I was thrilled to write a guest blog for Venture North’s Discovery Series. Read the original piece over on their website.
I am slow to remember at first. But as one name comes, another follows. ‘Eyebright, Speedwell, Self-heal,’ I chant, swinging the dog’s lead like a censer, winter vestments of coat and cardie draped over my arm. I push open the gate to the public footway, last year’s bracken crushed underneath. In the darkness of the gorge, overhung by hazel, with the Armadale Burn below, my litany falters. I dredge my mind for the colour of petals, the shape of leaves. On the path to the dunes, I start again. ‘Cat’s Ear, Lady’s Bedstraw, Holy Grass, Devil’s-bit.’ It seems like I’ve been waiting forever. Since the spring equinox and the coming of light, since the first lambs hiding under their mothers, since the winds dropped and the cuckoo called, I have been waiting.
Every year, in late spring and summer, my walks with the dog turn into pilgrimages. Headland, bay, hill and ditch, I trudge with bowed head. Few of these species are particular to the north. But here – where there are hardly any trees, where heather and reeds tumble for miles bound only by mountain shadows, where in winter, moor, pasture and bluff are all the same pale ochre – there is something wondrous about the wild flowers of spring.
Today, I find bluebells, what I think is cuckooflower, and primrose. They are scattered about under the whin and lining the fence on the way to the beach. In the open grassland before the dunes is the remains of knapweed – a whole meadow of it, charred remnants that will be overwhelmed in a month or so with a glut of new purple heads.
At home, my copy of Wild Flowers of the North Highlands of Scotland is well thumbed. The species divided by peatlands, machair and coast, they are all here to be found if you look hard enough. And perhaps in my remembering of names, there is learning of another kind. I’m not from here, but with knowledge comes reverence, and where some outsiders see bleak emptiness, appellation populates a place. I know those reeds are soft rush, that moss sphagnum.
On the beach, the first of the sandwort spatters the foot of the cliffs. In the rocks here I have seen the delicate white of surveygrass and the raucous yellow of kidney vetch. But not today. The tide is so far out that the clatter and soar of the waves and the white lines unfurling in my middle distance seem unconnected – the sound rolling in all around me but the sea just an inch of blue on the horizon. It takes a long time to reach the water’s edge. The ocean, the wind, the gulls calling, all hush my thoughts. Turning back, it’s the other way around – the land just a strip of green between cloud and sand, and in the middle, a few gable ends of faraway houses. Mine are the only footprints stretching down to the water. I close my eyes against the sun and enjoy the feel of my wellies striding out, the sound of the waves telling me where the sea is, the breeze in my face.
Armadale Burn is just one place to see wild flowers. Other favourite spots are the bumble bee garden behind Strathnaver Museum (in itself worth a visit), the clifftops at nearby Farr Bay, the machair at Strathy Point (where the Scottish Primrose grows), and the coastal path at Portskerra, Melvich. Or just stop your car in any old layby and potter off for a stravaig on the moor.
Butler & Crossan’s Wild Flowers of the North Highlands of Scotland is available from Caithness Horizons in Thurso, and from Wordery.