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Plant Life in the Scottish Highlands
The Native Forests of the Scottish Highlands

The Scottish Highlands as a whole do not support a very large amount of forest, and much of what there is, is not native forest, but has been planted by man.  Fairly extensive areas of mixed woods occur in the west as at Beasdale in Morar, and in most of the glens of the Southern Highlands, but extensive woodlands are the exception in this great highland area.

However, we find in the Highlands one of the largest areas of forest in Britain.  This, the great pine forest of Rothniemurchus is over twenty miles in length and three to seven miles in width, covering the whole of the floor of the Spey Valley between the Cairngorms and Aviemore and stretching more brokenly beyond that to Kingussie and Boat of Garten.  Much of this great forest has been felled, much has been planted by man, but large areas of native forest exist to show us what the forest was like in its ancient grandeur.

The Scots pine is to be found in smaller groups on the edge of the Moor of Rannoch between Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy and around Loch Tulla.  It is t be found again in Deeside, where some of the oldest pine in Britain area to be found.  Most of the glens have scattered patches of pine in their lower stretches.

I am not going to describe the many great plantations of pine and spruce to be found in many corners of the Highlands, for most of them are of recent origin and do not possess the associated plants to be found in the old established forests.

Most of my descriptions of the pine forest and its associates will be of Rothiemurchus Forest, which if the finest pine forest to be found in the Highlands and contains many interesting plants which are only to be found beneath the shade of its ancient trees.

I have many delightful memories of Rothiemurchus, and the sough of the wind in the dark leaves of its pines is always with me.  No one who has wandered amid the noble trees of this forest could feel anything else but a sense of uplift in its magnificent setting.   Nestling into the bosom of the noble Cairngorms whose grand skyline shows up magnificently in a framework of pines, this forest is full of hidden lochs, of noisy mountain torrents and of quiet glades where the roe-deer pass like phantoms among the red trunks of the trees.

In early June the hot sun brings out the perfume of the pines, a never-to-be-forgotten, delightful odour that one wishes to pull into the lungs along with the sparkling mountain air.  The gnarled and twisted pines growing out of every precipice and bank look like the bodies of tortured giants, their shaggy head still held aloft in proud defiance.  Peace, a deep and soul-easing peace, is here.  A mountain torrent babbles eternally among it rocks and secret pools, a curlew pipes mournfully from a distant bog and the wind soughs in the pine needles like the sea on some forgotten strand, hissing gently as it caresses the sand.  Beyond that, silence, deep uncanny silence, as if one were in the presence of God and in the presence of the centuries which these great trees span.

And as one reflects, one thinks of those huge forgotten forests that for all but their roots have disappeared from the face of the hills.  The lost forest of Rannoch; what titanic disaster uprooted and destroyed this huge pine forest and turned its pleasant glades into a wilderness of bog and stone where death awaits the unwary and the winter gales how with unbroken ferocity?  In every glen and valley we find the stumps and roots of ancient pines.  Departed probably as are the men that felled them or the fires that destroyed them, departed, never to return.

And as I recline on an uprooted giant in this secluded corner, the setting sun throws vast shadows across the forest.  A silence even more profound seems to grip the trees, as if all Nature waited in awed silence for the night.  Beyond, the Cairngorms are bathed in an ethereal pink glow; dusk descends on the forest, but for more than half an hour that pink glow remains as if the sun were loath to quit the corries and deep glens.  At last the faint glow leaves the highest peak of Cairngorm and the twilight falls.  An owl commences to hoot among the dim pines and I realize that I must be off, for many a man has been lost as night fell in this labyrinth of trees and paths, and the spectre of the Bloody Hand is still supposed to wait for those who are lost after nightfall in this black forest.

With Rothiemurchus forest are associated some of the most delightful spots in Scotland.  How much the pines have contributed to this!  What would Loch-an-Eilean be without its encircling mantle of pines?

This jewel of the Highlands lying among the black pines like a diamond on black velvet, where in Britain shall we match its beauty?  Loch Morlich, Glen Feshie and Loch Garten, what would they be without the pine trees which soften their otherwise barren shores and the rock-strewn wastes around them?  We have our answer in upper Glen Einich and Loch Avon, whose stark somber grandeur cannot be matched elsewhere in Britain.  What a difference the pines which once clothed upper Glen Einich would make!  How they would soften its grimness!

