I begin to notice certain marks, placed evidently by human agency, at stated intervals, and leading in one direction. There are too many of them to be meant for shepherds, who presumably are very much at home on the hills; and they are evidently guides to a more general public.
Glen Isla is a cul-de-sac, much more complete than Clova. The only way out at the top end is to climb. And this route, rising steeply to upwards of three thousand feet, to drop as far on the other side, must be the way to Braemar. The thought calls up the finger-posts of yesterday, with the amusing sequel. Happily, there are not two ways. Nor does there seem scope for any choice up here.
A gamekeeper is on the outlook for me, but this time with no hostile intent. These hills are free to the curious, under the not unreasonable conditions that visitors shall be as careful as possible not to disturb the deer when it is getting near the shooting season. It is a big playground for two to have hide-and-seek in, especially when one is not sufficiently acquainted with the local names to profit by minute directions. With the best intentions in the world, we fail to meet until I call at his cottage in the evening on my way back.
I daresay I missed a little in consequence, for he seemed to be an intelligent man, who had made himself acquainted with all that was interesting in the district. From his knowledge of the hills, he might have guided me more directly to where I wished to go. But there is a good deal in searching out for one's self; for, even if one does not find out so much, he keeps a better grip of what he has. On this and other visits, I managed to stumble across what was best worth seeing; and I do not think I have forgotten anything.
I had looked on all the forms many times before; and I seek to keep myself as free as possible from that form of curiosity which dearly loves to snare a secret, and would fain worm out of every pawky gamekeeper what he has to tell or to sell.
The chief treasure of the place - whose whereabouts, in the opinion of some, all the mountains were placed there to hide - is the snowy gentian. The man who is able to say "I know" is an object of envy. It is a pale blue annual of some three inches high, which peeps over the ledges overlooking the caen in July and August, and rains down its seed alongside and on the ledges beneath, for next year's bloom.
It seems to grow only here and on Ben Lawers. One can account for widely-spread alpines that are found in every likely situation, more easily than for those isolated forms, such as this snowy gentian, or the yellow oxytropis, whose whole area may only extend over a few ledges of rock or a few square yards of turf. How was the seed or pea from which they sprang dropped down? If their tenure is as ancient as it seems to be, then how, in the many ages before botanists existed, did they not manage to spread farther?
In contrast with this minute snowy gentian is the blue sow-thistle. It is a case of the giant and the dwarf. This sow-thistle - not a thistle - is a curiosity in its way. The typical alpine is a fairy. Such is a necessity of its existence. The scanty food, the exposure, the frequent need to pass rapidly through the flowering and seeding stages, all forbid strong or leisurely growth. Minuteness is the broad distinction between a hill plant and that of the plain.
The sow-thistle is the only, or at least the chief, exception. It is an alpine, and yet has the robust growth of a Lowland form. It grows up the wildest branch of the gorge. I wish to visit it, and struggle up under increasing difficulties by the side of a torrent which rushes ever more rudely down its boulder-strewn bed. Exhausted, I sit on a loose rock, upon whose surface, in course of time, a soil has gathered and shrubs rooted themselves. Never were such blaeberries, for number and size, as grow on that rock.
When one turns his face backward after a day's ups and downs, he begins to feel his sores. There is now nothing ahead to make him forgetful. His pace settles down into a certain dogged, uninterested, out-kneed paddling along, which has been likened to that of the German band,
On looking in upon the gamekeeper, I find him wonderfully good - tempered after his fruitless errand. He shakes his head over the idea of climbing in the mist as foolhardy, and relates some harrowing incidents which had recently occurred on these same hills.
And then he proceeds to describe, in a certain dramatic fashion of his own, the different characters that come there in search of flowers, and the need there is to discriminate. Some of these sketches were worth reproducing, but that there are those who might persist in finding in these pages a looking-glass. From similar reports, and from my own observations, I feel that too much caution can scarcely be exercised if we are to retain the proud distinction of being the land of flowers of a certain very rare and excellent sort.
The risks to our wild plants are not exactly the same, or likely to be so speedily destructive, as those which threaten our wild animals. Any losses up to the present time must be sought for among Lowland forms, through cultivation, drainage, easy access, and other obvious causes.
Probably no upland species has been reduced to the dire straits of some of the birds of prey which dare to find a meal on the moor or in the covert.
They lead a passive and innocent existence, and are in no one's way. Dwelling in a zone of their own, which nothing cares to dispute, they flush the bare slopes with colour, gladden the desolate heights with the signs of life, and furnish a welcome bite to the ptarmigan.
The danger lies rather in the indifference than the hostility of the proprietors, who are careless as to their fate - in many cases ignorant of their very existence. If they keep back the would-be spoiler, it is lest he disturb the game, and not lest he root out the wild flower.
The gamekeeper is more aggressive. His Highland fastness is invaded every summer by eager spirits from the south, such as my friend so graphically described, and he is besieged by questions as to the whereabouts of the alpines. He has taken the hint to look round about him when he is out, and mark the places where anything unfamiliar grows. He uses his advantage skilfully.
He is now ready to supply whatever is wanted for a consideration, and even to guide the more liberal to the spot. Such perquisites make a sensible addition to his wages. Once informed, each newcomer is master of the situation, and may become a guide in turn.
The footsteps of greed desecrate the stillnesses, and the hand of greed lays more waste even than curiosity or false enthusiasm. Where so many are anxious to possess and willing to pay, there are sure to arise sellers; and so quite a trade goes on in alpines. In addition to the amateur who forages for himself and his friends, the professional plant collector is abroad, whose business in life is to hawk on his own account from door to door, or to act on behalf of some man who keeps a nursery.
Two forces are thus at work - the man who lives by it; and a certain uninteresting type of tourists and lodgers, who have not yet learned the first lesson taught to all well-bred children - to look at everything and touch nothing.
It is not so easy to draw the line between a wise conservatism and an unwise interference as many seem to think. There is another side to the access to mountains agitation not visible to those who simply theorise from the plain. Sometimes when abroad on the wilds, with blue cloud-flaked sky overhead, and many-shaded plain three thousand feet beneath, I have been annoyed at the restriction placed on my freedom of movement by some officious gamekeeper.
And before the day was out I have been equally annoyed at the liberty allowed to another, who was digging and tearing at his own sweet will, and generally doing as much as he could to make the hills not worth climbing.
Something might be accomplished if proprietors once more rose above the commercial spirit, which was wont to be no part of the furnishing of a gentleman, and, setting themselves to find out what was best worth preserving on their respective properties, watched over these with the utmost jealousy - if, among other things, they took as much trouble to make themselves acquainted with their wealth of alpines as some of their servants find it profitable to do.
It might seem Quixotic to suggest a close-time for rare and beautiful plants, to be fixed, as in the case of animals at the breeding-season, when they are flowering and seeding for another generation. But surely the same restrictions which guard our game should be placed around those relics of a glacial age, - which belong to Scotland because she is what she is, which were there before the Celt, or even the earlier race he dispossessed, and are still more a part of the scene than the grouse or the ptarmigan.