IT is interesting to ask the Lowland wild flowers : "Have you any kinsfolk among the mountains?" They will be eager enough to confess, however roundabout the relationship may be, since it is esteemed rather an honour, as was his kinship with the Macgregors in the secret heart of Bailie Nicol Jarvie.
"My mother, Elspeth MacFarlane, was the wife of my father, Deacon Nicol Jarvie - peace be wi' them baith - and Elspeth was the daughter of Parlane MacFarlane, at the Sheeling o' Loch Sloy. Now, this Parlane MacFarlane, as his surviving daughter, Maggie MacFarlane, alias MacNab, wha married Duncan MacNab o' Stuckavrallachan, can testify, stood as near to your gudeman, Robert MacGregor, as in the fourth degree o' kindred."
Marguerite, Dandelion, and Daisy shake their heads and say they are afraid not.
"Though I am so small and as dainty as they," says the Daisy sadly, "yet I am not an alpine, nor the sister of one."
Perhaps the Marguerite is least concerned, as being a soft eyed and rather stately Lowland maiden, who has no wish to be stunted.
The Primrose answers, rather vaguely, that she has heard of a relative, not in the hills indeed, but beyond them, who dresses ever so prettily in lilac, not in common yellow. Her cousin, the cowslip, once met her in Caithness.
"Lots," says the Lady's-mantle. "Next time you go to the Highlands, just mention my name, and they will come trooping down to the glen-mouth to meet you."
"Not so common as that," says that blushing coquette, the Day-catchfly. "There is just one little clan of my family that lives apart and quite select on their native hill. Some have been here on a visit, and seemed to like the place very well, although they kept to the grand garden, and never came out to see me here by the water-side."
"We believe we have," says the blue-eyed Forget-me-not - who could forget her? - and Veronica, "but they are far too high for such as we."
One would like a word with the gentians, if one only knew where to find them. They are absent from the hedgerow. They do not enter the woods, or lodge by the burn-side. There is not one, so far as I know, within miles of where I am at the present moment. So that most people have never seen any of them, and only a few know them, even by name.
The most accommodating of all still likes a matured piece of turf, or a firm springy river-bank, such as is not to be found everywhere. One appears here and there among the bents along the coast.
The handsomest of a charming family is one of the few British alpines absent from Scotland - alpine only as the crimson catchfly is - since it courts the soft Atlantic winds on the mild west coast of Ireland, and sets up its blue tent for a few spring weeks on the lower heights of Teesdale. The snow form holds the ledges of one of our four mountain gardens.
I have met these gentians in many situations, and never a tame one - in Shetland, in Orkney, amid unbented sand-dunes and bare precipices.
And to me they partake of the wildness, oft weird-ness, of their haunts.
Say to the Saxifrage, "Have you any Highland kin?"
"It would be more to the purpose to ask if we have any Lowland ones," will be the stiff reply. "Or, should we be so unfortunate, will a stream of rushing water acknowledge any relation with the portion withdrawn from it for the mean domestic uses of those who dwell on the banks ?"
So like their Highland pride ! And yet the boast would be true. They are our hill plants par excellence. Nor is it enough to call them the alpine of our alpines. They are that, and something more. They overflow the hills into more distant and drearier regions.
Just about the time when the blue violets are at their best, there appears among them a showy-white flower, not recumbent as they are, but upright, and twice as tall. It does not cover all the area of the violets - never, so far as I know, straying into the woods. It selects where the turf is fairly firm and old, with a marked preference for a slope. Such is the only Lowland relation of the saxifrages; but for which they could claim, as far at least as Scotland is concerned, to be a purely Highland clan.
This meadow haunter never ventures north so as to enter the home of the Macgregors, the stronghold of the saxifrages. Did it seek to scale the "promontory by one or two rapid zigzags along the precipitous face of a slaty-grey rock, which would otherwise have been inaccessible," it would only be to find these rude places held by relatives indeed, but such as might give it scant welcome. The feud between Celt and Saxon has been healed, but not that between Highland and Lowland plants.
Much about the same time that the white is adding to the brightness of the plain, the opposite leaved saxifrage is lending an early flush of purple to the hills. This is the form so very popular in our gardens as a rockery plant. It grows wild in these early months, when few are there to see.
One must wait a month or two after the spring meadow form has faded, and the autumn holiday enables him to leave the plains for the hills, before he will see any more saxifrages.
The first to greet him as he breasts the slopes, just after the earliest flush of heather has crept over them, is the yellow mountain saxifrage - not a form requiring to be searched for; it runs along the fenceless paths which wind round the mountains, between the bracken and the heather, with all the freedom and at-homeness of one of our commonest plants. A hillman would no more think of turning to look at it, than we at so many daisies and buttercups.
And yet, if it be the first time in those parts, one needs to waken up, so strangely unlike are they to anything he is accustomed to. Even now, often as I have been with them, I find myself pausing in wonder. There is that about alpines which makes them wild flowers indeed, and not simply by courtesy. They are rare, in the most delicate sense of that word.