Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Wild Flowers of Scotland
Chapter VIII. In the Woodlands

I IMAGINE that the woods round about are old. They show every sign of being mere patches of a woodland of much greater size,—covering the whole space they mark out,—and were probably left on the less promising spots, mainly bare and exposed ridges, when the rest was broken up into farms. Many of these patches are still joined at the corners, and zigzag about in a manner which will admit of no other explanation.

Very curiously shaped some of these farms are, as they run in and out among the trees in a game of hide-and-seek. One part is cut off from another by an intervening strip, which the ploughman or the reaper must skirt or cross. So closely are some of the fields invested, that in broken seasons the farmer finds it hard to get the grain to ripen, until it is so late in the year that the sun only shows his face above the ridge for two hours at midday. Sometimes he is fain to cut it down for green food.

The age of the wood is shown in several ways, chiefly by the trees. The backbone, so to speak, is Scots fir. One half-expects this from the ridgy nature of the ground, and the bareness of the soil, which help to account for any trees being left at all.

The rest is mainly oak. Let no one suppose these to be of the brawny or spreading kind, out of whose giant trunks battleships were wont to be made. Such are not Scots oaks; at least, not those that share old woods with the fir trees. Straggling growths are these, suffering from poverty beneath, and shooting up their starved and lanky length in search of the upper light and air.

A few beech trees touch the sombreness with their fresh spring green. Though not perhaps to the manner born, or so ancient in their date, the beeches of our Scots woods more than hold their own. They grow to even greater size than the oaks, or carry more width along with their height. Than their shining trunks nothing statelier is there. Scots rooks select the branches for their nests.

Ash and poplar are more in the open, and run along the lanes which join the wood patches.

Under the fir trees, the under-growth is whin. Where the beech tells of deeper soil, the broom flowers, though less freely, and with more appearance of leaf, than out in the sun.

The floor, too, is tell-tale: it is rude and unkempt. No one ever planted a forest there. The site is elevated, reached by a sudden rise of several feet from the river. It is really a moorland stretch, in a shallow depression of a chain of hills, whose summits are about three miles away.

No soft wood-meadow grasses grow here; the hard yet graceful waved-heath grasses are a little more silvery of hue than those of the open; that is, in so far as there is room for grasses of any kind, amid the blaeberries and other moorland and mountain shrubs.

These woods of fir, with their mingling of oak and sprinkling of beech, and their rude undergrowth and carpet, are typical of Scotland.

The patch I most care for is two miles away, and involves a climb of another two hundred feet. It has a further mark of antiquity in its name. It is called “The Emmocks,” probably the wood of the ants. A cart-road, marked by two running streams down the wheel tracks in winter, and scarred by two dry stony channels in summer, leads up the face of the ridge.

Why the farm at the top was called Balmy-down, no casual visitor could ever find out. But those who knew the scene best, and loved it most, guessed that it must have been christened on one of these summer days when it plainly suggested its name; that is, if the word means what it seems to do, which I by no means vouch for.

Looking down over the grass park, or the whispering heads of the wheat to the stream below, and beyond to the picturesque patches, whose wounds time had healed, cool in their firry -darkness, and relieved by touches of soft green, the natural eye, aided by some association, could scarcely seek for anything more fair.

The cart-road passes behind the farmyard, and leads along the crest of the ridge to the wood, some half a mile beyond. At one time, no doubt, all this was shadowed by trees. The path-side vegetation still bears traces of the ancient state of things; for it is a long time before the natural growths can be entirely rooted out, and the rudeness refined away.

A dry-stone dyke separates the wood from a road which has been cut through its midst. Long enough time had passed for nature to soften and level the top, under a layer of turf, woven of rare moorland grasses, over which dainty panicles danced. The curious among the woodland plants leapt ~up where they could see both ways, and so an ungainly fence was made into a linear garden of wild flowers. To step across is to be with nature. One finds himself under tall, graceful, silver-barked birches. The birch is accommodating. In exposed situations it can shorten itself, and yet remain the chief ornament of its rude, rocky, and elevated sites. The fir hard by is gnarled and twisted by the storms which sweep the mountain - side, though often intensely picturesque and characteristic in its way. The willow becomes stunted, and takes refuge in lowliness; the birch clings and cowers with feminine grace—or when a woodland tree, as here, it can lengthen itself in competition with the tallest, until its topmost branches emerge into the upper air and light, even beyond those of the statelier beech, and all without losing aught of its proportion. The oak has struggled up, too; but what an overgrown, long-drawn-out gawk it looks in comparison!

The wood floor is distinctly moorland—more so even than that of the patches farther down. To the waved hair grass has been added the ruder, stiffer—altogether less graceful—mat grass. The moorland shrubs, too, have been considerably increased. In addition to the blaeberry, common to all the woods, I can gather the rose and white flower of the cowberry, and, here and there, the purple vase of the crowberry.

