IMAGINE that the woods round about are old. I They show every sign of being mere patches of a woodland of much greater size, - covering the whole space they mark out, - and were probably left on the less promising spots, mainly bare and exposed ridges, when the rest was broken up into farms. Many of these patches are still joined at the corners, and zigzag about in a manner which will admit of no other explanation.
Very curiously shaped some of these farms are, as they run in and out among the trees in a game of hide-and-seek. One part is cut off from another by an intervening strip, which the ploughman or the reaper must skirt or cross. So closely are some of the fields invested, that in broken seasons the farmer finds it hard to get the grain to ripen, until it is so late in the year that the sun only shows his face above the ridge for two hours at midday. Sometimes he is fain to cut it down for green food.
The age of the wood is shown in several ways, chiefly by the trees. The backbone, so to speak, is Scots fir. One half-expects this from the ridgy nature of the ground, and the bareness of the soil, which help to account for any trees being left at all.
The rest is mainly oak. Let no one suppose these to be of the brawny or spreading kind, out of whose giant trunks battleships were wont to be made. Such are not Scots oaks; at least, not those that share old woods with the fir trees. Straggling growths are these, suffering from poverty beneath, and shooting up their starved and lanky length in search of the upper light and air.
A few beech trees touch the sombreness with their fresh spring green. Though not perhaps to the manner born, or so ancient in their date, the beeches of our Scots woods more than hold their own. They grow to even greater size than the oaks, or carry more width along with their height. Than their shining trunks nothing statelier is there. Scots rooks select the branches for their nests.
Ash and poplar are more in the open, and run along the lanes which join the wood patches.
Under the fir trees, the under-growth is whin. Where the beech tells of deeper soil, the broom flowers, though less freely, and with more appearance of leaf, than out in the sun.
The floor, too, is tell-tale: it is rude and unkempt. No one ever planted a forest there. The site is elevated, reached by a sudden rise of several feet from the river. It is really a moorland stretch, in a shallow depression of a chain of hills, whose summits are about three miles away.
No soft wood-meadow grasses grow here; the hard yet graceful waved-heath grasses are a little more silvery of hue than those of the open; that is, in so far as there is room for grasses of any kind, amid the blaeberries and other moorland and mountain shrubs.
These woods of fir, with their mingling of oak and sprinkling of beech, and their rude undergrowth and carpet, are typical of Scotland.
The patch I most care for is two miles away, and involves a climb of another two hundred feet. It has a further mark of antiquity in its name. It is called "The Emmocks," probably the wood of the ants. A cart-road, marked by two running streams clown the wheel tracks in winter, and scarred by two dry stony channels in summer, leads up the face of the ridge.
Why the farm at the top was called Balmy-down, no casual visitor could ever find out. But those who knew the scene best, and loved it most, guessed that it must have been christened on one of these summer days when it plainly suggested its name; that is, if the word means what it seems to do, which I by no means vouch for.
Looking down over the grass park, or the whispering heads of the wheat to the stream below, and beyond to the picturesque patches, whose wounds time had healed, cool in their firry darkness, and relieved by touches of soft green, the natural eye, aided by some association, could scarcely seek for anything more fair.
The cart-road passes behind the farmyard, and leads along the crest of the ridge to the wood, some half a mile beyond. At one time, no doubt, all this was shadowed by trees. The path-side vegetation still bears traces of the ancient state of things ; for it is a long time before the natural growths can be entirely rooted out, and the rudeness refined away.
A dry-stone dyke separates the wood from a road which has been cut through its midst. Long enough time had passed for nature to soften and level the top, under a layer of turf, woven of rare moorland grasses, over which dainty panicles danced. The curious among the woodland plants leapt up where they could see both ways, and so an ungainly fence was made into a linear garden of wild flowers. To step across is to be with nature. One finds himself under tall, graceful, silver-barked birches. The birch is accommodating. In exposed situations it can shorten itself, and yet remain the chief ornament of its rude, rocky, and elevated sites. The fir hard by is gnarled and twisted by the storms which sweep the mountain - side, though often intensely picturesque and characteristic in its way. The willow becomes stunted, and takes refuge in lowliness; the birch clings and cowers with feminine grace - or when a woodland tree, as here, it can lengthen itself in competition with the tallest, until its topmost branches emerge into the upper air and light, even beyond those of the statelier beech, and all without losing aught of its proportion. The oak has struggled up, too; but what an overgrown, long-drawn-out gawk it looks in comparison!
The wood floor is distinctly moorland - more so even than that of the patches farther down. To the waved hair grass has been added the ruder, stiffer - altogether less graceful - mat grass. The moorland shrubs, too, have been considerably increased. In addition to the blaeberry, common to all the woods, I can gather the rose and white flower of the cowberry, and, here and there, the purple vase of the crowberry.