And now that we have described the beauty and charm of the pine forest let us study the reasons why these trees flourish in these places.  Let us study the individual tree and see how it is fitted to the land it has chosen for its own, and how it differs from other plants in its leaves, flowers and seeds. 

And lastly, let us study the lowly shrubs and flowering plants that are associated almost exclusively with the pines and are rarely found beyond their shade.

Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris)

The Scots Pine flourished on soil which is always well drained, as it cannot stand water-logged soil around its roots.  Debris washed down from ancient moraines and consisting mainly of sand and pebbles makes an ideal soil for this tree and, for this reason, it flourished exceedingly well in glacial debris of the Spey Valley.  Similar conditions exist on the Rannoch Moor area and in Upper Deeside.  It also grows on steep hillsides, especially those of a granite nature, its roots penetrating into the cracks and crevices of the rock in order to find a safe anchorage.  These trees are often contorted into queer shapes.

The Scots Pine has deep-striking roots which penetrate to the moister layers beneath the surface.  It will face conditions of drought without fear and flourishes on soil that is practically sterile.  It also produces many horizontal spreading roots which ramify in the surface soil, rich in humus.

We do not find the Scots Pine at very great altitudes in the Highlands. In the Rothiemurchus area on the north-western face of the Cairnogrms the limit of the pine is 1,750 feet.  Above this limit there are no pines.  On the fringe of this frontier area the pine is very dwarfed and stunted, sometimes of an espalier growth.  On southerly slopes the limit is somewhat higher.

The reason for this upward limitation is to be found in the force of the wind, the intensity of the cold and the shortness of the growing season.  This upward limit is very important for it marks the frontier between the lowlands and sub-alpine regions and the real alpine regions.

The Scot Pines is easily recognized from other conifers by its reddish coloured bark and by the fact that it usually only has branches near the summit of the trunk, the lower ones dying off as the tree grows.  The crown of branches has a somewhat shaggy appearance, and this, with the rugged grandeur of the trunk, makes the tree blend magnificently with its wild surroundings.

When growing in exposed or rocky places the Scots Pine often branches near the base and the trunks may be greatly contorted.  It attains a height of 100 feet in the sheltered valley of Speyside, but it is little more than a shrub at its highest limit.

The pine is different in many respects from other plants.  We must remember that it is a member of the group of plants call Gymnosperms, which was well established millions of years before the trees and plants with which we are familiar today, and it still retains many primitive features.

The leaves are peculiar in being borne on short deciduous shoots, known as ’dwarf shoots’.  Two leaves are produced on each of these very short branches.  They live for several years but are eventually shed, and when this happens not only the leaves but the ’dwarf shoot’ also is lost.  The leaf is thick and needle-like in form with one flat face and one rounded one, and possesses a very thick, leathery epidermis which prevents excess transpiration.  The stomata are deeply sunk in the epidermis to the same end. 

The needle-like leaves expose a small surface to the wind and give little surface to which the snow can cling in winter-time.

The flowers of the Scots Pine are very different from those of other plants.  It would require a very long and technical description to show how their flowers differ from those of ordinary plants.  Suffice it to say that the females flowers possess no style or stigma and no ovary, the ovules being quite unprotected by an outer covering, whilst the stamens consist of anthers only , produced on the under side of a sale.  This shows us that the pine belongs to a much more ancient flora than our other much further advanced flowers and trees with their complicated arrangements of petals and sepals, stigmas and ovaries and colour and perfume.   The ancient world, before the evolution of the bees, must have been a grim and dreadful place where flowers with their beautiful colours and perfumes had not yet arrived.

The flowers are wind pollinated and on a dry sunny day in spring the pollen drifts in golden clouds among the somber trees.  The pollen grains possess two bladders which act as wings and are beautiful objects under the microscope.  These aid the pollen in its journey from the stamens to the female catkins.

After pollination, the female catkin becomes woody and forms the familiar pine cone consisting of hardened scales arranged like the tiles on the roof.  Each scale covers two winged seeds.  These cones hang on the tree till the following year, when on dry sunny days the scales open and the winged seeds fly away, often to considerable distances from the parent plant.

The Scots Pine is the only indigenous pine in Britain and is only native in the Scottish Highlands.  Other conifers such as Spruce, Silver Fir and Larch, although often forming extensive plantations in the Highlands, are planted, these trees not being native to any part of Britain.

