The date of its coming was the sixteenth century. The vanished hand, in this case, that of Mary Queen of Scots. Amid her amiable weaknesses, Mary seems to have included a liking for plants, and may almost be traced from place to place by the relics she has left behind. Archangelica appeared in 1568, a year or two after the return from France, and may with some probability also be credited to Mary.
A Forfarshire den which I am in the habit of visiting, is noted among dens for its depth of shade, and the wealth of the flowering and flowerless plants. There true wildlings grow along with many a suspicious native. Everyone knows that Solomon's seal is much more difficult to get rid of than to plant. On being carried or thrown out of the garden, it will run its stolons under the outside soil in quite a get-rid-of-me-if-you-can sort of way. At one time it must have been placed there with a view of enriching the flora of the den.
Now it chances that on the top of the rock, a hundred feet or more above, there stands a castle of more than ordinary interest, as contesting with another the honour of being "The bonnie house o' Airlie." The vanished hand may have stretched from there. We cannot now deny the plant a place among our Scottish wild flowers, without including many another of the same den in our Index Ex-purgatorius.
A defile of much more modest dimensions seems even richer than this, inasmuch as the many rarities are gathered into a narrower space. It has been called a paradise of flowers. I always suspect these paradises, where the wildlings I had searched for, separately, over many miles, are all huddled within a few yards, and mingled with other flowers not growing elsewhere outside an enclosure. I find myself asking for a reason.
Early in the year the rocks dipping steeply down to the cool water are covered over with the great heart-shaped leaves, and brightened with the big yellow flowers of Leopard's bane. A faint sweet smell woos me aside to the violets growing among the grasses of a bank. Though acquainted with every yard of the country, I know no other bank on which the sweet violet nods. Why should it be here?
Not fifty yards away, on the very edge of the rocks o'ertopping the Leopard's bane, is another castle of sixteenth-century date, once in possession of the Grahams, kinsmen of "Bonnie Dundee." Not much more than a stone's - throw away, a quaint building marks the site of Claver-house itself.
It may be that there were hands gentle enough for the work even in that rude fortress, and that these things may have been planted much about the same time that Mary was enriching the garden of Craigmillar Castle. At all events, this place was inhabited, and either the gentle or the simple must have placed them there.
If one looks for rare things in the neighbourhood of castles, the rude engagements of whose inhabitants left them neither time nor taste for trifles, and whose women had often to unsex themselves; much more confidently may he turn to the peaceful surroundings of monasteries, and the placid lives of monks. So much is said against these persons, who, if the truth were kown, were probably neither better nor worse than modern divines, that it is pleasant to record something in their favour. And naturalists have reason to be grateful to them for more than one service.
On the north bank of the Tay, not far from the bridge, there are certain banks and woods widely known for the luxuriance of their flowers. The primroses are taller and more sweetly pale and scented than elsewhere, and, contrary to their habit, grow so close together, as to preserve through April and May an almost unbroken sheet of colour. The atmosphere is delightful.
Hither the Dundee maidens appear, to gather, not one by one, but in handfuls; and, furnished all too soon with what they come for, linger about until the evening, and return with baskets which freshen the streets and the jaded passers-by. Above the pale and lowly primroses rise, upon their stalks, the darker-coloured cowslips. Now, the cowslip is not nearly so common in Scotland as in England; partly, perhaps, for the want of dry permanent pasture. Such cowslips, as we have, frequently find niches for themselves in the curious corners of woods. Nor do the Scots cowslips look quite the same as those found growing on the English meadows. The smaller paler flowers of the latter give it a more truly wild look. Here the whole plant is larger, and more like the garden variety. This may be partly accounted for by its woodland haunts, where the struggle for existence is not so keen as in the meadow; or, when growing in the open, may point to a more suspicious origin.
It might be too much to say that the cowslip is not native to Scotland. But, wherever it grows in such abundance, in company with a profusion of common flowers of the sweeter kinds, the hand of man has probably had something to do with it. And the only hands, vanished all of them, that could have so enriched these Balmerino banks, and so added to the charm of the scene and the happiness of the lives to come after, belonged to the monks of the adjacent monastery.
Where primroses and cowslips have grown so long together in sweet fellowship, one may pretty confidently start on the pleasant hunt for oxlips. If Oberon knows a bank whereon the oxlip grows, depend upon it, the cowslip is in the meadow, and the primrose in the wood hard by. This form is easily picked out, even at a distance, by the larger flower of the primrose on the common stalk of the cowslip.
Hybrids between closely-related species, in plants as well as animals, are doubtless commoner than we are aware of. All that is needful, in many cases, is that the parent forms mingle freely on the same scene. But this is not always so easy to detect, nor does it occur in the same marked degree. Violets, albeit approaching as closely as primrose and cowslip do, on the common margin of wood and meadow, modestly veil their attachment. If oxlips are not more frequently observed in Scotland, it is simply for the lack of cowslips.
A rarer and more undoubted legacy of these Balmerino monks is "the lily of the valley." Unhappily, it is an example also of the tendency of attractive plants, when they are sweet-scented as well, to disappear behind the garden wall. There is reason to believe that its tenure of Balmerino is already a thing of the past. The same fate must have attended it elsewhere. Like "none-so-pretty," it remains and thrives when the last stone of the cottage has fallen, and, by the aid of its underground stolons, spreads marvellously amid the rubbish.
It is so rare in Scotland, that many lovers of wild flowers who have searched the country well-nigh all over, never saw it growing wild. Here its presence suggests the vanished hand.
Guide-books tell us that, common in England, it thins out toward these boreal regions. As if it were the most natural thing in the world for a wild flower, at once so lovely and shelter-loving, to select the shade and rich depths of southern woodlands.
A closer acquaintance with its true nature shows the preference to be rather strange than otherwise. So far from being delicate, it is one of the hardiest of wild flowers; so far from being a shy woodland plant, it has no objection to stare the sun in the face.
The lily of the valley can, on occasion, become the lily of the mountain. Travellers to Norway find it growing in great abundance on bare rocks, near the perpetual snow-line.
Like many another, it may have come too late to the edge of the channel, and been debarred from crossing by the inflowing of the water. Afterward, it may have been introduced into English woods, mainly through the gardens; and much about the same time to the banks of the Tay. Nor are these the only gifts we owe to the monks; nor the rarest flowers that grow, or grew but yesterday, around the old monastery of Balmerino.