All too soon, the days began to shorten. By mid-August early signs of autumn appeared in the reddening of rowan berries and the ripening of rose hips.
Bracken obscured little-used pathways, shoulder high fronds slowing progress on our walks. Early flowering plants dropped their petals and turned to seed, while shades of purple dominated the garden and the high hillsides. A bouquet from our garden shows, left to right, heather, purple loosestrife, rosebay willowherb, great hairy willowherb, knapweed and bell heather.
From my window I look at the bulk of The Oa. High above the sea, on the south-west tip of this rugged moorland, stands the American Monument. Commemorating the sinking of two troop ships in 1918, it records the tragic loss of over 600 lives. Overlooking the spot where the ‘Tuscania’ sank, this windswept headland, now managed as an RSPB Reserve, is home to rare breeding birds such as twite, golden eagle and chough. It is always a thrill to see the soaring of eagles, to hear the twitter of twite and the raucous calls of chough. Family groups of these enigmatic corvids settle on slopes, red beaks flinging sand in the search for small invertebrates. On Kilnaughton Bay they forage through banks of washed-up seaweed before settling on rocky outcrops above the dunes.
Close to the Monument, heather hugs the ground. Here, exposed to the full force of salt-laden winds, it forms a springy carpet that is easy to walk on.
In more sheltered areas, heather reaches thigh height making some areas impenetrable. Featuring in prose, poetry and song, and covering vast areas in a rich shade of purple, heather is probably Scotland’s best-loved plant.
In 1890, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote -
‘From the bonny bells of heather
They brewed a drink long syne,
Was sweeter far than honey,
Was stronger far than wine.’
Traces of fermented heather flowers found on shards of pottery on the Hebridean island of Rum were dated back to 2000BC, making heather ale one of the oldest known alcoholic beverages in the world. On Islay we follow this age-old tradition by picking the flowering tips of heather for flavouring The Botanist gin.
Heather is valuable for other reasons too. Today, throughout Scotland, it is a draw for tourists, beekeepers set their hives close to the nectar-rich blooms and, after burning, young shoots are a major food source for grouse.
In the past, heather was put to many uses from bedding and brooms to dyeing wool. Rough stone buildings were thatched with heather secured by heather ropes. Dwellings built in this way have fallen prey to wind and weather so that little remains. Tumbled walls tell of a time when over 800 people eked out a living on The Oa. Despite the burgeoning of rush, bracken and heather; the land still bears testimony to the toil of people who have gone. Decades after the last crops of potatoes were lifted, lazy beds are still evident, while heather reaches the cottage walls and even ventures inside.
In recent years old roads have been reinstated and new houses have spread like a rash across the slopes above Port Ellen Bay. The track to Carraig Fhada lighthouse, once home to keepers’ cottages now serves nine new houses. After a long decline, and despite the fact that many are holiday homes, the population of The Oa has increased a little. But the residents no longer subsist on a diet of potatoes, neeps (turnips), oats, milk, fish, shellfish and seaweed. Foraging was an accepted way of life for them. Nettles, sorrel and the late summer harvest of blackberry and bilberry must have been eagerly awaited.
That time of year is here again. Blackberries are ready for bramble jelly, but in our garden, blackbirds take the bilberries as they ripen. I have to venture farther afield to savour the mouthwatering delights of bilberry pie. Fingers and tongues stained with the juice of these small fruits bring back memories of childhood. A time when country walks were the main family activity; a time when blackberry was a juicy fruit, free for the picking - not a mobile phone as the new Oxford Junior Dictionary would have it.
Mavis Gulliver’s passion for islands and wildlife dominate her writing. Her work is based on close observation and a sense of place. Her poems appear in magazines, anthologies and in her two collections, Slate Voices: Islands of Netherlorn and Waymarks. Her children’s fiction allows her imagination to run wild through landscapes that she knows well. Cry at Midnight, Clickfinger and The Snake Wand are set on islands and each has a Facebook page. Her website gives further information and includes a monthly blog detailing her activities. She is working on a poetry collection entitled From One Island to Another.