The pine forests and woods of the Highlands are the home of many interesting plants which are either only found beneath the shade of the pines, or, if not entirely associated with them, are at least typical of these black forests.

They include the beautiful Pyrolas, of which all the British species are found in our northern forest; the Orchid (Foodyera repens), which is peculiar to the Rothiemurchus area and (Corallorhiza trifida), a strange saprophytic orchid found very rarely in the pine woods of the eastern Highlands; and the two shrubby plants Whortleberry (Vaccinium Myrtillus) and Juniper (Juniperus communis).

Other plants such as the Yellow Cow-wheat, the Red Bearberry, etc., are found in the pine woods, but they are just as common on the moors or in other types of woodland and so have been described under their appropriate headings.

Juniper (Juniperus communis)

Under the shade of the black pines we do not find the dense undergrowth of the mixed woods.  For one thing the amount of shade is greater, and secondly many plants cannot live on the humus formed by the pine needles.

One of the large plants that thrives among the pines if the Common Juniper.  This shrub or small tree, usually two to five feet tall, but sometimes attaining twenty feet, is, like the pine, a conifer.  It thrives on dry soil, being like the pine a xerophyte. It is very bushy and much branched and is clothed with a dense, evergreen foliage.  The leaves themselves are in whorls of three and are like fine, short needles, ending in a prickly point.  They are bright green on the under surface, but are glaucous and of a blue-green above, so that when viewed from a distance the plant has a grayish appearance.

The Juniper is also a Gymnosperm and its flowers, as in the pine, are of peculiar character.  Both male and female flowers are found on the same plant; the females consist of three to six fleshy scales surrounding the naked ovule and forming a rudimentary carpel; the males consist of broad, shield-shaped scales containing three to six anthers and arranged in small catkins.  As in the case of the pine, the flowers are wind pollinated.  The wood, leaves and branches have a sweet resinous odour.

After pollination the female flowers form globular, dark purple-blue berries which are greedily eaten by such birds as black-cock, grouse and capercaillie.

Whortleberry (Vaccinium Myrtillus)

My first acquaintance with this lowly shrub was among the pine woods and heaths of Surrey, where I spent some of my happiest boyhood days, and I have many happy memories of halcyon days in July and August among the purple heather, as I helped to fill the purple-stained baskets with the luscious purple-black fruit of this prolific plant.

It is a far cry from the balmy hills of Surrey to the bracing northern forest of Inverness-shire where we find the Whortleberry as abundant under the pines as on the southern heathlands.  Its fruit in the north is much finer flavoured than in the south.

The Whortleberry is a small glabrous shrub which barely exceeds six inches to one foot in height.  Its roots are creeping and send up a tough woody stock which is covered in green, slender branches, which are quite sharply angular. They produce very thin ovate leaves, which are shed each autumn; at this time the pine woods exhibit a magnificent picture.  The leaves fade to a bright reddish-yellow and form a carpet of brilliant hue beneath the sombre trees.

The flowers are in bloom in early spring, about April or May, and are not very conspicuous, being like small globular bells which are greenish at the to shading into white, the edge of the mouth being tinged with red. 

These flowers are very interesting structures and their manner of pollination, which is the same with small modifications as in the other species of Vaccinium, is well worth studying.

Each little bell contains a pistil consisting of a long style, which is surmounted by a round stigma which projects from the mouth of the bell.  Each stamen commences at the base of the bell and its style is a flattened stalk which is surmounted by two flagon-shaped structures, which are in effect two half-anthers.  Behind each of them are two horn-like structures, each of which has a pore-like opening.  When a bee visit’s the flower, it grips the smooth bell by its slightly recurved rim and its body comes in contact with the stigma which matures before the stamens.  It leaves any pollen obtained from an older flower on the stigma, thus pollinating the flower.  On going to an older flower, the bee pushed its tongue between the stamens in order to reach the nectar secreted at their base.  Its head touches the horns on the back of the anthers and the pollen is jerked out over the bee.

After fertilization the flower fades and a green berry takes its place.  By August the berry is the purple-blue fruit covered with bloom which we love in our preserves and is so greedily eaten by the forest birds.

The Wintergreens (Pyrola)

The Highlands are rich in members of the Heath Family for besides the three common heaths, we have the Whortleberries, the Bearberries, the Menziesia, the Trailing Azalea and five Wintergreens, so we can see that this family is certainly very successful in our mountains.

