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Issue 26 - Magical machair

Scotland Magazine Issue 26
April 2006


This article is 12 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Magical machair

A look how this unusual maritime pasture is becoming a haven for flora and fauna

The machair is a unique and fertile pasture that lines the west coast of Scotland, particularly along the broken chain of the Outer Hebrides. It is one of the most unusual and spectacular visual habitats in Europe, filled with flowers and home to an abundance of wildlife. You’ll find it along the beaches of the westernmost reaches of Scotland.

It thrives in the wet and the wind of the Western Isles and is at its most beautiful in the spring and summer months when it carpets the coast in rare irises, orchids and many other flowers.

The machair is only found in Scotland and in a small part of Ireland. It’s made up of nearly 90 per cent broken shells. The shells give the beaches and the machair the gleaming white associated with the west coast of Scotland. The wind blows the shell sand over the land. This process is essential in creating the machair.

It’s the sheer variety of colourful flowers in among the strong marram grass that makes the machair so spectacular.

Up to 45 different flower varieties have been found in one single square metre. Irish Ladies Tresses, various orchids and Yellow Rattle are some of the more numerous flowers that colour the floral landscape. One orchid in particular is unique to the machair – the marsh orchid, Dactylorhiza majalis scotica. It only grows along a small stretch of coast in North Uist.

In recent years the machair has become an important breeding habitat for the rare corncrake. The ongoing success of the Corncrake Initiative, a programme set up to encourage ‘corncrake friendly’ farming methods, is helped by the fertile pasture. The island of Tiree supports more than a quarter of all corncrakes in Scotland.

At least half of the virtually flat, 11-mile long wind strewn island is covered with machair and home to some 500 different varieties of flower,

“Corncrakes on Tiree have gone from strength to strength,” says John Bowler, RSPB warden for the island. “The final total for 2005 on the island is a whopping 308 calling males. That’s up from 262 in 2004 and 184 in 2003. It’s a vindication of the various schemes in place on the island and elsewhere to encourage crofters to cut their grass later and in a ‘corncrake-friendly’ way.”

The increase in corncrakes was matched by greater numbers on neighbouring Coll as well as on the Argyll islands of Islay, Colonsay, Iona and Mull. Corn buntings also enjoy the machair on Tiree and in the Uists.

Other birds like the twite, redshank, dunlin and ringed plover also use the machair for breeding and in the Uists and on Barra 17,000 waders use the machair during the breeding season.

On the mainland in the far north west the machair around Kinlochbervie is home to more than 200 plant species.

From bluebells to yarrow, cranesbill, marsh orchid, marigold and violets.

Many such sites have been designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Protection Areas or Special Areas of Conservation. As such they are protected under European law. This helps with conservation activities.

Scottish Natural Heritage produce a leaflet all about the machair. It’s also available online at


The revamped Tiree Scarinish Hotel is one of only two hotels on the island. The nine-room Tiree Scarinish is located at the island’s old harbour on a petite arc of alabaster sand complete with half sunken shipwreck and views over to the islands of Mull and Skye.

From £35 per person per night
Tel: +44 (0)1879 220 308

The Lochboisdale Hotel is situated at the port in the far south of South Uist. Dating back to the 1860s it is full of charm with 10 rooms, a bar and lounge area.

Tel: +44 (0)1878 700 332

Scarista House is a former Georgian Manse. There are five well-furnished rooms and two self-catering cottages. Sacrista is famous for its food. Lamb, beef, game and seafood are all sourced locally.

From £140 per night. Self-catering from £300 per week. Four course dinner from £41.50

Tel: +44 (0)1859 550 238
timandpatricia@scaristahouse .com

Heathbank is a converted church. The building dates back to the mid-1800s. Some of the cast of Whisky Galore, the Ealing Comedy filmed on the island, stayed here in the 1940s. There are five comfortable rooms. There is a bar and restaurant with an emphasis on seafood. From £35 per person per night.

Tel: +44 (0)1871 890 266
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  • In : Wildlife
  • Issue : 26
  • Page : 22
  • Words : 759