never recover it. More than once I have to
descend my own height on to a treacherous-looking black bottom,
rendered none the firmer by yesterday’s rain. By sheer persistenceI
somehow bore my way to Loch Skene.
The mountain sorrel
is everywhere. The small crowded flowers, rising above the
kidney-shaped leaves, are effective, from the reddish tint they
share with the rest of the family. Natural beauty owes much to lowly
agents. The wilds could better spare many a brighter flower. This is
a sub-alpine that passes into the lower alpine regions, and after
that reappears, to give a welcome touch of colour to the arctic
lowlands. It is thus interesting, as being one of the northernly
tending arctic alpines.
The mossy saxifrage,
so familiar in our gardens for its cushions of much-cut leaves, is
the commonest of the few — three, I think — sub-alpine species
growing on these hills. The other two are the starry and
Still another plant —
the alpine enchanter’s nightshade—is characteristic. The ordinary
species covers the floor of some of the woods lower down. Neither is
to be regarded as strictly lowland ; and the alpine form may only be
the other, modified by changed conditions. Both have in their
fantastic flowers a certain weird suggestiveness of their name,
especially when growing in the shade.
Somewhere around, a
friend, who had his home by the Tweed-side, once made an experiment.
He was a rare man, such as one meets among the common herd only
twice or thrice in a lifetime. Dearly he loved these, alpine fairy
plants; and he had a strong wish to get others to care for them as
well, and to take a pleasure in climbing the hills to look at them.
Out of very
unpromising elements he formed an Alpine Club, which exists to this
day, although its pure and noble guide is gone. There are those who
reserve such words as unpractical for such schemes as these; but
this one, happily, for those who became a part of it, took shape.
Some who ran the ordinary risks of becoming sordid, feel all the
better for a day on the hills which overlook their homes and dwarf
their everyday lives.
My friend, naturally,
wished to see his favourites as often as possible. But it was a long
way to come ; and, living so far apart as they did, he could visit
only two or three at a time. He was, for all the world, like a man
whose children are scattered, and who grieves that he can no longer
have them all together as he used to do. So he fixed upon a common
home, and spent a few summer days in tenderly gathering two or three
of each, and placing them as near together as their differing habits
One can picture the
scene. 1 think, by patient search, could pick it out. And it would
be worth finding; for if ever spot on earth was hallowed by the
purity and simplicity of man, that spot was.
It would be bordered
by a channel, whose rocky shelving, laid bare by the rude torrent,
gave root-hold to the starry saxifrage. It would include a marshy
area, tender with the blue of forget-me-not, white with mountain
avens, and touched with the red of sundew. It would possess a
shadow, quaintly pretty with the spikes of enchanter’s nightshade;
and a rough track lit with the scarlet fruit of the stone bramble,
and overrun with the white purple - tipped blossoms of the wood
vetch. These at least.
Alas ! for the best
laid schemes. His face wore a half-vexed, half-amused look as he
told me the sequel. One day he reached his paradise, to find it
despoiled; and, some time afterward, he learned the cause. Certain
botanists from Edinburgh, with vascula of greedy dimensions, came by
chance that way, and doubtless reported the spot as an extremely
rich floral area.
Loch Skene is flanked
on one side by Whitcoom, which shows its summit just over the
sub-alpine region — some two thousand six hundred feet above
sea-level. This mountain is interesting as forming the culminating
height in these parts; moreover, it stands at the touching point of
Selkirk, Peebles, and Dumfries.
In these uplands,
Whitcoom holds a position similar to that of those other culminating
heights which at once attach and separate Aberdeen, Perth, and
Forfar. It is the hilly centre and stronghold in the south, as they
are in the north.
What is not found
here need scarcely be looked for elsewhere. And yet the chief
rarities its slopes have to offer are the alpine meadow rue, the
cranberry, and the veined willow.
If they fell within
the popular notion of wild flowers, it would delight me to talk
about the ferns; the rather as I regard these hills as the fern
garden of Scotland, just as I regard the northern hills as the
alpine garden. If some of the rarer forms are absent, those which
are there, abound.
The brittle fern, the
most graceful of all the forms—and what is rarity, compared with
grace, except to the dry - as - dust naturalist — is, in many
places, as common as the bracken or the grass.
The male parsley fern
waves above the wastes of stones, and hides away the rudeness under
its feathery fronds : the oblong Woodsia is common here—a corrie or
linn, in the flank of this same Whitcoom, is a favourite haunt;
while the filmy fern, in countless numbers, seems to filter every
drip of water.
Before leaving the
hostelry, I open the visitors’ book and run down row upon row of
uninteresting names. On turning over a page, my eye is arrested by
the sketch of a tourist’s back, with fishing - basket and other
belongings of sport and travel strapped thereon as if for final
departure. The man who did this knew the use of his pencil.
The lines beneath,
which I quote, less because of their literary merit—the author was
not so much at home with the pen—than for the pathos and human
interest behind a rude form, ran thus—
Scottish lakes are
Scottish hills are high,
So are Scots hotel bills—