The Wintergreens contain five beautiful British species all of which are to be found among the pines of Rothiemurchus.

It was a glorious July afternoon when  I first made my acquaintance with this lovely genus.  The morning had been wet, but the clouds had parted, and from a brilliant blue, rain-washed sky the un shone down with added splendour.  Large, white, woolly clouds sailed across the sky like great galleons, bringing out in fine relief the majestic outline of the Cairngorms.

Below in the forest the rain drops dripped from the pine needles, and that delightful aroma of deep earth and vegetation, augmented by the hot sun, mad the forest more beautiful than ever.  In grassy glades, where each blade of grass was adorned by rainbow-coloured  drops of water, the brilliant blue flowers of the field gentian shone like jewels.

Suddenly among the Whortleberries, heaths and mosses below a great pine, I saw w white spike of flowers which from a distance looked like the lily-of-the-valley.  I pushed my way through the wet undergrowth and on arriving at the place where I had seen this strange plant I found that it was a beautiful Wintergreen, its tall stem adorned with a spike of little white, bell-like flowers, shading to pink near the base.  Closer examination proved it to be the Lesser Wintergreen (Pyrola minor).

The Lesser Wintergreen has a tough, almost woody underground stem from which arise one or two tufts of ovate leaves.  These are three to four leaves in each tuft and these are on very long stalks.  They are thick and shiny on the upper surface and a few usually exist throughout the winter.  In late spring the tufts send up a long naked stalk which sometimes has one or two small scales near the top.  This stalk produces a spike of several white flowers, each of which hangs downwards like a small bell and has a small bract at the base of its fragile stalk.  It is a bell-shaped structure, but the petals are not united as in most bell-shaped flowers, and they curve inwards at the tips to close over the stamens.  They are a beautiful smooth white, delicately tinged with pale rose-pink.  In this species the style is longer than the stamens which are enclosed in the corolla.

The pollination of this flower occurs in a very interesting manner.  The stalks of the stamens are bent backwards in the form of an S, and are in a state of tension like a bent spring, being kept in position by the petals.  The opening of the anthers at this time faces downwards, towards the base of the bell.  When a bee arrives at a flower, It grips the slightly recurved rim of the bell with its feet, and pushes its tongue among the stamens to reach the nectar-secreted by the nectaries at their base.  This releases the stamens, which uncurl and throw their pollen over the face and head of the bee.  On going to another flower it leaves some pollen on the projecting stigma.  Bees and flies also arrive for the pollen only.

Round-leaved Wintergreen (Pyrola rotund folia)

In Rothiemurchus we can also find, quite frequently, the beautiful Round-leaved Wintergreen (P. rotund folia) and its variety P. media.  It has fewer and larger flowers than P. minor, being larger in all its parts.  It is an exquisitely beautiful flower which looks as though carved in ivory.  It differ also in the length of its style, but otherwise is much like P. minor.

The One-sided Wintergreen (P. secunda) is another plant which is comparatively rare in Britain, but is frequently found in the Rothiemurchus area.  Its habit is rather different, the stock being more woody and creeping and sending up many leafy shoots.  The leaves are thin and finely toothed, being oval in shape and not round as in the other species.  The flowers are arranged in one-sided spike and are small and of a greenish-white.  It Is found at higher elevations than the other species and is much rarer.

One-flowered Wintergreen (Moneses uniform

The remaining species, the One-flowered Wintergreen (Moneses uniform) as beautiful and dainty a flower as one can find in Britain.

I know a spot in a deep, secluded glen in the Cairngorms where a wild torrent roars ceaselessly over its boulder-strewn bed, and a fine spray caresses the feathery ferns which retain their vernal freshness almost into the autumn.  No path disturbs the tranquility of this delightful spot, where only the roe-deer brushes the dew-drops from the bracken, as it slips like a phantom between the trunks of the pines.  Hidden deep in a mossy dell at the foot of a shattered precipice, one can find a small natural grotto among the fallen rocks and here nestling in the damp moss is a colony of this delightful wintergreen.

This is one of our rarest British plants and one can only find it in a few secluded spots in the pine forests of Inverness-shire and Aberdeen-shire, where it conceals its fresh loveliness like a beautiful nun who hides from the world behind the convent walls.

It is the almost wood stock of the other species, while the leaves are thick and shiny like those of Pyrola minor.   It send up a flower stalk surmounted by a single, very beautiful, blossom.

