Country diary: rich purple heather marks a year on the island

Country diary: rich purple heather marks a year on the island

Just as the low-lying pastures of the west mainland are starting to look a little tired and washed out, Orkney’s upland moors have been intensifying to a glorious technicolour. Amid dry grasses glow the sunshine-yellow embers of summer – tormentil and hawkbit – as hawkmoth caterpillars of livid, almost radioactive green hump between stems as they search for a safe place to overwinter.

Most dominant of all are the rich purples, with which the high ground is ablaze. The heather is in bloom in all its various guises: the hanging lanterns of cross-leaved heath in mauve and amethyst; tiny, needle-petalled ling in pale, pearlescent tones; and classic bell heather in a rich and regal plum.

The Orcadian writer Amy Liptrot wrote recently of how “the geographies of our childhoods” define us, reflecting with some sorrow that her son’s default reference for nature would not comprise of cliffs and vast horizons like her own, but the mill ponds and dappled woodlands of Yorkshire. As Amy moved south, I came north, and felt this same dissonance – the sense of being a stranger to the landscape – in reverse.

The star-shaped white flowers of grass of Parnassus.

So it has been with a sense of relief that, as I pass into my sophomore year in Orkney, I feel myself begin to recognise and orient myself by the wild waymarkers of island seasons. A fortnight ago, I saw the thatch of heather had been pierced through by thin stems bearing pompom heads of blue-violet, and felt their name blossom, unbidden in my mind. Devil’s-bit scabious, I thought, and I was right. I remembered them – they appeared in the same place at the same time last year. In a patch of short-cropped grass grew a smattering of flowers like silver, five-pointed stars. No need to look them up: grass of Parnassus. Curling at the corners of the footpaths, a frilled and flowering herb: eyebright.

All species that, a year ago, were strange to me. Now here they are, my floral familiars. I begin to see how, as time passes by, one’s knowledge of the land builds up in layers. I will never be from here, but, over time, these windswept hills might come to feel like home.

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