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Wild Flowers of Scotland
Chapter XIV. On the Mountains

"THIS way to Braemar.”

And a finger on the post points away to the right.

“This way to Braemar.”

And a second finger, on another post, points to the left.

There is nothing strange in two ways leading to the same place; indeed it is one of the commonest of experiences, the main problem being to find out the shorter one. .

One of these ways, so kindly indicated in the freshest of paint and the clearest of letters, has a decided hint of a curve in it.

More suspicious even than that is the quite paternal interest taken in the well - being of pedestrians. There is a difference of opinion here, and two unknown benefactors vie with each other in their zeal to prevent needless wandering. This is unusual in the Highlands, where one is left to grope along as best he can, and is taken roughly to task if, in his ignorance, and to his own great loss of time and strength, he chance to wander.

Now the spirit of these finger-posts is far other than friendly. As soon as one learns why they were put there, the very aspect alters, and they are seen to glare and storm at each other. They represent the very old dispute between private rights and public wrongs. The property has passed out of the hands of one of the old families, and it is the purchaser who kindly recommends the circular route. His finger-post really means, “I wish to shut up the other way.”

And the jealous guardians of the sacredness of paths which human feet have trod, time out of mind, without so much as saying, “By your leave,” put up their finger-post, which flatly contradicts the other, and says, “You shall not do anything of the kind, if we can help it.”

In my experience, the practical victory in all such breezy disputes lies with the proprietor, provided he makes the friction as severe and constant as possible. The timid fear to venture; and even the bold, when they have gone once or twice slowly over the ground, just to show their independence, turn aside from the annoyances, and take the other way.

In this case, the old path happened to be of quite exceptional interest to a small but mildly stubborn order of visitors. Their grievance was not in the closing of the nearest way to Braemar—many of them would have trudged the extra mile or two without a word. The attraction lay along the route, and not in the goal. Lost through all the long hours of a summer day in Glen Doile, they never so much as emerged from the other end. Stained and footsore, but not weary, and with a light shining in their faces, they might have been seen towards night coming out just about where they had gone in. To them the finger-post meant the shutting up of their hilly paradise.

I have no intention of going to Braemar to-day. My further route is in a pleasing state of uncertainty, as it always is when I am abroad. The forbidden ground is just what I have come to see.

There, the gathering majesty of the way passes into still loftier reaches of grandeur and sublimity. Though it gets the name of Doile, it is only the fitting climax where Clova abuts, and abruptly closes, on the tremendous cross - ridge of the Grampians, forming the backbone of the Highlands.

Nor is it mainly for the scene I have come,— though never for so much as a moment is it possible to lose consciousness of it,—but because these torrent-ploughed slopes form one of the few wild-gardens—certainly one of the first three—of our rarest Scottish alpines.

Like Nelson, I am blind to the signal I do not wish to see, and obey the finger-post which points the, nearest way to Braemar as up the glen.

The road passes near the dwelling—I believe it now makes a detour. As I thread my way among the outhouses, I am aware of being the object of a little hostile attention. Loiterers cast a side glance, and disappear into some doorway as if to make my unwelcome presence known. A few moments bring me beyond the shot of eyes into a scene of picturesque wildness—that is, wildness which is not at the same time desolation.

One autumn day—it may be such another as this—a sportsman was shooting over the surrounding heights. His title came from a barren spot in one of the shorter glens opening on Strathmore, watered by the Quharity, dear to all readers of Barrie. His income he owed to a richer property on the banks of the Tay, and a spirit, which was singularly childlike, to nature alone. He paused as his eye fell upon a patch of rose colour.

It is an excellent thing, when one is alone shooting in these out-of-the-way places, to have a pair of eyes in one’s head, and a soul of some kind behind them. The blue sky, and the cloud shadows, and the life and colour of the hills, weave tender threads into the coarser texture of day’s sport.

Easily carried about, and a benefit to ‘ the possessor, these simple gifts, as in the case of this blushing alpine, sometimes notice what others would like to see and are glad to hear about.

Few have better opportunities than sportsmen, if they cared to use them. Compared with their systematic work, the zig-zagging of an occasional naturalist is trifling and ineffective, leaving vast tracks on either hand unexplored. They quarter every interesting hill in Scotland, cross every yard of every slope and summit, and that at the bright season of the year, when all the later and rarer alpines are in flower. Granting a little natural curiosity, they might have many a pleasant revelation to make. Others must have passed that patch, but no one had thought it worth his while to pause, or tell over again that such a thing was there.

But this was a sportsman of the proper sort, to whom the birds would have been nothing without the background and the thousand little touches that made their upland home charming. In after years he did not think it worth his while to rehearse how many brace had fallen to his gun. True, it was before the days of sensational bags, when, as yet, grouse-shooting was a gentlemanly sport.

But I have heard him tell, with great animation, of the delight with which he looked on that vision of beauty. And I know that it remained a lovely spot on his memory to the latest years of his life. The flower had been lost sight of, and the privilege of having found it again made him glad.

With the economy of a lover of nature, who never wastes, however great the wealth may seem to be, he gathered, in remembrance of that Clova idyl. The late Professor Balfour on one of his excursions came that way, and the finder sent a little to where the botanist was staying. It is said that certain playful youngsters of the student band caused the treasure to be placed under cover, and served up for dinner; and we can well believe that the old enthusiast forgot his hunger in his delight.