Quite a jubilant shout summons me to the back of the wood, whither my companion has gone foraging on his own account. I find him lying all his length on the ground, gazing intently at something. It is quite an unconscious tribute, and all the more eloquent on that account, since he did not know what he was looking at, only that it was beautiful.

Twining in and out among the shrubs are certain pink branches, at first sight scarcely distinguishable from the blaeberry twigs, except from their habit of running long distances along the ground, instead of standing more or less erect in compact bushes. Every here and there, from these recumbent stems, rises a flower-stalk, suspending, some half a foot in the air, and clear above the blossoms of surrounding shrubs, two of the most delightfully shaded and shaped bells imaginable.

There is no mistaking this flower for a moment. No other approaches it in exquisiteness, except, perhaps, that second moorland plant, the bog pimpernel, and that only from a great distance. It is that which awakened the enthusiasm of the great botanist, and after him was called Linncea borealis. Its presence is another sign of ‘age. It is not uncommon in Scots woods that have been undisturbed. If only occasionally noticed, that is because it is so easily overlooked, even when in flower, by the unobservant. We swear a vow of secrecy over that Linncea, because we know that many would be glad to take it away.

The trailing willow is all over the floor of the wood, lighting it up with its long yellow male catkins. A great space is beautified by the mountain globe flower, found in these patches, and not again till the mountains are reached. It is the largest, and certainly the most graceful, of our yellow wild flowers, with great soft balls of loosely incurved petals, as big as the closed hand of a lady.

At least four orchids grow in this wood—among them the rose-coloured, sweet-scented orchid, and that other with the black spots on the green leaves.

Moreover, the floor is inlaid all over with patines of bright silver, relieving the shades by countless stars. No flower, wild or cultivated, has the simple purity of the wood winter green.

Many of these, and more I could mention, are found all over the sub-alpine region of the hills, which extends upward for the first fifteen hundred feet.

The wood is a delightfully cool wood; that is the charm of it. It is worth climbing the ridge and getting heated in the July sun, just to plunge into it. It is like a water bath on a hot day, only infinitely more delicately tempered. It is not the shadow alone. Every wood has a shadow, and yet there are days when they are not cool. It is the moisture that is never absent from the air. Part of the floor is mossy and spongy. In winter one goes over the ankles there, and even in the height of a warm summer one always wets the sole of his boots.

These grey marshy stretches are relieved by the bright crimson and rose of the two louseworts, and diversified by the flat wan leaves of the butter-wort. There, too, rise the wax-like spikes of the round-leaved pyrola. Thus, these fir, beech, and oak trees cover over what, if exposed, would appear as moor and marsh, and be found to contain a fairly exhaustive representation of the characteristic flowers of both. The sundew is the only notable absentee.

The creepies of the gipsies, or, rather, tinkers, are visible on a bare place among the under-growth. These not altogether uninteresting survivors of a previous condition of existence, seem to have a partiality for the old woods. Their knowledge of the country is enviable, having been handed down from generation to generation. Many a hint have I got from seeing them turning up a pathway which seemed to lead to nowhere. I marked that way out for future investigation.

The donkey is luxuriating on the richest grass he can find, with an asinine contempt for absent thistles and present whins. Your donkey is an epicure, whatever people may say; and if he sometimes eats coarse food, it is because he is a philosopher as well, and takes what he can get without grumbling. By what sweet stream-sides and in what cool glades have I seen the gipsy’s donkey grazing, while ordinary donkeys had to content themselves with the sparse dust-covered grass by the roadside. What an innocent face he has, almost touching in its rude gentleness !

“Poor Neddy! Poor Ned! ” Open-mouthed, the gentle animal rushes at the well-meaning intruder, who is extremely relieved when he gets beyond the reach of his tether. Moral: Never trifle with gipsies’ donkeys.

Just beyond the creepie the floor descends into a little cup, completely isolating one, even from the life of the surrounding wood. No fellow-loiterer can see down until he comes to the edge, and even then, he finds it hard to peer through the screen of branches. Unless he hears the voices, he may pass on, unaware that anyone is there.

In the centre of the cup, the autumn and winter rains form a pool, which persists through all but the driest summers. An accommodating willow has stretched a gnarled branch over the pool, whence, in comfort and safety, one can watch the water-beetles coming to the surface and bearing down with them their silver globule of air. From just beyond the wood comes the low of kine, and in the most out-of-the-way corner of the world nestles a farm, where lives a farmer’s wife, who is seldom without, and never refuses, fresh milk and floury scones.

A month later, when all these waxen flowers have given place to berries, black and red, which happily occurs at school-holiday time, children’s voices are heard in every part of the wood. Tired at length the young berry-hunters, with blackened faces, gather on the willow, and chatter among the branches like so many starlings or monkeys.

And when the sun begins to dip they fill their baskets, and leave only the lessening echoes of their retreating voices to die into the silence of the wood.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus