The roads on Islay are narrow and lined with bracken and wildflowers: delicate foxglove, creamy astilbe, lacy Queen Ann’s lace, Monet-colored lilies, and arching penstemon, as well as wild gooseberries, goldenrod, daisies, purple thistle, wild fuscias, and the odd lilac. A riotous border of color enclosing fields of lime green grazing pastures. This is the landscape Van Gogh would have painted had he been Scottish.
My favorite Western Isles wildflower is the ragged robin, not so much because of its looks (which remind me of a droopy pink daisy) but because they cheerfully bloom in absolutely the worst conditions imaginable—damp and peaty meadows. This silly flower just loves poor soil. In fact, the best way to kill it is to fertilize it. Which means that while it used to be found all over the UK, it’s pretty much died out, mostly because of all the fertilizers used in the fields. But there are still enough damp, forgotten fields on Islay where it blooms from May to September to put on quite a spectacular show.
The other thing I like about it is a story, likely to be apocryphal, that Charles told me. He said that a hundred or more years ago, young Scottish lassies use to grow ragged robin in summer, naming each of their plants after a boy in the village. The first plant to bloom would be the boy the girl was going to end up marrying. Sort of a Scottish version of “he loves me, he loves me not.”
Although almost everyone who comes to Islay does so for the whisky (myself included) it really has some spectacular flora and fauna. In fact, Islay has some of the most amazing birdlife in all of the UK (with over 180 species, it has the richest bird life in the Hebrides). There are snipes and lapwings, choughs, hen harriers, golden eagles, countless species of geese, and, of course, the ever secretive corncrake which, should you be lucky enough to spot one, looks a bit like a small pheasant.
Yesterday as I was walking through some heavy grass to take a picture of the ragged robins, I heard the distinctive rasp of corncrakes and followed the call to a clump of nettles. Two of the little guys hung around just long enough for me to snap a picture before disappearing into the thick grass.
Like ragged robins, they tend to depart towards the end of August, first of September. So for me to spot both of these rarities on the same day right next to each other was golden.
Comments are now closed.