In January the Hebrides can live up to their reputation of being cold, wet and very windy, so before cabin-fever sets in, as soon as the rain stops and the wind strength drops to blustery, it’s time to get out for a walk. Actually it’s more like a waddle with a full set of thermals, the thickest jumper I can find, a full set of waterproofs, wellies, etc., a rucksack and pocket stuffed with collecting apparatus, an elegant stride is not really possible.
After a storm you never quite know what is going to appear, it could be anything from a beached leviathan or more likely a seal (hopefully not to smelly) and tons of seaweed to something as mundane as a fish box or as romantic as a message in a bottle. On our beach what we really hope to find is driftwood. I’m not too fussy about size, anything from odds and ends for kindling to full size tree trunks for logs. Himself gets really excited about the pieces which are too big to be moved, as this means getting the chainsaw and various accoutrements (splitting wedges, sledge and lump hammers) down to the beach. I have no ambition to become an apprentice lumberjack so I’m quite happy to be the sherpa and carry the logs from the beach to the car.
The wood is mainly pine, but sometimes it can be rather more exotic – eucalyptus or redwood. If it has been in the water for a considerable amount of time it has gained its own flora and fauna, so before it is turned into firewood, scientific curiosity has to be satisfied and any interesting bits and pieces carefully removed for later examination. Most of the time the attached fauna are goose barnacles and whether fresh or slightly decaying they are incredibly difficult to scrape off, highly gelatinous, slimy and very smelly. Carrying logs with bits of barnacle adhering is not at all pleasant and the wood is stored outside the shed for as long as possible.
Splitting the logs can also reveal some equally slimy and smelly inhabitants. These are usually big-ear shipworms (Psiloteredo megotara), except that they are not worms but marine bivalve molluscs (like the inappropriately named goose barnacles). The shell is very reduced and used to bore through the wood, so all you see is the muscular tube-like body, or more often just the burrow in the wood.
They enter the wood as very small larvae, so from the outside all you see is a very small hole, but internally the burrow can be up to 20cm long and 10-12mm in diameter. This particular species is found in driftwood and is related to the notorious naval shipworm which bored its way, often with disastrous results, through wooden ships and the Dutch sea defences in the 16th century.
There are, are of course, some more interesting edible species to find on the beach, but in winter, unless you’re partial to whelks, winkles or limpets, it is a case of being grateful for some firewood and assorted natural history curiosities.
Sic transit gloria mundi – Northern summers are short and as August begins there is a whiff of autumn on the horizon. The days are already growing perceptibly shorter, but the glory of the machair flowers still lights up my in-between garden. Between my house, the sea, and Croft Garden Cottage lie over 18 acres of the most perfect wild garden.
The summer home of breeding lapwing, oystercatcher, redshank, snipe, elusive corncrakes, skylarks and pipits; the haunt of hen harriers, peregrine falcons, merlins and buzzards and a resting place for migrating geese and waders. There are butterflies, bumblebees, beetles, assorted bugs, other things with wings, carapaces, shells, some with slimy trails and those which buzz or hum. There are fungi in profusion, hopping frogs and cheeky rabbits; over 80 species of flowers, grasses, rushes and sedges, not counting the mosses and lichens. Rare or common, with or without names, they are all important in nature’s garden. I am not even an apprentice in this garden, I am the custodian and apart from inviting the cows to do a little grass cutting and manuring in the winter, I am required to do nothing but sit and admire.
As the summer progresses, the colours ebb and flow from white to gold, blue to yellow and pink to purple, the mosaic changes with the intensity of the light from morning to evening, day by day, month by month and sometimes moment by moment. It is ruffled by the fingers of the wind, speckled with crystals by the mist, saturated by the rain reflecting the ever-changing moods of a Hebridean summer.
Yet the picture is incomplete, gardens are multi-dimensional and not just a visual landscape. A backing track of humming insects, vibrating butterfly wings, the sush of the waves and the whisper of the wind accompanies the skylarks, drumming snipe, clamouring oystercatchers and the mournful the pee-wit pee-wit of the lapwings. An infusion of honey from lady’s bedstraw and clover mixes with the tang of salty sea air and with a tickle of grasses on bare feet releases the essence of summer.
This is a perfect garden and its transient nature is the quintessential expression of sic transit gloria mundi. For a garden it is and without some gentle intervention the biodiversity would decline as the natural succession of vegetation replace the flowers with a mixture of rushy pasture and tussock grass.
This was the situation on a piece of ground behind the house, between the solar panels and the shed. The first part of the restoration of this area was described in the Birthday Project post. Over the past two years we have been landscaping the area around the greenhouse and trying to turn it into a garden.
It would be pure hubris and folly to try to re-create or compete with the natural grassland which surrounds the house, so the intention was to compose a variation on the theme. Two years later, the landscaping has been completed and planting has begun in the small garden between the shed and the solar panels.
