FLORA

Flora

Last week I wrote about the pleasure I had obtained from the birds on our holiday in the North West Highlands of Scotland; but I also enjoyed the wild flowers. Their profusion took me back to the flower filled meadows of my childhood which I had all but forgotten.

On the mainland of Scotland you do not get the yellow ‘machair’ of the Western Isles – a mass of flowers, predominantly yellow that covers the short grass, but there is still a wide variety. Right by the shore there were patches of bog cotton with its wispy white heads. There was plenty of clover – the shorter, fragrant white that makes good honey, and the taller vibrant red. Everything seemed to be out at once. There was that heady scented, creamy flower, Meadowsweet which makes a good country wine, and which we called Queen of the Meadow, as well as the taller patches of the pink Rosebay Willowherb, which we used to call Wildfire. There were the less noticeable Shepherd’s Purse which I have not seen for many years, and the brown headed flower we used to call Soldier’s sticks, and you could play a game with them where you knocked the head off the other person’s flower. There was the golden yellow tansy with its rich spicy smell and which when you squeezed the flower head gave a satisfying pop.

When we drove down the Ardnamurchan peninsula I spotted a ‘stand’ of the dainty harebell, the Scots ‘bluebell’, which is of a delicate but very intense blue; and there were pink foxgloves on a bank literally thousands strong, so much so that you doubted your own eyes. There was also blue speedwell, and I discovered a patch of wild violets growing in a ditch.   And there were the lovely white water lilies  on the still ponds.   As the song says,

Like the  white lily floating on the peat hag’s dark waters,                                                        Is the face of my Mairi, my Mairi, my beloved…

There were ‘forbidden’ flowers too – the statuesque Giant Hogsweed which tends to grow near streams, and standing about 6 feet tall with its huge flat white flower as big as a dinner plate, is a magnificent sight, but now tends to be obliterated when seen as it is poisonous (we called it, incorrectly, ‘hemlock’).

I thought of my childhood, where I observed all these things and took them quite for granted – thought everybody’s world was filled with wild flowers and birdsong, and how we assume these delights will last forever and be enjoyed by future generations: whereas this is by no means certain.

Let us stay where the wild things are.

Photographs are courtesy of John M Armstrong and were taken on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula.

FAUNA

We were in a lovely campsite earlier this month, on the West Highland mainland, north of Ardnamurchan and beside a sandy beach with a huge tidal rise and fall, and with a golf course in our view (very heaven you will understand,)

There was time to sit and watch the sun cross the sky (when it deigned to put in an appearance at all) and to watch the bay emptying and huge, malevolant rocks emerge and then see it fill up again and appear deceptively benign. The water was very clear.

The bird life was enjoyable to watch. Our bay had a resident heron,who flew in about 7 – 9 am from some wooded site inland, (rather as if he were a commuter coming in to work) and fished on some of the rocky islands. He was about 6 ft tall, very elegant in his grey and white, with black floating plumes crowning his head. We knew there were fish because we would see him stab his long beak into the water, and then swallow.

We saw the common gull quite a lot.

There were birds, handsome in grey and black, which I took at first for jackdaws, but they were larger and more powerful, and I think they were carrion crows. There were curlew with their quivering, haunting call, and our girls came across a nest on the ground, from which chicks ‘with very long beaks’ ran away.

At Glefinnan there were gangs of robin, which is rather unusual.

We heard larks. We saw pied wagtails with their flicking tails. There were flocks of oyster catchers who would pass overhead at night calling out loudly – they are very noisy birds!

One day in late afternoon I looked up and saw that a little flock of unfamiliar birds was present in our bay. They were black; there were three family groups – two of four, parents and two juveniles, and one of parents with one juvenile. To my surprise they dived; and all together, so that for a moment the space was empty and I thought I’d imagined the whole proceedings. But then they gradually surfaced one by one, only to dive again en masse after a few minutes. A diving bird is normally built like a submarine, very narrow and low slung to the water, whereas they were chunkier and had quite round heads. Looking them up, I came to the conclusion they were Common Scoters, a bird I had never seen before. They fished for about half an hour, and then they swam out of the bay; I never saw them in flight. I watched over the next few days, but they never returned.

It’s a great pleasure to sit in some remote and lovely place and just watch the light move across the landscape; see the grasses toss in the wind, and be pleasantly surprised when, as you sit there, some unexpected creature suddenly hoves into view, quietly going about its own business.

The photographs, the first being the view of the bay, and the second the monument at Glenfinnan, are courtesy of J M Armstrong.