Best time of year for the outdoor life
Simmer Dim has to be the most exquisite item on the entire Shetland menu. There is nothing with which to compare it and no amount of explanation, description or even clever photography can get anywhere near the experience of standing in the late evening, under that incandescent, quietly rapturous sky and watching its colours shift silently, sungaets into the dawn. High moorlands can be transformed into strange dream landscapes, as pools and lochs relinquish some of the day’s warmth in threads and streams of mist, which rise and coil upwards, vanishing into the luminous intensity above.
Nothing but birdcalls punctuate the stillness. In the high places, golden plover and curlew combine songs to weave a soundtrack to match the setting, but wherever you choose to stand, the sea is never far away and seabird cries too filter through the air. Sheep never seem to sleep. There will be a few somnolent bodies, slumped, heads-down into the heather, but some will still be grazing and the sharp cry of a lamb can send little shock waves through the silence.
The night of the 21st of June seldom seems to meet the expectations however, frequently arriving with cloud and even rain. Year after year it is the days before, or just after which manage to bring cloud-free evenings and grow steadily more and more translucent and breathtaking. Maybe Sunday night this year will be the exception. But there have already been several really fine Simmer Dim nights. Monday night was as near perfect as you could get, and I found it hard to go back indoors and head for bed, while outside the show was only just beginning.
Perhaps in Shetland the national curriculum should be suspended on such days, while classes take sleeping bags, groundsheets and flasks of hot chocolate to the nearest high, wild hilltop. Now that we have speaking and listening skills to acquire, much useful work could be done, while watching and witnessing the slow motion procession of colour, sound, light and atmosphere. Even some astronomy could be taught, as although the intensity of light masks many stars, the brightest can still be seen in the darker edges of the horizon.
Outside, in wide, open spaces, surrounded only by wild habitats and bird calls, it is far easier to feel part of a miraculous living planet, exposed to unimaginable forces of heat and light, vast space and distance. Experiences of this nature, as many an outdoor centre teacher knows well, can be life transforming for many children. The stark beauty and the power of it can last a lifetime. Some parents already take their youngsters out and share the occasion, but for many, the thought of a risk of cold and damp are just too much to cope with.
Tearing myself away from Shetland’s primal “son et lumiere”, it was another stark, wild place which tempted us north last week, with visiting relations from the Isle of Mull. The Keen of Hamar with its Serpentine Fellfield was high on the list of places to see in Unst, as although I had made several visits there in the past, I realised that it was actually teens of years since the last one. This time, thanks to Access Shetland, the visit was easier and the small explanatory panels were useful reminders of the three botanical stars of the show.
Shetland mouse-ear or Edmondston’s chickweed, Norwegian scurvy grass and Northern rock cress all survive in the most hostile of environments.
The Serpentine fellfield of the Keen of Hamar looks very different from the granite fellfield of Ronas Hill. The serpentine here has weathered a lovely gingery brown, but scattered among them, and there are tiny fragments of darker, greenish rock, frequently flecked with shiny, soft, almost crystalline panels in. Like a medieval tapestry, the ground is evenly scattered with these green and ginger stones and hundreds and thousands of equally tiny and dainty little plants, all growing in their own little space, seldom touching each other.
After a considerable hunt, we finally found the glory of Shetland’s botany; the Edmondston’s chickweed just coming into flower. We walked for a good half hour, but saw only half a dozen of these extraordinary little plants. The stems and leaves are remarkable, perfectly adapted to their bare, windswept, exposed habitat. They are short, thick and hairy, without a trace of green, just a rich, purplish red in colour and growing tightly in a low clump, as close to the ground as they can get. Fat little purplish buds were opening and a few of the delicate, forked petalled flowers were open. They really are beautiful and I have to acknowledge real gratitude to all those throughout history who have worked to protect this weird habitat and all its precious cargo of plants.
We only came across a single Northern rock cress, a tiny, apologetic little single stemmed cluster of peerie white flowers, only inches high. But there were plenty of more familiar floral faces to be found. Kidney vetch was prolific, but again, only in small, individual plants, each with maybe half a dozen flowers on. There was an odd thing about them though. Normally a rich butter yellow, most of the plants here had pale cream, almost ivory flowers. There were a very few of the deep yellow “normal” ones, so I need to find out more. Was this a special kidney vetch species?
There was a lot of heath milkwort. The intense gentian blue flowers seemed to be their usual, diminutive size, but among them were occasional colour variations. We saw a lot of the deep pink ones and as well as some white versions, some faint pink and still more of the pure white variety. I would love to know if research has ever been done on these milkwort morphs, to try to establish whether the different colour forms are truly the same species, or different ones, which set their own coloured flower seeds.
Tormentil was creeping across much of the Keen and these flowers looked very much like their widespread Shetland cousins, low, straggly and not in any way forming tiny tufts as certain plants did, among them the sea plantain. Here in this extreme habitat, the plant formed little, dense clumps, almost like starry domes. The individual rosettes were star shaped and each had a tiny tuft of white fur in the centre. The grey/green miniature mounds were plentiful, almost making a visual background to the scene. Strangely enough, I saw not a sign of the usual neighbour, Buck’s horn plantain, with its tiny branched leaves, just like little antlers. Maybe this plant doesn’t like the “taste” of the serpentine-rich soil.
Another plant here which made itself dense, mound like clumps was moss campion. This had long since finished flowering, as it is one of the first wild Shetland plants to bloom. However, we found one plant which still had two flowers left, and then just before we left, we came across another mound, completely covered in tiny, perfect pink blooms. It’s amazing how nature allows for just enough bending of the rules, for individual species to push the boundaries of their seasons. This enables them to survive and reproduce even if the climate changes considerably from year to year.
There were lots of deep purple orchids, some with spotted leaves and some without, but they were all either completely over, or just beginning to fade, so I gave up trying to identify them, rather than get them wrong. There was a strong temptation to go further, search longer for Norwegian sandwort, but I’m always reluctant to go beyond the first hundred yards or so of the reserve, as fellfield is fragile and even a few enthusiastic feet too many could damage those flimsy roots and threaten the survival of a handful more rare and special flowers.
Jill Slee Blackadder