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Wild Flowers of Scotland
Chapter II. The Blue Bells

A Fortnight after I have gathered the last handful of perfect flowers from the fading anemones, and looked on the primroses at their best, I return to the woods.

A blue mist steals over the bank running down to the stream. There is a sheen through the undergrowth, as of beauty in hiding.

It is an April day, somewhat past the middle of the month, between the leafing of the sloe and the blossoming of the hawthorn. The walk across the country by the bursting hedgerows was delightful. A sky broken with clouds, the fields with shadows, and a sun warm enough to make the shelter of trees grateful. Just the day when one has only to step into the shade to be cool, and out into the sunshine to be warm: when one cheek is in the pleasant sunshine, and the other in the cool shadow.

On the way, the birds were alert and busy. The gush of song on either hand was incessant, ever breaking out afresh and ahead, as if I were passing along a lane bordered on either side by melody; or, rather, through an arch, of which the lark’s song was the highest part. Flashes of fresh colour appeared for a moment, as the greenfinch passed from tree to tree, and the yellow-hammer from hedge to hedge. Beauty as well as melody bordered and arched the lanes. One cannot mistake the presence of spring in April. The dry slope of woodland bank is inviting.

One can drink in the exceeding loveliness of such surroundings better when he is lying down. The shadows over the current, and up the far bank fall so pleasantly across the spirit. Only in so far as there are spirit shadows can we see their beauty. No tracery in Nature is more delicate than that above, except that shadow tracery of twigs and bursting buds below. One can scarce help being beautiful in soul while he lies here. He is only reflecting.

The chaffinch, without whose spring note the budding woods would scarcely seem themselves, is now in full song. If the lay is not sweet, it is woodland, which is far better, and shows how much music owes to the scene in which we delight to hear it. No other song would please so much.

The scent as well as the complexion of the den has changed. It is no longer the spiritual essence— so faintly sweet when diffused through the outer air—of primrose. At least not altogether; though there, it is hard to detect. Something heavier— too heavy in the concentrated sweetness into which it is gathered in the close defile between the banks —overpowers the rest.

The primroses are still abroad among the wood grasses, or beside the mossy stump, or under the bole of the fallen tree. Scattered here and there, according to their wont, they charm the eye that wanders over the woodland floor, with their picturesque setting and frequent surprises. No two are placed exactly alike.

The habit of the hyacinth is different. With less genius for setting, it becomes picturesque only when seen at a distance. More prodigal of its favours, it spreads out in sheets, broken only by the tree boles under the lights and shadows. Within its areas, nor blade nor leaf of aught else is suffered to appear. I am crushing scores of them where I lie; and I am lying here simply because I could find no other place where they were not.

All round about me, within easy reach of my hand, the pendent blossoms hang down the stalks, so that I can see all I want without pulling or breaking. When I lay my head back, a flower ripples over either cheek in hyacinthine locks of blue.

That it belongs to the lilies is made plain even by the grass-like leaves. And, like the rest of that lovely family, it is able, by a certain natural providence, to make an early start. I cut a little square in the turf round the stem, and dig the whole plant out. And there, half a foot down in the brown mould, is the store of food laid up in the past season against the spring.

Several flowers are so closely woven-in with the name of our country, that we, who were born here, can scarcely recall the day we thought of them apart. When we begin “ the blue bells,” we feel as if we had not said enough till we add “of Scotland.”

The blue bell has found its way into song, as blooming more distinctly than any other wild flower in the author’s mental picture of the land. Others have had some favourite object chosen from amid the scenes where they were reared, some symbol of so much combined love of nature and patriotism as they possessed. An exile passionately recalled Scotland by “the broom that hung its tassels on the lea,” and, among birds, by the “lintie’s sang.” Being destitute of imagination or the power of expression, we borrow from the more gifted. And it is amusing how fervently some of us, when in poetic vein, sing of what we never saw, and exult in what we never cared for.

In the esteem of this man, the blue bell is not only worthy of Scotland, but also more to be proud of than the “jasmine bowers and rose-covered dells” of sunnier lands. And we echo the sentiment, without being quite sure what is meant.

There happen to be two bells, or rather bell-like flowers, each of which might well advance its claims. And the unstinted praise may well lead to a battle or duel of the flowers. The earlier in the field is the wild hyacinth.

I bend one of the stalks gently toward me. The petals close, and turn out at the tip into a delicate vase shape. It is a Scots bell, although not distinctively so. And there is no valid reason to be found in the beauty of the plant, in the charm it lends to hundreds of our dells, in the character it gives to our spring woodlands, in the delight it yields to all lovers of nature, and in the gap it would leave if it deserted its haunts—for what else would fill up the space which divides the primrose and the summer flowers?—why it should not be the Scottish Blue Bell.

True, it is not found everywhere. Many countrysides are without it. Many shady places may be searched without the tell-tale odour revealing its presence, and guiding to its twilight domain. Many dells as promising as this have to supply the want as best they can.

But wherever it is, it can scarcely escape the attention of the least observant, or fail to awaken the enthusiasm of the least impressionable. Every schoolboy on the Saturday half-holiday visits its haunts for the nests of the rarest birds, and gathers handfuls to scatter on the way home. Every country maiden from the surrounding cotter houses pushes it among her locks.

