I know several lethargic folk who would not climb a dozen yards for all that nature has to offer, and yet think no labour thrown away in the search for something abnormal. I have seen the precious sprig carefully unwrapped, and displayed as the chief outcome of a month in the Highlands.
The only thing that can be said for the craze is, that it does not hurt anyone else, and probably results in certain indirect benefits. The flush removed from the heather may be confidently looked for in the cheek of the searcher.
These are the only heathers within reach or sight, or for miles around. Indeed there are only three heathers in Scotland; unless I include the trailing azalea on the ridge overhead, and the yew-leaved menziesia confined to the Sow of Atholl. But these, though belonging to the same family, and somewhat resembling them in outside appearance, are not heaths in any strict sense, but mountain plants.
The whole three have been adopted, once and for all, by different Highland clans; from which it appears that these interesting Celts believe them to be distinctive of their elevated regions. I remember an Edinburgh student who wore an eagle's feather in his cap; and it was said that he alone had a right to it, because he was the son of a chief. Since eagles have been bartered by Highland chiefs for grouse, the prejudice ought not to be quite so strong. In some such hostile spirit the favoured tribes may regard any unauthorised Lowlander or foreigner who affects the rose, the purple, or the pink.
Towards their summits the highest hills have a barer look. The heather seems to be thinning out, as if it were approaching its limit in that direction. Into this seeming bare region I shall ascend tomorrow.
From my feet, and also down the opposite slope, the heather runs away to meet below, or only to be divided by the breadth of the stream. There is no appearance of exhaustion, no sign of reaching any limit that way.
On seaside moor, protected only by the sand-dunes from the invasion of the waves, I have found all three round about me, as I do here. Moorland stretches on the sheltered inlands, very little above sea-level, yield heather which seems very vigorous and very much at home.
However low down I am, there I find myself with the heather; whereas, if I ascend, I increasingly leave the heather behind. Not all three at once, but one after the other.
The purple flush does not reach to the top of the heather region. It ranges only to some fifteen hundred feet high. By looking keenly, I can just make out the irregular line where it ceases, or fades into the duller shade above.
The rose heather grows in patches, and nowhere covers a great area. It must be sought after by those who desire it, and may be found in almost any moist place up to about two thousand feet.
That into which the purple fades away is the pink. Hardiest of the three, the ling continues to climb. It alone forms the broad belt of dark shrub, scarcely lit by its blossoms up to the higher alpines. Through it, mainly, one wades for the third thousand feet of the ascent. It is in these higher reaches that the white sprays should be sought for.
This is the Highland heather, in so far as there is such a thing. The crofter puts it to endless uses, and finds it invaluable. To its services as a broom it is said to owe its name, Calluna, to cleanse. The more poetic rendering, to adorn, refers to the charm it lends to the surroundings.
The common view, therefore, that Scotland is the natural home of the heaths, because it is so mountainous, is only very partially true. It would be much nearer the truth to say that Scotland marks well-nigh the northernmost limit of the heath zone, and only three of the hardiest of an immense family have been able to penetrate so far.
If hills and hardship had anything to do with it, then the east side of the North Sea is still more favourable. The scene is more broken, the climate severer, and more arctic than our own. If this were a northern type, we should expect to find it flourishing there; whereas the first thing that strikes a visitor to Norway, next to the abundance of alpines, is the scarcity of heaths. This came as a surprise to the experienced members of the Scottish Alpine Club.
"I climbed," says Archibald Geikie, "a slope, clothed with luxuriant masses of ferns, bilberries, and cloudberries;" but no mention of heaths.
We are accustomed to associate grouse and heather. Yet the Norwegian willow grouse, in the absence of that shrub, thrives on something else. Our own grouse are heather birds indeed, alike in tint and diet; but not hill birds, seeing that heather is not a hill shrub. Some were doubtless driven to the slopes, whose sole advantage is their dryness, as a last refuge from the plough. As many still live on the plain as the scanty patches of lowland moor left will support.
The ling alone seems able to bear the severity of an extreme climate. It penetrates within the polar circle, and appears on the arctic lowlands.
If this is the case toward the north, what about the other direction ?
Scarce in Norway, and poorly represented here, the heaths increase in the number of species as they tend farther south. Passing down, in a not very broad belt, they culminate in the south of Africa, where they are known to grow in endless variety and loveliness. Thence all the delightful species which glorify our greenhouses, and may sometimes be coaxed to grow outside, come. The heathers of the Cape, and the primulas of Europe, are the just boast of all who possess them.
Thus, if anyone is justified in using the shrubs as badges, it is not the Highlander, but the South African. I can imagine a Scottish emigrant opening his eyes at the unexpected revelation, and a visitor from the Cape saying, "Do you call that a heath?"
Of the non-Scottish, though British, heathers, there are other three - the spring flowering Irish heath, with racemes of pink flowers, made more attractive by the dark exserted anthers; the large-belled, fringe-leaved heath of Dorset; and the dull, heavy Cornish heath.
These, with their varieties, prefer the milder conditions of the west of Ireland and the south of England; and their affinities are with southern rather than with northern species. Thus the ling of the arctic lowlands, and the vast profusion of the Cape of Good Hope, represent the two extremes.
All this has been said in the interests of exactness, and with no intention of destroying illusions which I most fervently share. There is still enough heather in the Highlands, both for man and grouse.
Long may it be before the search for the white sprig ceases to put the pink of the blossom into the pale cheeks of maidens, and the vision of the purple, even though it actually reveal itself nearer home, lure men "north again."
Long may the holiday seeker - already half recuperated by the prospect - from his corner in "The Flying Scotsman," cry gaily to envious friends on the platform, "For the heather!"
Even if there is not much that is new in her rose or purple or pink, Scotland has still an unapproachable background against which to present them. Never heather on the plain looked like this.
The sun has long dropped out of sight, and the summits are fast losing their distinctness of outline. The hill-burn is beginning its twilight song, so different, if only in imagination, from that of broad daylight. Shadows are deepening under the woods. The stream runs like a thread of silver down the dimming glen.
Tidy housewives come out to the cottage doors. Their voices reach me here. The saunter down is worse than the climb. I feel wondrous stiff; and tired enough to sleep soundly, even on my procrustean couch.