THE wild flowers of one corner of Scotland are so exceptional in their interest, so characteristic of their haunts, that they ask to be treated apart; especially as they are so shy at crossing their very narrow boundaries, and are so seldom visited in districts which offer less attraction to the many.
The north-east dip of sandstone which forms the county of Caithness is mainly of rough moorland, rising very little above sea-level. It passes under the shallow Pentland Firth, to be continued, in a certain broken way, in the sandstones of Orkney.
This whole district, though northern, is not highland; the climate, though on the Polar side of us, is rather milder than our own ; the wild flowers, though boreal, are neither alpine nor arctic.
A few of the hill plants come down the slopes, and make themselves at home near sea-level. This is by no means strange. Hardy mountain forms are known to grow on coast moors, chiefly such as are so rude and exposed as this. Among others the eight-rayed mountain avens - Dryas octo-petala - appears on the flats of Caithness, and crosses to the low heights of Hoy.
Some few years ago I spent part of the summer in Orkney, under the soothing ripple of canvas. Within half a stone's-throw was a lake, constricted in the middle, and swelling out at each end, somewhat after the shape of an ancient hour-glass.
Down the slope we ran with a towel for a morning bath, and again with our rods for a forenoon's cast. As fishing sheets, the weakness of this and other Orkney lakes is the abundance of pond-weed, rising to the surface as the season advances, and covering large areas when the sport is at its height. In July and August much of the water is unfish-able, and a rise too near the forest, leads to the twisting of the line round the stems by the running trout. This nuisance is on the increase from year to year, and will soon have to be dealt with.
Round the lake margin was a circlet, broken here and there, of the pink bells of the bog pimpernel. This is to the wastes what Linnoea is to the woods, and is well-nigh as graceful and delicately-tinted as the wild flower which seemed so charming to Linnaeus. The difference in appearance may be because the one grows under shelter, and the other in such places as stunt the growth.
The colour was pale - the result, no doubt, of exposure to the sea breeze, whichever way the wind blows. Some of the bells were white. The same bleaching process appeared in the purple scabious, the crimson ragged robin, and the violet self-heal. All showed many white flowers.
The scene was unrelieved. No trees were visible. The crofters' houses, dotted down here and there, only increased the impression of bareness - they were so rude themselves.
"I very much long for trees,"said one who had never left the island. "If I were not so old" - he was beyond the four score - "I should go south yet."
It seems strange how one gets accustomed to anything. After the first few days I was not conscious of the want.
Immediately round the crofts, were patches reclaimed from the universal moor. The cereals were oats, and bere - a six-rowed form of barley. These strips, sparsely covered as they were, frequently came out in vivid contrast to their duller surroundings; while, in that moist air of diffused rainbows, the dull shades themselves became marvellously bright. The changes to beauty were sudden as surprising. On the rude background of untamed Orkney, beyond the crofts, I have seen atmospheric effects like the flush of distant flowers, only lovelier and brighter.
If the crops were thus thin, the space between the stalks was fully occupied - for better or worse, according to the point of view. What was lacking in use had been given over to beauty. I never saw so many cornflowers.
The fields were simply inlaid with heartsease - not the ordinary long-stalked, small-flowered field variety of the south, scarce deserving to rank above a weed. Round as a sixpence, with space for each of the shades to come distinctly out, they were such flowers as we find on the dry short turf here, and even larger than our best.
All this would seem to show that our field violet is simply the miserable outcome of competition with the taller and stronger grain. If the heartsease first came here as a wild flower of cultivation, it must have been as it appears in the meadows or on these Orkney crofts, and it has slowly degenerated with improved methods.
These rude fields, thus carpeted out of all comparison, more delightfully than our own, were o'ertopped and almost o'er-canopied with gowans. Though this was doubtless owing to the bad soil and worse tillage, still it made them gardens of quite exceptional beauty. Within the dry-stone dykes, in many instances, grew elder bushes (bourtree). It seems almost unaccountable at first that such a soft-wooded bush should flourish in places so exposed and windy that not even the hardiest of shrubs has a chance. But so it is ! And but for this fact the outlook from the windows of Orkney crofts would be still drearier.
It chanced one day that a gentleman farmer - or as near an approach to one as the different conditions of Orkney agricultural life permitted - passed our way. Struck with the strange phenomenon of a tent where no tent should be, and which, like Jonah's gourd, seemed to have sprung in the night, he called to see what it might mean; and before leaving he courteously invited us to return the visit at his house, some few miles away.
Two days later found us out on the search in the direction indicated; for, after three or four weeks gipsying, a little social life of the unexpected sort comes as a relief. Hidden by a plastered wall of considerable height from the passing gaze, the cottage had undoubted claims to picturesqueness.
The inmates seemed to counterbalance the desolate surroundings by a cheerful inner life.