“My little girl with the golden hair and the soft eyes, what do you like?” “To be among the wood hyacinths.”

Beyond the margin of the wood, the hyacinths flow over the bank among the brambles and trailing roses. The white-throat and rose linnet weave their nests among the scented twigs; and the yellow-hammer builds among the grasses, where the long pleasant days of sitting may be shaded by the bells.

A fortnight or so after the blue hyacinths have faded,—say about the end of June, when already every egg has been chipped, and the birds are busy feeding their second brood amid the thickening undergrowth,—a second flower of Scotland makes its appearance.

It is no longer vase-shaped, but bell-shaped; indeed, it is one of the true bells, with all its petals joined into one. If there is anything lovelier than a lily, it is a campanula, which is just another name for bell. And this is the most delicate of the graceful family to which it belongs. .

Here everything is etherealised, only sufficient substance being used to indicate and preserve the form. If it were not prejudging the case, one might be disposed to pronounce it the most perfect in shape of all flowers, either wild or cultivated, in Scotland or elsewhere.

There is no stiffness about it, like the other; no stout stem whereon to suspend heavy-textured blossoms. If ever bell were tremblingly hung, this one is. It vibrates to the slightest stirring of the air; and when is the air still in its exposed haunts? It seeks the open wastes, as pleasanter for the breathless days than the sheltered woodlands.

Not yet has it been decided how the name arose; and the spelling is left very much to individual imagination and taste. Where the choice is between two such names, equally poetic and suggestive, there is really no hurry. The pity would be to lose either of them.

If it is hair bell, the reference is to the exquisite poising of the blossom on the hair-like stem. If hare bell, still fresher associations with the moorland are conveyed. It must mean that the hare has its form where the flowers grow; and, on its passage to and fro, rings from the fairy bells— Their wandering chimes to vagrant butterflies.

The extreme delicacy lends not only grace, but safety as well. Whereas other moorland plants protect themselves from the unchecked storms, or the tread of animals, in various coarser ways, this has learned from nature the gentler art of conquering by knowing when to yield.

E’en the slight hare bell raised its head Elastic from her airy tread.

Scott meant this as a compliment to the grace of Helen Douglas; but half of it belongs to the flower. Clumsier feet by far than those of the Lady of the Lake may tread, and the stem will spring back again uninjured. The bell, so fragile seeming, has simply sunk among the soft grass or moss, and will shake itself into perfect form again as soon as the pressure has passed, and it is lifted into air.

I have seen a limb torn from the tough birch, or a moorland pine uprooted, but I never saw a hare bell crushed—beyond the power of rising and shaking out its creases again—by anything lighter than a cart-wheel; and not always by that.

This bell has no scent. No second inducement is needed to those vagrant butterflies. So far, it stands at a disadvantage with its rival. Growing singly or in clusters, and not in masses, it does not attract the eye from a distance, as a glow of colour. But it is almost everywhere, which the other is not. It fringes the edges of the cornfields, climbs the mountain-sides till it meets the lower alpines, where I have seen it white as the mountain hares of winter; and runs down to the coast till it is washed by the salt spray, where I have also seen it white: on either site, when bleached, it scarcely looks like itself.

Chiefly is it a moorland wildling, companion of the meadow pipit and the nesting plover. And in such moors Scotland abounds. From June onward, every golf-ball driven on St. Andrews links rings the wandering chimes to the blue seaside butterflies. Levelled for a moment, it swiftly rises again, and, ere the golfer passes, it is already trembling in the light breeze as if nothing had happened.

It is gathered by school children, in those delightful autumn weeks spent by the seaside or on inland moor. It blooms for a while along with the marguerite, to whose calm beauty it adds fairylike grace. And when the reign of marguerite is over, it fills the vases of aesthetic maidens, adding to, and borrowing the delicacy of the lighter grasses which tremble beside it. Thus it has all the claims of its tenderer loveliness, of its wider-spread, and its closer sympathy with the genius of the land to be recalled, whenever Scotland is named.

But why worry oneself between two such fair claimants ? Why not, with honest Cassio, confess each to be more excellent than the other? A queen may surely reign in Spain while another reigns in England, and the earth prove large enough for both. In like manner two fairy queens may reign at once, so long as one holds her court on the moor and the other in the woods. Why not pay devoirs to the hare bell in the open, and change our allegiance on passing beneath the branches. Two fairy queens can reign in different places at the same time, and all beauty is not gathered into one bell, any more than into one face.

But even this is not a full statement of the case. Both are not abroad on the earth, even in their different scenes, at the same time. Then what excuse is there for rivalry? Who wants a cessation in the reign of beauty, or even an interregnum?

Let us divide the kingdom between them, making the hyacinth queen for life. All the spring we shall feel at liberty to pay court to her, lying out among the trembling shadows; changing as the buds open into leaves. Until the shilfa’s song begins to lose its early freshness, and the warbler’s lay awakens, we shall make the rocky den echo to our tuneful song, “The Blue Bells of Scotland.” And when at length the woods become faint with heat: then on the breezy moor, or near “ the beached margent of the sea,” where dance our ringlets to the whistling wind, to the wandering chimes of that other bell we shall finish our song, “The Scottish Blue Bells.”

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