WREN - Wester Ross Environment Network


Recording the flora of West Ross

Wester Ross is particularly renowned for its spectacular mountains, many of them off the beaten track, in the "great wilderness". An Teallach from Dundonnell
In fact though, as you will see elsewhere on this site, it has a wide range of habitats, from seashore to mountain-top ... but undeniably the few roads, the inaccessibility of much of the area and the fact that few botanists have ever lived locally mean that even today much of it remains relatively under-recorded when compared to other parts of the country.

One positive effect of this is that it can be relatively easy for those with even modest plant identification skills to make significant advances in our knowledge of the local flora. In doing so, they will be treading in the footsteps of some of the earliest Scottish botanists.

In the beginning ... beaming botany

At present, the earliest known plant records for West Ross date from the visit by James Robertson in 1767.  He visited Loch Broom, where he found crab apple, (wych) elm and “Crataegus aria/White Haw or Beam tree, [which] grows plentifully on the rocks at the head of Loch Broom": this was almost certainly rock whitebeam (Sorbus rupicola; rare) which still grows in a few places in that area.

Have Lightfoot, will travel

Shortly afterwards, in July-August 1772, a more determined field trip was made by Dr John Lightfoot and Thomas Pennant during their “Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides”.

They landed first at Loch Kanaird, north of Green spleenwort & holly-fern at Knockanwhat is today Ullapool (this settlement was not founded until a few years later, in 1788), and beside Loch Broom recorded annual sea-blite (Suaeda maritima; local) and common saltmarsh-grass (Puccinellia maritima). On nearby mountains they added the local but widespread dwarf cornel (Cornus suecica) and alpine willowherb (Epilobium anagallidifolium). Travelling north to Assynt, at Knockan Crags on the far northern boundary of the vice county, they found the limestone specialities green spleenwort (Asplenium viride; local), mountain avens (Dryas octopetala; very local) and holly-fern (Polystichum lonchitis; local), all of which can still be seen there.

Dundonnell from Pennant (1774-6)Setting off south, a storm forced them to take refuge in Little Loch Broom, where they were offered hospitality by the MacKenzie family at Dundonnell. Nearby, “in moist, hanging birch wood … call'd Ca-buch” [Cadha Buidhe?], they recorded coralroot orchid (Corallorhiza trifida; the first British record for this species – but never seen since in West Ross!) and creeping lady’s-tresses (Goodyera repens; now decidedly local in West Ross), as well as the fern moonwort (Botrychium lunaria; local but widespread). Moonwort

On mountains near Little Loch Broom, they found the now very rare alpine enchanter’s-nightshade (Circaea alpina) and wintergreen (Pyrola minor); the local but widespread three-leaved rush (Juncus trifidus), lesser twayblade (Listera cordata) and bog bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum); and they claimed to have found blue moor-grass (Sesleria caerulea; never seen since in West Ross). Going south to Kinlochewe – escorted past Loch an Nid and the “whitish marble” of Meallan an Laoigh – they recorded alpine bearberry (Arctostaphylos alpinus; now local) in the mountains. Travelling north-west along Loch Maree on a six-oared boat, they visited the wooded Inchmaree [Isle Maree], and by the loch found filmy-fern (apparently Hymenophyllum tunbrigense, now very rare in West Ross; H. wilsonii is more common), serrated wintergreen (Orthilia secunda; now local), and Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris; happily, this is still a stronghold for this species). After being entertained at Poolewe manse by the minister, they rode to Gairloch, near which they found tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), still occasionally recorded today as an escape from cultivation. From there, they sailed south to Loch Duich.

Altogether, these records attest not only to the sharp-sightedness of these two early explorers but also to how much richer the flora was before the advent of widespread grazing by sheep. It would not be easy to find many of these species nowadays by following in their footsteps.

Victorian ventures

A relatively small trickle of further botanical records accrued during the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century, from such as Professor Robert Graham (who visited in August 1842); “A. Davidson” (whose records were largely unlocalized, and may anyway – since he entitled his 1873-4 list “A Flora of Ross” – have referred to East Ross); and Professor Churchill Babington, from Cambridge (whose Ross-shire contributions to H.C. Watson’s monumental Topographical Botany of 1874 were also unlocalized), who visited with Professor Borrer from Glasgow.

The indefatigable Druce

Watson’s 1874 book seems to have proved a turning point, because it had shown up how poorly the wild plants of West Ross had been recorded up till then. From 1881 onwards, the leading botanist George Claridge Druce began to visit the area and for the first time its flora was systematically studied and described.  As Druce later wrote (in his rather self-important tone), “The compiler of Topographical Botany was very anxious that I should investigate the flora of the county, which was one of the few vice-counties which had no list of common plants. The result … was that I found on this journey, in August 1881 … 358 additions to the flora as a result of a very strenuous fortnight’s work.”  From his detailed itinerary there is no indication that he made contact or liaised in any way with local naturalists; he just hit the area like a thunderbolt. His initial findings were published in 1882 in the Report of the Botanical Record Club for 1881, as a "West Ross County Catalogue".

