which now shows all the beauty of the sun, and by and by a cloud takes all away….
Shakespeare Two Gentlemen of Verona
A tropical island, the Caribbean, South Africa, the Mediterranean? No Charlie’s Beach on Eriskay (an island at the south end of South Uist and a ferry ride away from Barra). White shell sand glistens and shimmers, clear turquoise water invites, seals bask, gannets dive and sea eagles languidly move across the bay casually looking for the unwary morsel. Not even a zephyr of wind, only the gentle shush of waves to ripple the senses. When the wind drops, the sky clears and the sun appears I am in paradise once again.
Although a long way from “phew what a scorcher” Easter Monday was warm enough for an old-fashioned nature ramble and a picnic. The temperature was certainly not tropical, but it was warm enough to amble along without a coat, sit and dream, and eat fruit cake without risking hypothermia.
A change of wind direction often brings clear skies and a respite from the westerly winds and rain which accompany the Atlantic depressions. It heralds the annual outbreak of spring fever as we toil to finish the winter garden maintenance, juggle plants and seedlings, entertain visitors and get the holiday cottage running smoothly. So time to play truant and head for Eriskay. It may seem perverse to drive for 45 minutes with a picnic, all the naturalists’ paraphernalia (cameras, tripods, binoculars, maps, notebooks, and assorted accoutrements) and the “just-in-case” extra coats, fleeces, hats, gloves, waterproofs, to another island; when we have an equally good beach and wildlife on our doorstep. However, the traditional Bank Holiday expedition to the seaside would not be complete without loading the car with assorted miscellanea and the ritual of making a picnic. So a trip to Eriskay is our version of a “day at the seaside”.
Further south spring has dressed the countryside in verdant green and adorned it with flowers whilst the islands keep Hebridean time, lagging behind at leisurely pace. The first wild flowers: dandelions, daisies, primroses, violets and creeping willow, provide sustenance for the early butterflies and bumblebees, but most of the insects wait for the warmer days of May before emerging. Botanising in the early spring is challenging and often frustrating as identifying plants before the flowers appear is not for the faint hearted novice.
Each year we set ourselves a different challenge and this summer I’m brushing up my botanical skills and teaching myself how to identify ferns. Following in the footsteps of generations of botanists and standing on the shoulders of giants I am devoting my summer rambles to “sekyng of herbes and markynge in what places they do grow” (William Turner 1512-68). The fieldwork for the next botanical atlas of the British Isles has to be completed by 2019 and on South Uist there is a lot of ground to cover by the handful of botanists of the newly formed Uist Botany Group.
A gardener is often a botanist in disguise, so if you would like to get involved in recording wild flowers or just learn more about our native flora visit the Botanical Society of British Isles or Plantlife websites.