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‘The naming of the configurations of the land is intimately connected with the Gaelic language, and the Gaelic language is intimately reflected in the nature of that indigenous landscape.’

The Changing Outer Hebrides is a voyage of discovery, a fascinating book that focuses on one small village in the Hebridean islands to explore the connection between nature, community and place and how they nurture a ‘sense of place’. In this extract we look at the wonderful plant life of Galson and the cultural history of naming them.

 

Extract taken from The Changing Outer Hebrides
By Frank Rennie
Published by Acair

 

Carnivorous plants, and other delights

As we were walking on the moor one early-Spring morning, following a narrow stream-side sheep-path, winding beside the Allt Grunndal, my eye was captured by a small splash of vivid green among the uniform grey-brown clumps of Heather. The Heather had not yet begun to develop its new-season growth, so the contrast with the lime-green moss was quite startling, and when we drew closer, the reason for its presence became obvious. Wedged among the Heather tussocks was the dried and decomposing remains of a gull which had perished over the winter, probably snuggling inside the maze of tussocks for a last, fruitless attempt to gain shelter and warmth. The green moss was growing on the white carcass. In this nutrient-poor soil, the carcass of the gull would have been a bonanza for the moss, adapted to take advantage of any passing opportunity to suck up sustenance whenever a chance presents. Nor is this uncommon, for several species of plants on the moor of Gabhsann are wonderfully suited to this challenging environment. Among my favourite plants, although they are fairly common here with their red-and-green starburst outlines, are those that are exotically, and intriguingly, carnivorous.

When we hear mention of ‘carnivorous plants’ most people probably imagine strange Amazonian man-eaters, or perhaps something in a dreadful B-list movie Hollywood horror film, but there are half-a-dozen delightful species dotted across this northern landscape. Delightful, that is, unless you happen to be a Midge, or a small fly, because a couple of species of Butterwort, and three or four species of Sunflower specialise in trapping and digesting small insects to secure their scarce supply of nutrients. It was Charles Darwin who first demonstrated that some carnivorous plants capture insects as a source of nitrogen and phosphorous, but if you get your nose right down near ground-level and search among the moss, it is easy to observe the process for yourself. Over the short northern summer, the little green buds of the Sundew burst into a new phase of life and develop a rosette of sticky green leaves covered with tiny hair-like, red fibres. Apart from the clue in their English names, the Round-leaved Sundew and the Oblong-leaved Sundew are perhaps difficult for the botanically inexperienced observer to differentiate, but the leaves of the former are roundish and lie mostly flat on the peat and grow on the higher, drier parts of the bog surface, while the latter have leaves which are gently inclined or even erect, and prefer the lower and damper parts, even on open and water-covered areas of mud. Small insects are attracted to the colourful leaves, but get covered in their sticky coating, and are eventually dissolved by the enzymes which are released by the plant to secure its nitrogen intake. Once trapped on the sticky leaf, the struggles of the insect only serve to encourage the production of more digestive enzymes, and hasten the consumption of the insect.

There is also another species locally, the Great Sundew, but while the three species share the same geographical coverage across the Gabhsann landscape, they each prey on a slightly different range of insects and prefer to occupy subtly different microhabitats on the moor. Botanists have shown that the rate of insect capture increases with the area of the leaves, and that the growth of new leaves is directly related to insect capture.

Surprisingly, the Sundews are not the only carnivorous plants on the Gabhsann moor. Despite being regarded as botanical oddities, it has been discovered that several plant species have adapted to survive in sunny but wet and nutrient-poor habitats such as peat-bogs, where the nutritional benefit gained from capturing insects can give them an edge on survival. Although unrelated, two species of Butterwort are also found on the moor of Gabhsann and they too obtain their nutrient intake by capturing and digesting insect prey. The Common Butterwort and the Pale Butterwort can be harder to find among the ground vegetation, because they do not have the self-advertising red rosette of the Sundew, and they can be difficult to find among the Sphagnum mosses until the flowers bloom. Called ‘pinguicula’ after their fat, glistening leaves, and ‘butterwort’ because of their application by early peoples to curdle milk and produce a yoghurt-like fermentation, the Butterworts have a distinctive delicately blue flower, held on a long stem just high enough above the sticky leaves to ensure against trapping potential pollinators instead of a potential meal.

The Gaels, who have inhabited this landscape longer than anyone can remember, have named every part of it that was familiar to them (which is in fact everything) as did the Norse settlers, who came, stayed a while, then left or intermarried. Some people say that, as a general rule, the names of places which can be seen as landmarks from the sea, have names derived from the Norse, while the inland names were given by the Gaels. Superficially this has some truth, but as always there are many exceptions and oddities. There are names of places which betray a Norse derivation, but which are rendered now in the Gaelic mode of spelling. There are place-names whose meaning and origin are now lost beyond time. What is clear from the topographical nomenclature is that the Gaelic-speaking inhabitants were intimately familiar with every part of their landscape. The naming of the configurations of the land is intimately connected with the Gaelic language, and the Gaelic language is intimately reflected in the nature of that indigenous landscape. Land which might be simply called ‘moor’ in English has a wide diversity of descriptive names, based perhaps on the geomorphology, the colours, the predominant covering of vegetation, and/or the perceived usefulness of that land. This land is not the deep, fertile farmland common further south, but it is neither a wilderness, nor is it bleak. Neil Gunn, in one of his Highland novels The Other Landscape, explores the concept of a hidden landscape beyond the visible one. He describes it to be like to having two similar conversations with different men and liking the first man but distrusting the second because some ‘other conversation’ in the subconscious background led him to detect features and characteristics which gave different interpretations of what he could actually see. Some people read landscapes like this, and these are the impressions that I have as I walk, and work, and live in Gabhsann.

 

The Changing Outer Hebrides by Frank Rennie is published by Acair, priced £16.95,

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