This wild flower is only reported from the one site, but may have been Overlooked on two or three of the heights of the same north-west corner of Forfar. Beyond this restricted area it has only as yet been found in the north of England, where it grows, at a much lower elevation, to a greater height.

This would seem to show it is no denizen of the hills by birth and long tradition, but only one of the Shetland pony order of fairy plants, which, under more favourable conditions, would probably lose its alpine characteristics. I have seen it flowering freely enough in the gardens of Highland gamekeepers, who had brought a bit away as they were passing its haunts.

The alpine catchfly, as it is named, presents a very miniature or fairy semblance of the extremely pretty crimson day-catchfly, abounding in most of our moist woods, and brightening so many of our stream banks; as if the larger flower had climbed up the hillside, and dwarfed as it rose higher.

This crimson patch is the goal which, after visiting the rare corners of the glen, and seeing all that grows there, I intend reaching.

The day is young, and, for so young a day, is used up. It has already parted with its morning freshness—if, in the early hours before I was abroad, it ever had any. There is sultriness in the breathless air, and a pitiless glare in the light. A lit haze fills the glen. Even Clova was open and breezy in comparison. If it is thus at eleven, what will it be at two? is a question I am in a position to answer from my recent experience. And there is less promise of shelter on these bare heights. Already it matters not on which side of a boulder one sits down.

Moreover, the ascent has become sharper, and the road rougher. There is more of the climb in one’s walk. The rush and noise and broken water of the stream alongside is a sufficient measure of the incline.

Eleven is a good time for a rest. It is the hour chosen by outdoor workers, in the sunny months, for placing their backs against the shady side of the stooks. “Eleven hours” they call their forenoon break. The water is inviting, and here is a bank which will afford the skirt of a shadow.

How brown my hands are! I must be like a mulatto! My last night’s lodging had nothing so refined as a mirror, and the water is too broken to see! Stay, there is a quiet place behind the boulder! How still the glen is! The “baa” of the black-faced sheep seems to emphasise the solitude! What is all the fuss about ? No one is here to disturb— !

A faint sound, resembling a footstep, reaches me, and, a few minutes afterwards, a man, accompanied by two dogs, appears on the bank overhead. The turn down to the water-side, though not a ruse, has served the same purpose. To all appearance, the man intended following, keeping, as far as possible, out of sight; but, missing me, he had ventured forward to reconnoitre: there he stands, revealed in all his brief authority.

Now the positions are reversed. He has to go on, and I can watch him. It is rather an uncomfortable position for a spy. I dry my feet in the sun - no very long process—why, they have a tint of brown on them already; leisurely put on my boots, and climb up the bank.

My friend is equal to the occasion. In calculating on any advantage, I have reckoned without my host. Though he can scarce have got above two or three hundred yards away, and the glen is shelterless, save for some tumbled fragments of rock, he is nowhere in view. Instead of the sullen up-and-down movements of two tails, and the flash from a gun barrel, the sun.

All unreflected shone. On bracken green, and cold grey stone.

He has vanished into thin air, or dropped behind a boulder, or lain down all his length under some imperceptible rising of the ground—protectively coloured in his pepper-and-salt suit. And his dogs play up to him. Not a hair of them is to be seen. Once again he regains the advantage; and so this mountain comedy passes through its several acts.

An hour afterwards he suddenly reappears—from nowhere in particular. I look, and he is not; I look again, and, behold, he is within a few feet. I seize the chance of asking the nearest way to the hill on which the catchfly grows. This is adding insult to injury. He regards me more in sorrow than in anger, and solemnly warns me that, so far from helping, he will stand across my path.

When he sees that the threat has not the desired effect, he melts into the Highland air, fades into the grass; and, though I never lose the uneasy sense that he is fixing me from behind every stone or tuft of mountain meadow grass, he returns no •more.

It is characteristic of these glens in the northwest corner of Forfar, that their wild flowers, with very few exceptions, are much alike. What you find in one, you may look for in the other. And as I shall visit a second, it is the less needful to tell all that grows here.

Indeed, the similarity, if not so close, holds of that concentration of the Highlands, that eternal gathering of the clans, where the three counties of Forfar, Perth, and Aberdeen meet. It may be worth noticing, in the passing, that Perth and Forfar have an equal number of alpines, but not quite the same. Seven are absent from each county, which are present in the other.

The purple mountain milk vetch, so common on seaside links, and again on the lower slopes of hills, passes, at a certain height on Craigmad, into the alpine form, which is mainly white, only tipped with purple. Elsewhere this alpine is found on Craigandree, at Braemar. A similar form, the yellow mountain oxytropis, grows among these hills, and not anywhere else, so far as I know, in Britain.

The sun climbs slowly down as I climb slowly up. On the top I look round for that particular summit, whose shape I partly know. And then I go off in search of the patch of rose, whose charm is certainly not any greater than that of the spirit which once reflected it; which had brought to a halt and gladdened one who was at once a sportsman and a naturalist.

Already are the shadows creeping up the eastern slopes. It will be as easy to reach the next glen as to trudge back to Clova. And the air of my lodging for the night is likely to be fresher.

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