It is of pure white and unlike the other species is not bell-shaped, the petals spreading.  The stamens are not kept in position by petals, but their stalks are spring-like and on being visited by an insect they dust it with pollen as in the case of the other species.  It does not produce any honey, hence it has not adopted the bell-shape which is a device to keep the nectar for long-tongued bees.  It is visited by pollen-collecting bees such as the masons and by flies.


The great forest of Rothiemurchus contains yet another flower which is peculiar to its particular area.  This is the Creeping Goodyear (Goodyera repens), a member of the aristocratic family of plants, the Orchidaceate, the only member of the family to be found in the Rothiemurchus forest.  In certain remote pine woods of the eastern Cairngorms and Highlands we can also find the Coralroot (Corallorhiza trifida), a saprophytic orchid.  The Highlands are rich in orchids, but these two rare species are the only ones to be found in the pine forests.

Creeping Goodyear (Goodyera repens)

This orchid is very common in the Rothiemurchus and other forests of Speyside, but is very rarely found beyond the valley of that river.  In many places countless numbers of this little plant carpet the ground beneath the pines, often being the only plant to be found among the pine needles. The reason for this will be given later.

It has a shortly creeping rootstock which sends up a single stalk to a height of six inches to one foot.  Near the base are a few thin, ovate leaves.  The flowers are arranged in a one-sided spike and are inconspicuous and of a greenish-yellow colour.  Each one grows in the axil of a small, greenish bract.

The fertilization of these flowers like that of all orchids is very interesting and is a marvelous insight into the inner workings of plant life.  I will endeavour to describe it In an ensuing chapter dealing with our other Highland orchids (see Chapter XIX).

Coralroot (Coralorhiza trifida

To find this strange plant we must search for it in certain remote pine woods of the eastern Highlands.  It is a very interesting plant for, unlike the other plants that we have met, it is a saphrophyte, ie. a plant that lives on decaying vegetable matter like a fungus.

I know a secluded glen not far from Glen Clova where a colony of pines clings to the steep hillsides and fills the head of the deep valley.  Here is the darkest corner, where the light seldom penetrates, it a family of Coralroots.  They stand among the gnarled roots of the pine like ghosts, for in their stems and bract-like leaves there is no colour.  Pale, brownish-white or pale yellow, they are more like fungi than flowering plants and a closer study of an individual plant will show us why they are so different to ordinary plants.

In the vegetable world most plants obtain their nourishment by means of their roots and leaves.  The roots, especially the fine hairy rootlets, absorb the salts held in solution in the moist soil (ie. nitrates, phosphates, etc.)  The leaves, with the aid of the chlorophyll contained in specialized cells, absorb by day the carbon-dioxide of the air to form carbo-hydrates (ie. starch and sugar).  These are stored by the plant to be used as it grows.  When in autumn the leaves fall to the ground they contain some of the stored-up carbo-hydrates.

The plant world, however, contains plants known as saprophytes which have given up this way of living.  The Coralroot belongs to this section.

It lives on the nutriment contained in fallen leaves and dead mosses, and as these contain the ready-made products required by plants it follows that leaves and roots as possessed by them are not required; but it cannot make use of this foodstuff directly.

It has got over this difficulty as follows.  In this plant we meet the phenomenon of symbiosis, ie. the combination of two organisms to the mutual benefit of each other.  A kind of fungus, know as a mycorrhiza, lives n the outer tissues of the rootlets.  This fungus absorbs nutriment from the surrounding decaying vegetable matter, making it available to the orchid.  At the same time the fungus obtains nutriment such as carbo-hydrates from the plant.  Without this fungus the very seeds of the orchid cannot germinate.  This amazing interdependence of plants and fungi is common in the plant world, especially in those living in soil containing much humus. The pyrolas, heathers, the pine and goodyera all above their own mycorrhiza.

Above ground we find that the plant has no chlorophyll and is of a yellowish colour. It has no leaves, these being reduced to thin scale-like bracts.

Thus, this plant, like all other saprophytes, and their cousins, the parasites, who have given up an honest way of life and stoop to theft and easy methods to obtain a living, is branded by the loss of its leaves, its colour and its roots.

Even its flowers are inconspicuous and devoid of beauty when compared with other orchids.  They are of greenish-yellow colour and form a loose spike of five or six flowers, each one being contained by a scale-like bract.

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