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Issue 20 - A walk on the wild side

Scotland Magazine Issue 20
April 2005

 

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A walk on the wild side

At this time of year Scotland is ablaze with wild flowers. Lindsay Mackinlay explains what you should be looking for

Scotland is quite rightly famous for its whisky, its rebellious history, lochs, hills and the hospitality of its people.

It is less well known for the beauty and diversity of its wildflowers, yet there is a floristic treasure trove to be discovered by those who look into the wet bog or the wood as they admire the sweeping vistas so typical of the country.

There are good reasons for Scotland having a wealth of wildflowers. Past volcanic activity – the massive movements of the sea and the powerful action of the glaciers - have shaped the rocks, the soil and ultimately the landscape and its wildflower communities.

These communities have since been shaped by Scotland’s climate. The west, where the land meets the Atlantic Ocean, is generally wetter than the east, which sits in a rain shadow caused by the Highland mountains. These ancient hills, some of the oldest in Europe, force the Atlantic clouds to deposit their rain on the land before they can head into eastern Scotland and beyond.

Humans have also put their footprint on the land through ploughing the soil and grazing their animals. The overall result of all these processes? A rich tapestry of colour and texture ranging from the coastal machair lands of the Outer Hebrides to the peaty bogs of the Highlands to the more tranquil woodlands and meadows of the lowlands. Each has its own mix of wildflowers.

The best time to experience wildflowers in Scotland sits between the beginning of May and the middle of September, with May and the beginning of June being the best for woodland flowers and the rest of the period being good for the grassland, bog and mountain flowers.

However, plants do not like general rules so it is possible to see other flowers out with this period, such as trailing Purple Saxifrage on upland rocks in early April.

As April slips into May, the Scottish woodlands spring to life, the flowers taking full advantage of the little shade being cast by the trees above at this time of year. Wooded gorges and riversides fill with the scent of Wild Garlic, called Ramps or Ramsons by many local Scots.

This scent can be so strong at times that you can leave a woodland with the taste of garlic still in your mouth. The white flowers of the Wild Garlic compete with the whites of Wood Anemones and Wood Sorrels, the yellows of Lesser Celandines and the purples of Violets for your attention.

Ultimately, it is the purple-blue haze of the Bluebell which will take your breath away. Stunning carpets of this beautiful spring flower can be seen in many woodlands and roadside hedges in May, especially in the west of the country. The Scottish name for this flower is Gowk’s Hose, or Cuckoo’s Socks, an apt name since it always appears when the first cuckoos start to call and its flower could be said to look like a long sock.

June and July bring warmer weather, and whilst flowers are still visible in the woodlands, it is the grasslands and mountain-sides that start to really come into their own.

On the western seaboard of the islands of the Outer Hebrides, where crofters (local farmers) grow crops and graze cattle on land made from sand, the machair brims with colour; Thyme, Red Clover, Yellow Bird’s Foot, Trefoil, Green Frog Orchid, Yarrow and Silverweed.

The Silverweed, so named because the underside of its leaves are silvery, has a beautiful yellow flower, and more importantly, a nutritious root. The roots of this plant in fact played an important part in people’s diets before the potato reached the shores of Scotland. Indeed, the Gaels called the plant An seachdamh aran or ‘the seventh bread.’

The machair is not the only coastal area to have flowers. In the far north of Scotland, on the Caithness and Sutherland coast, one of Scotland’s coastal gems can also be found in the summer months; the Scottish Primrose. This small plant has a beautiful deep purple flower with a rich yellow eye making it a firm favourite amongst the many who go to see it there.

Away from the coast, the mountains and bogs are home to a wide array of interesting flowers. Bogs, another Gaelic word, are underlain with poorly decomposed plant matter, or peat, so important in filtering the water used by the whisky distillers.

They support dense stands of Heath-Spotted Orchids and Bog Asphodels, and on the bare but wet peat soil, Sundews and Butterworts try to capture insects with their sticky leaves. In particular, they are adept at catching the dreaded biting midgie, Scotland’s national insect.

Like most Scottish wildflowers, even these inconspicuous plants had their uses in the past, with the Celts using Sundews to make hair dye (maybe this dye kept the midgies away as well!). The mountain flowers peak towards the end of July and they are at their finest where base-rich rock comes to the surface. Here, species such as Alpine Gentian and Mountain Aven can occasionally be seen.

In mountain gullies, Globeflowers, Goldenrods and roseroots cling to ledges away from the mouths of red deer, with the conspicuous big yellow Buttercup-like Globeflowers being reputed to have been used as drinking cups by local children in the past. As the mountain slopes soften, heathers can dominate, their flowering peaking in September and often covering whole hillsides in purple. These heather moorlands are probably best known for the sport of grouse shooting by the landed gentry, a Victorian tradition that still continues today in several areas.