By profession a pharmacist in Oxford, Druce was a highly accomplished field botanist (albeit what we should now term a ‘splitter’, with a penchant for creating new scientific names for minor variants). He was blessed with amazing energy: one has only to read in his diary of how, one day in 1881, having walked in atrocious weather from Stromeferry to Glen Shiel, he still climbed Sgurr Fhuaran in Kintail for that evening’s recreation! In addition to studying the plants of West Ross, in 1886 he published a flora of Oxfordshire; in 1887 a flora of Berkshire; and in 1926 a flora of Buckinghamshire. 

Druce visited again in 1887 and 1889; in 1893 (“I noticed 480 species, of which over 70 were additions… The vice-county list was therefore made up to over 570 species” ), 1894, 1903 and perhaps in eight or nine years between 1910 and 1926.  This activity culminated in 1929 in the publication of his very detailed The Flora of West Ross. Given that he was never resident but instead built this up over a series of short holidays, it still stands today as a remarkable snapshot of the vice-county’s plant-life, and an extraordinary achievement.

Druce versus Dixon

Another notable landmark, shortly after Druce’s first arrival on the scene, was the publication of J.H. Dixon’s Gairloch (1886), which provided a wealth of invaluable local information which still makes a fascinating read today, including [in Chapter VII] a list of “Flowering plants of Gairloch” [which also included ferns, but no grasses or sedges]. Dixon recorded that he had drawn on the assistance of other local enthusiasts, including Lady Mackenzie of Gairloch, her step-brother-in-law Osgood (of Inverewe fame), Mrs (later Lady) Fowler of Inverbroom, and (again?) A. Davidson.  There is no mention of Druce and, to judge by the species listed (or not listed), it seems unlikely that Dixon was even aware at that stage of Druce’s work.

Sadly, Dixon’s book gave very few locations, so is of limited use in informing us what these resident naturalists really knew and where. Given some of the montane species listed (e.g. dwarf birchBetula nana, and net-leaved willow, Salix reticulata, which both have their stronghold today in the hills north of Braemore [hinting at input from Lady Fowler?]), it is evident that the plants were found widely within West Ross, almost certainly extending beyond the parish of Gairloch – from Gruinard Bay, east to the Fannichs, south to east of Kinlochewe, west to Loch Torridon – and certainly not just within the area of aggregated townships immediately bordering Loch Gairloch as “Gairloch” is more narrowly understood today. Without doubt, they included some plants of questionable identification and some unquestionable mistakes, for example claiming the [very southern] musk orchid (Herminium monorchis) for West Ross; not including eared sallow (Salix aurita) at all, though it is a common plant; and, as Druce scoffed, confusing hemp nettle (Galeopsis tetrahit) and white dead-nettle (Lamium album)…

Reading between the lines, it looks as though there was an almost inevitable clash between Druce, the cocky ‘incomer’, and the ‘native’ naturalists, well-meaning but not nearly so knowledgeable. As a person, perhaps the result of a difficult early life, Druce was highly egotistical, with a seemingly “insatiable need to be admired”. Was he perhaps piqued not to have been mentioned in 1886 by Dixon? Even so, need Druce have been quite so damning of Dixon and friends’ efforts? As he wrote in his 1929 Flora, “It would probably be safer to ignore the greater number of [Dixon’s] records, and probably too much generosity has been shown by including as many as are given”! To be fair, Druce cites Dixon as the source of the first record for some 55 plants, but the Dixon references he gave are liberally peppered with assertions such as “probably an error”, “needs confirmation”, “I have not been able to find it” and “Not seen by me and needs verification”. Adding insult to injury, for about twenty species Druce himself claims the credit for having made the first record for plants which Dixon had earlier listed: the latter was even denied the palm for a commonplace weed such as curled dock (Rumex crispus)!

In later years Druce obviously benefited from the hospitality of Lady Fowler, and clearly credits a number of her records from Loch Broom and Coigach. However, with hindsight, I find the gulf between Druce and the other Gairloch naturalists to be very obvious: something that must surely have robbed us of information about plants and sites with which they were familiar but on paths he never trod (see below about narrow-leaved helleborine). [To follow ...]

© Duncan Donald, 2012

Some current projects

Winter can be a difficult time of year to identify many species of plant in the wild, because they die back or go dormant, but it is actually a very good time to look out for junipers.

Being evergreen, they tend to stand out from the surrounding vegetation (though care has to be taken not to confuse them with gorse, which is generally darker in colour).

Please send any reports of junipers found in West Ross to Duncan Donald.


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WREN would like to thank the following organisations for their support:
Scottish Natural Heritage
The European Agriculture fund for Rural Development. Europe investing in rural areas
The Highland Council
The Scottish Government

Tom Forrest (Chairman) chair@wr-en.co.uk

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