The beds have been edged with driftwood and beach cobbles and interspersed with broad gravel paths. Each bed is slightly different in its composition, some are lightly enriched with a little garden compost and given a bark mulch, others are almost pure sand with a gravel and pebble mulch. The soil is very well drained which encourages the plants to put down deep roots and as the minimal nutrition produces hardly, slow growing, compact forms, they should be able to withstand the gusty winds in this very exposed site.
Predictably there is no planting scheme or grand design, just a hazy vision and a vague concept. This is the evolutionary school of garden design – all trial and error. I have used plants which have performed well in the cottage garden – kniphofia, tulbaghia, astrantia, aquilegia, galtonia, nepeta, verbascum and scabious, added some herbs – chives, hyssop, thyme, sage and lovage, and some more experimental species such as dwarf iris, thalictrum, penstemon, dactylorhiza orchids, dicentras and pulsatillas.
The garden looks rather formal but as it matures it will assume a more relaxed Hebridean form. Seedlings (other than weeds) are already starting to appear in the gravel paths and some plants are becoming very assertive in their demands for space. I am inclined to let the garden settle and allow natural selection edit the original planting before I reach for my trowel. Although I have already decided that the lovage must go and that I need to remove some of the Viola tricolour, which is developing thuggish tendencies.
This garden was created to echo the perfect natural garden which surrounds the house and act as a bridge between the natural landscape and the unnatural intervention of the house and it’s associated structures. Perhaps there is always an element of vanity and ego in seeking to create a garden, but if the bees like it, that is good enough for me.
I promised I would tell you the story of the Reclaimed by Nature photograph – so if you’re sitting comfortably…..
Himself was asked to undertake a mission on behalf of the Lost and Found Fungi Project to try to find Peltasterinostroma rubi a fungus which was first recorded on bramble near Molingeanais (Molinginish) on the island of Harris in 1974 and has not been seen since. As Himself is the only resident mycologist on the islands we were keen to help and so an expedition was planned. This is hardly equivalent to searching for the holy grail, but in scientific terms a worthy endeavour. Mycologists with an interest in micro-fungi on plants are few and far between in the UK, so it is not surprising that very small black dots on bramble stems and leaves may have been over-looked.
During a settled spell of early summer weather in May we took the ferry to Harris, drove to Tarbert and headed east towards Scalpay. A few miles along the road is the footpath to Reinigeadal and Molingeanais on the east coast of Harris on the shores of Loch Trolamaraig. Harris is a very rugged island and although it is not a very long walk, about 6 miles, the climb up the slopes of Beinn Tharsuinn to the pass and down to coast is steep -maybe not for fit Munro baggers but perhaps for those who are more accustomed to rambling along the beaches of South Uist. However, the only reason it took 2½ hours to get to our destination was to allow time to look at the view and stop to record the flowers, lichens and other wildlife.
As we walked down the narrow path to the east coast the Shiant islands came into view and after a rapid descent we reached the gate to Molingeanais.
Molingeanais village comprises a few houses in a steep valley which cuts down to a small bay on Loch Trollamarig, at the mouth of Loch Seaforth. It was once part of the Scalpay farm and occupied by shepherds. In 1823 the entire population on the west of Harris from Bunamhuinneader to Loch Resort was cleared and the lease of Molingeanais was given to a family who had been evicted from Teilisnis on West Loch Tarbert. Other families arrived and the population grow to about 40 in the 1880s.
As in most coastal communities subsistence level agriculture was supplemented by fishing and the production of tweed. The herring fishery declined after the First World War and the village population slowly dwindled. After the war the Board of Agriculture encouraged families in Harris to relocate to new crofts at Portnalong in Skye. Although a number of families from Molinginish left a school was built in 1921. This continued until 1935 when the authorities withdrew the teacher and paid a lodging allowance for the children to go to school in Tarbert. This must have been a long hard walk for the children from Reinigeadal and Molingeanais each week, particularly in the winter gales, as the path reaches a height of 280m at the bealach (narrow pass) between Trolamul and Beinn Tharsuinn.
The last inhabitants died in the 1960s and the village is now deserted, although a pair of stone cottages are used in the summer by a local family.
This is a magical place, and unlike many of the abandoned settlements, is not troubled by the ghosts of those who were evicted or forced to leave when their way of life became unsustainable. The village is slowly being reclaimed by nature as the coastal ferns begin to take hold amongst the amongst the stones of the houses and primroses are now nestling old field banks and along the burn.
As for the fungus, we found a single bramble, which was remarkably healthy, but no fungus. However, I suspect we will be looking at brambles all summer for black fungal lesions. We might not have found the lost fungus but we encountered a magnificent green tiger beetle (Cicindela campestris) which appears to be rare in the islands and has not been recorded since 1977.