06 Aug Searching for knapweed
As the little book says, there’s a duck pond at the start (and end) of a circular walk on the edge of Braemar. It’s here, after completing the walk, that I sit on a bench to write. In case anyone should be in any doubt, there are several ducks here. Two of them are foraging for food in the depths, tail feathers pointing straight up in the air, back feet lightly paddling the surface of the water. I suppose this keeps them balanced in that ungainly vertical position that looks so comical. Another pair are cleaning and preening, nuzzling their beaks under and between their feathers. Boulders laze around the edge, smudges of moss and lichen nestling on their surfaces. In the middle of the pond, there’s a big area of pale golden reeds the colour of wheat where more ducks shelter from the breeze. One of them quacks and the whole gang emerges, clustering together, all facing in the same direction as if waiting for something to happen, alert to some unknown danger. After a few minutes, the crowd disperses; whatever panic or expectation brought them rushing out has passed.
Lifting my gaze from the pond, the birk woods come into view. Birks (Scots for birch) cloak the lower slopes of Morrone, a great lump of Cairngorm rock, probably granite, whose upper slopes are covered with heather, juniper and bracken. The birk woods are ancient though the trees themselves are small, wizened with weather. Lichens growing on some of the arthritically gnarled specimens are estimated to be more than 300 years old. We saw another old tree on another walk near here, a Scots pine also around 300 years old. It tickles me to think these trees were saplings when the Earl of Mar raised the standard for James Stuart and set off the 1715 Jacobite rebellion right here in Braemar.
I love how they reach across history.
Light falls easily in the wood, the trees spaced generously, maybe even naturally, rather than planted in tight rows like the conifers in neighbouring Deeside forests. Juniper grows so abundantly here that, come the berry season, the woods must offer up a powerful whiff of gin. Come September the hillside will be a purple heather haze. We walk half way up Morrone to a viewpoint west over the Cairngorm peaks where a metal board is etched with their unpronounceable names and impressive dimensions.
That’s all very well, all those mountains and ancient trees but there’s still no knapweed. I am trying to quell my disappointment. I was sure I would find it up here but I was wrong. Two days ago we walked along the River Clunie that runs through Braemar and, just beyond the castle, turns left to join the mighty River Dee on the far side of the valley. I love knapweed and on the bank of the Clunie there was more of it gathered together than I have ever seen. I snapped and snapped again, each specimen more perfect than the last. For this was knapweed in prime condition, the thistle-like shaving-brush tuft all soft, furry and fiercely pink, the hairy leaves looking their hairy best. Such perfection. And the botanists have the cheek to call it ‘lesser’ or ‘common’ knapweed.
Not so common after all. As soon as the Clunie joined the Dee the knapweed disappeared from the riverbank. Just a few metres away, under the same sky and beside a kindred river, it was hard to believe these floral beauties would have made themselves scarce. Perhaps they’re on a campaign to change their status. Common or not, they are one of nature’s delights.