Not all of Scotland is mountain and coast of course. The east, central and south-west of Scotland support most of Scotland’s population and the richest farming land, being home to fields of wheat and barley and pasture fields of grazing dairy cows.

The intensive nature of much of this farming in recent years has pushed wildflowers into ever-decreasing areas, such that away from the woodlands they are mostly found in roadside hedges and in a few summer grazing and hay meadows.

Thankfully, it is still possible to enjoy some of these meadows and walk amongst the cattle as you survey Wild Pansies, Eyebrights, Yellow Rattles and pale cream Greater Butterfly Orchids. These are peaceful and romantic places to visit on warm summer evenings and it is easy to imagine a young Rabbie Burns writing his poems to his young love amongst these ‘bony (beautiful) flowers’.

I see her in the dewy flowers,
I see her sweet and fair;
I hear her in the tunefu’ birds,
I hear her charm the air:
There’s not a bony flower, that springs
By fountain, shaw, or green;
There’s not a bony bird that sings
But minds me o’ my Jean.

From: I love my Jean, Robert Burns,1790

Scotland’s history and landscape will continue to hold a fascination to many visitors and locals. However, next time you walk across the grass to that white beach, wander up that hillside or sit resting by a woodland path, cast a close eye around you at the wildflowers at your feet. Then imagine what the land and the people would be like without them.

Further Reading:

Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey (1998);
Chatto & Windus

The Scots Herbal: The Plant Lore of Scotland by
Tess Darwin (1996); Mercat Press

PLACES TO VISIT

DOLLAR GLEN (NATIONAL TRUST FOR SCOTLAND)
This woodland gorge carves its way into the Ochil Hills which run east from Stirling into Clackmannanshire. Situated above the town of Dollar, off the A91, the glen has a good footpath which takes you gradually up the gorge, sometimes suspending you above it and its waterfalls on well-built bridges. The path will take you up to Castle Campbell, the chief lowland stronghold of the Campbell Clan, and beyond into the Ochil Hills. Agreat place to see woodland flowers in May and June.

CASTRAMON WOOD (SCOTTISH WILDLIFE TRUST)
Covering 80 hectares, Castramon Wood is the largest of four oak woods in the Fleet valley; all remnants of the once extensive Galloway woodlands. There are a number of good paths within the reserve that provide circular routes. In spring, especially May, the bluebells are spectacular!

Travel Directions: Take the main road from Dumfries to Stranraer, then two miles north of Gatehouse-of-Fleet beside a minor road branching off the B796.

SOUTH UIST, BERNERAY AND HARRIS
These islands form part of the Outer Hebrides, but like many of the islands and small coastal flats on the west coast, they have machair. South Uist has some of the biggest expanses of machair on its western side. If you can’t make it to an island, fear not! Redpoint beach, between Gairloch and Torridon, looks great as well. Best time: June and July.

BEN LAWERS (NATIONAL TRUST FOR SCOTLAND)
Sitting in the heart of the Scottish mountains, beside the town of Killin, Ben Lawers is one of Scotland’s highest mountains and is considered a botanical mecca for its alpine flora. Awildflower nature trail has been created next to the car-park at the mountain visitor centre for those who don’t want to walk up to the summit. This takes you through bog and mountain plants. For those who want to see the summit plants, it is strongly recommended that you go on one of the guided walks in order to avoid accidentally damaging these fragile areas. Walks are available throughout the summer and led by National Trust for Scotland rangers. This Best time: Late June to August. Mountain Centre is off A827, six miles NE of Killin, Stirlingshire.

DURNESS, CAITHNESS
The area around Durness, on the north coast of Scotland, is another wildflower hotspot and one area where you can see the Scottish Primrose. Ask at that local tourist office for the best places to go although the golf course is a good starting point. Best time: June and July.

KITTOCHSIDE, SCOTTISH MUSEUM OF COUNTRY LIFE, EAST KILBRIDE, GLASGOW
Kittochside not only includes a museum but it also has a wildflower-rich summer meadow on the farm. Owned by the National Trust for Scotland and run by the National Museum of Scotland, it is a good place to see lowland wildflowers. Guided wildflower walks are led by the National Trust for Scotland in July. Travel directions: Take the M74 south from Glasgow towards Carlisle until you see signs for the A725 to East Kilbride (Junction 5; about 10 miles south of Glasgow). Follow signs for ‘Kittochside’ from there and to the north edge of East Kilbride.

Contact
Lindsay Mackinlay is Nature Conservation Adviser (West & South Regions) with the National Trust for Scotland.
He can be contacted on lmackinlay@nts.org.uk