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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 18 January 2017 by Tim Ingram

'A genuine spirit of localness'

'Who has the hills for lover, he finds them wondrous kind.'

These words, which anyone who has climbed and explored mountains will immediately identify, preface a wonderful little book written by B.H. Humble in 1933 entitled 'Tramping in Skye'.

The Isle of Skye, the Highlands of Scotland, the Western Isles, are places I've dreamed of visiting all my life. And just a few hours on Skye, as part of a week based at Fort William (first and foremost for my daughters to 'bag' Ben Nevis) has opened my eyes again, more than anywhere else, to the wonder and magic of the hills. These are a few pictures first of Ben Nevis from Fort William and an attractive meadow near to where we stayed.

It's a tough climb, especially on a hot summer's day (after drizzle most of the week!), and I think I would prefer keeping to lower paths and looking more closely at the plant life - but an experience, and the views from the summit are fantastic.

To the west of Fort William are regions of mountain wilderness which would be hugely enjoyable to explore, and ultimately of course the Isle of Skye, which has attractions floristic, geological and palaeontological, and historical. Our time there, and the need to catch the evening ferry to Mallaig, only enabled a short tour down to the small settlement of Elgol on the Strathaird peninsula. But the view from there across Loch Scavaig to the famous 'Black Cuillin' is unforgettable and majestic, and to read the accounts of others who have explored the island, deeply enticing.

It's not so hard to understand why, and B.H. Humble's book, describing a walking and climbing tour around the whole island, not far off a century ago, reads as any contemporary story of exploring. Not so much changes in a hundred years to a landscape such as this, and perhaps neither does the mentality of the people who live amongst it, or travel to experience it, despite the technological wizardry of the present age and our quest to peer under every stone and understand every event. In a way, which is precisely true from those introductory words, the hills invite you to discover them and then remain fixed in the memory.

The mountains of Scotland, their geological history and age, compare closely to parts of Tasmania in the Southern Hemisphere, and the Black Cuillin resembles in its jagged form and magnificence, the 'Western Arthurs' in the south-west of Tasmania. These I have climbed and remember as the most remarkable mountains I have ever seen or been amongst, so this view of the Cuillin in Skye has no doubt recalled those pervasive memories of 35 years ago! This is what has captured my imagination and encouraged me to write a little about our short visit to Scotland, just as after visiting Tasmania I wrote a short article for the AGS Bulletin entitled 'Idylls in Tasmania'.

My interest in plants is deep and scientific, but really it is the mountains and their geographical and geological diversity that have made the habitats for the plants that fascinate us so much: and that sense of ecology, the way plants 'clothe' the landscape intrigues me more now than the intimate details of their botany - though of course the two can only go together. I would love to visit Skye again to learn more about the latter and see some of the rich alpine plant sites, but really this is just an excuse to follow B.H. Humble in his description of tramping across the island!

George Borrow, in his famous book 'Wild Wales', came up with the phrase 'a genuine spirit of localness' and this captures in those few words the essence of travelling and discovery - and more, its very personal nature for the viewer. Poring over maps and reading the adventures - the experiences - of others conveys the thrill of discovery, but as B.H. Humble says of Blaven - Blà Bheinn - (the peak described by many as the finest on Skye) this is only really true when you first round the bend in the road and it comes into view looming over Loch Slapin: 'I envy the tramper who has yet to see Blaven burst into view at that bend in the Strathaird Road, who has yet to witness his first Skye sunset, who has yet to climb his first Skye mountain and behold the Hebrides'. This is the view of Blaven he describes - and of the hugely contrasting Red Cuillin alongside - but the sunset and the climb and the view of the Hebrides we have yet to experience!

More detail beckons...

And, from the viewpoint of how this can lead to regeneration of the natural vegetation of parts of the Scottish hills - which has been so denuded over the centuries before - the remarkable description of the Carrifran Wildwood Story, as well as at Glencoe (which we stopped at on our way home). If time allows I might look at these in more detail.

B.H. Humble was a man of many talents; a climber, filmaker and photographer - by profession a dentist - and also an alpine gardener!

These are a few passages from his book which caught my eye:

p.45, 'From the bridge over the Snizort river can be seen a small island, which has an ancient burial-ground among the ruins of one of St Columba's churches. Here we had a pleasant surprise, for in this road there are more trees than we had seen since landing in Skye. For a mile and a half the road, bordered by beech hedges, winds through woodlands. It was a welcome change from the naked moorland we had come to expect, and shows what could be done for Skye were afforestation carried out on a large scale.'

p.60, 'Southwards from Dunvegan we had the best walking day of all. A day's heavy rain had left the countryside sweet and fresh, with the homely reek of the peat and the scent of bog-myrtle pervading the air. All day long we were either climbing hills from loch to loch, or walking by a loch-side, with ever changing views of sea, loch, land and mountains around us, and the mighty Cuillin in front beckoning us on.'

p.131, 'Go then, walker, to Eilean à Cheo, while you are young and strong of foot. Tramp over its peaty moorlands. Explore its noble corries. Climb its high mountains. And may you have 'cloud-white wander weather.' '

Unashamedly romantic and true.


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