Easter Sunday in the Scottish Highlands brings the perfect opportunity for the naturalist John Arthur Thomson to observe the changes of the season. Snow still covers the Cairngorm mountaintops; here, spring comes slowly. You cannot rely on common signifiers to mark the change into spring – “we have not heard or seen a single lark in the course of a week,” Thomson writes – and the only flowers you will find are “the little tassels of the hazel bushes or the catkins of the goat-willows”. But there are plenty of sights to see on the slopes of Ben MacDhui. One needs patience to enjoy the bloom of the changing season here, but when the change comes, it is all the sweeter. “We must wait for weeks before there is celandine or primrose,” writes Thomson. “There is no sign of life on oak or elm, on alder or mountain ash, and so we rub our hands when we see the bark of the osiers becoming yellow or the dogwood stems shining like rubies”.
The snow still lies thickly on the Cairngorms, and even the low hills have their features marked out in lines of white. Some people would be more inclined to say that winter was nearly over than that spring had actually come. But the temperature on Easter Sunday in the early afternoon was 40 degrees higher than a week before at the same time of day; and the buds could not resist such a loud knocking at their doors. They are opening today almost impatiently on the pendulous branches of the larches, and although the individual leaves are still very minute, their effect on a wood is very noticeable. In the last few days the purple of the birch twigs has deepened perceptibly, and the poplars are almost floral with the brilliant gold of their opened buds, still widely separate on the branches. Everyone enjoys their incense in the sunshine.
In the south there is an impetuosity and assurance in the incoming of spring; what we feel here is its timidity. It comes like a shy child, holding itself ready to run away again; it is like a dove with nervously jerking head venturing from the open into an unfamiliar courtyard. But the advantage of this is that we make much of small mercies. It amuses our friends from the south to see our enthusiasm over the little tassels of the hazel bushes or the catkins of the goat-willows. But then these are almost our only flowers for Easter Sunday! We cannot count the furze bushes which are always defiantly flowering, and we must wait for weeks before there is celandine or primrose. There is no sign of life on oak or elm, on alder or mountain ash, and so we rub our hands when we see the bark of the osiers becoming yellow or the dogwood stems shining like rubies. Tomorrow we must go to look at that sloe-bush again, to see if there are no tips of white on its many flower-buds.
One needs to live in the north to appreciate spring’s tentatives. One learns also to be grateful for the evergreens without which these brown and grey stretches would be desolate. We do not mean the coniferous trees only, but the juniper bushes and low-growing shrubs like blueberries. A very striking feature just now is the frequency of vivid splashes of orange and yellow mosses among the heather on the moor and in the clearings in the wood. Here again we have an approach to the floral.
The melting of the snows makes the streamlets merry and there are countless waterfalls. Near one of them we watched a water-ouzel last week, showing its white breast among the white foam, a characteristic bird of the mountain streams. Lower down there were pied wagtails a-courting with matchless gracefulness; but here again we felt the timidity of spring. Only here and there was there a lonely oyster-catcher that had come up from its wintering on the shore and found itself ahead of all its companions. In a short time they will be flying about excitedly in twos and threes, scores of them in half a mile of the river, a merry company. There seems to be, on the part of birds, a very thoroughgoing abandonment of many of our uplands in the winter, and the return in spring is very cautious. Of course we are not referring to migratory birds that normally leave our shores altogether, but to partial migrants such as lapwings and curlews and oyster-catchers. One of the characteristics of spring is the return of the native, but here is Easter Sunday and we have not seen a single lapwing. Less than thirty miles off, down the valley, there are lapwings in hundreds and curlews in scores, but spring comes slowly to the Highlands. We are not forgetting that chaffinches are everywhere, and that there are bullfinches and blue-tits and long-tailed tits making love in the sheltered copse, but we have not heard or seen a single lark in the course of a week, though they are disturbing the golfers with their melody not very many miles away. What tells with bird is not the average temperature, but the occasional occurrence of a deadly minimum.
A walk that we took – by proxy now – to the snowy summit of Ben MacDhui resulted in seeing ptarmigan, black-cock, and golden eagle – birds that care little for any winter. The black-cock are getting ready for their annual tournament, when the rival males fight furiously, and for the spring parade, when, after the combat, the victors and the vanquished alike display themselves before the coy eyes of the grey hens. For April is the time of the opening of the heart!
The plumage of the ptarmigan is in an interesting phase just now, for you can see every possible transition between the white suit characteristic of the winter and the somewhat grouse-like dress of spring. This is the season for new clothes, and the ptarmigan are not behind the others; but the betwixt-and-between phases are rather quaint. Still more is this true of the mountain hare, which are having their winter dress of white replaced by the summer dress of subtle brown. It is not that pigment migrates into individual white hairs, turning them brown; it is that the hare grows a new suit. But again the transitional stages are quaint, and there are plenty to be seen today on the slopes of Ben MacDhui.
It is strange just now to see the heather burning close up to the snow, giving rise to great volumes of pungent smoke which one can hardly distinguish from clouds. This is an entirely artificial note, for one associates ashes with autumn. It is, however, a useful clearing away for the fresh growth, and it will not be long before the little hills clap their hands. Also somewhat artificial, but congruent with the spring, are the flocks of ewes heavy with young, and further down the valley the lambs are beginning to play.
Even in the heart of the Highlands, then, where spring approaches timidly, we enjoy our Easter Sunday. We enjoy the pussy willows and the hazel tassels, the greening larches and the incandescent poplars, the love-making of bullfinches and water-wagtails, the rooks and even jackdaws following the plough, the deer lingering in the low grounds and still barking the fallen branches, the ptarmigan and mountain hares changing their dress, the lambs playing tig in the field, for all things are once more saying: Resurgat Natura.
Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).