The Out­sider Han­nah Gard­ner finds in­spi­ra­tion from a rose on the Outer He­brides

Hor­ti­cul­tur­ist Han­nah Gard­ner heads north to the Outer He­brides, where wildf low­ers buzz with in­sect life, and comes away in­spired to grow its na­tive, white wild rose


The Outer He­brides are a re­mote and out­stand­ingly beau­ti­ful and di­verse chain of is­lands off the north­west of Scot­land. Sci­en­tists de­scribe their sus­tain­ably man­aged, species-rich dune grass­lands as one of the rarest habi­tats in Eu­rope and they have been awarded Site of Spe­cial Sci­en­tific In­ter­est sta­tus. For much of the year this land pro­vides sparse graz­ing for the crofters’ live­stock, but in sum­mer the machair – the Gaelic name for a fer­tile, low-ly­ing grassy plain – is a lux­u­ri­ous and abun­dant car­pet of bright wild­flow­ers buzzing with in­sect life and the air is full of threat­ened birds, such as corn­crakes.

The is­lands’ sand dunes are sta­bilised by banks of mar­ram grass. They pro­tect the flat, frag­ile thin-soiled land be­hind them, but dur­ing the thou­sands of years since the last ice age, pow­er­ful At­lantic gales have blown ashore fine frag­ments of crushed cal­care­ous seashell mixed with sand. Fall­ing beyond the dunes this has en­riched the soils, and the land has long been farmed us­ing the tra­di­tional non-in­ten­sive method of croft­ing (where pes­ti­cides and chem­i­cal fer­tilis­ers are not used). The ground is worked in ro­ta­tion, pro­vid­ing reg­u­lar op­por­tu­ni­ties for an­nual plantss to seed and es­tab­lish. Washed-up sea­weed is used as fer­tiliser and soil im­prover, and care­fully ploughed into cul­ti­vated ar­eas.

In­spi­ra­tion for the trip

As an un­der­grad­u­ate in Aberdeen, I fell for Scot­land and dis­cov­ered the Aber­do­nian hor­ti­cul­tur­ist and botan­i­cal artist Mary McMur­trie. She wrote her first book – the in­spir­ing Wild Flow­ers of Scot­land – in 1982, aged 80, and be­came recog­nised as the old­est work­ing artist in Bri­tain. Her Scots Roses of Hedgerows and Wild Gar­dens is the best source of il­lus­tra­tions for Scots roses.

When to go

The pro­lific pop­u­la­tions of prim­rose, marsh marigold and flag iris bloom in

May. The machair grass­land flow­ers from June to early Septem­ber. It is best to plan well ahead as trans­port and ac­com­mo­da­tion are lim­ited and fill up quickly.

Where to go

A walk of just a few miles in South Uist will al­low you to ex­plore the coastal machair, pass through the tran­si­tional croft-line (where the croft cot­tages are) and on to the moors of Loch Druidibeg, home to nest­ing wad­ing birds and golden ea­gles. Here tough plants have colonised the peat bog, adapt­ing to the low-nu­tri­ent con­tent of damp, acidic soil. Look closely and the som­bre ex­panses yield plenty of colour; vi­o­let-flow­ered but­ter­worts ( Pin­guic­ula vul­garis), the golden blooms of tor­men­til ( Po­ten­tilla erecta) and bog as­podel ( Narthe­cium os­sifragum), a dis­tant rel­a­tive to both irises and lilies. The pink louse­wort ( Pedic­u­laris syl­vat­ica) and heath spot­ted or­chid ( Dacty­lorhiza mac­u­lata) also grow here.

Tiny flashes of blue are the com­mon and heath milk­worts ( Poly­gala ser­pyl­li­fo­lia). Cot­ton grass ( Erio­pho­rum an­gus­ti­folium) is per­haps the most chameleon of all, with silky and lus­trous tas­sels of an­tique white in the sun, or grubby for­lorn mop heads in the rain. Heath and heathers dom­i­nate but among them are low clus­ters of woody bog myr­tle ( Myrica gale) ex­ud­ing a sweet, resinous smell that is good for keep­ing midges away.

Both fal­low and crop ar­eas of machair can be species rich, a riot of corn marigold ( Glebio­nis sege­tum), but­ter­cups, use­ful red clover ( Tri­folium pratense) that en­riches the grass­land by trap­ping at­mo­spheric ni­tro­gen in its roots to form ni­trate in the soil, glow­ing kid­ney vetch, hare­bells ( Cam­pan­ula ro­tun­di­fo­lia) and knap­weed, which is a favourite of bees.

The coastal ham­let of North­ton on Har­ris has an ex­hil­a­rat­ing hike that winds through acres of machair and on up to the peak of Cea­pab­hal (368m).

The views of the vast azure ex­panse of Lusken­tyre Bay be­low and the bright tan­gle of flow­er­ing machair are un­for­get­table. Iris and marsh marigold colonise damp pock­ets along­side the less fa­mil­iar bog­bean ( Menyan­thes tri­fo­li­ata), a ro­bust and medic­i­nally use­ful plant of fresh wa­ter, its stiff, leath­ery fo­liage an odd con­trast to pret­tily fringed, ar­rest­ing flow­er­heads.

Plant to grow at home

It is best to ap­pre­ci­ate the machair flora as a habi­tat, and not se­lect one species to try at home. How­ever, a pretty lit­tle rose caught my eye while I was on Har­ris, and Novem­ber is the bare root rose plant­ing sea­son. Rosa spinosis­sima is the tra­di­tional white rose of Scot­land, eu­lo­gised in song and po­etry and sec­ond only to the Scot­tish this­tle in em­blem­atic renown. It came into cul­ti­va­tion at the very end of the 18th cen­tury and by 1820 hun­dreds of dou­ble forms had been se­lected. Gertrude Jekyll was fond of Scots roses, fre­quently us­ing them in her gar­dens.

The most northerly of any wild rose, Rosa spinosis­sima is a hardy, prickly stemmed, de­cid­u­ous shrub teem­ing with small, creamy white, fra­grant flow­ers. Its com­mon name, bur­net rose, comes from the close re­sem­blance of its com­pound fo­liage to the herb bur­net ( San­guisorba mi­nor), this forms a lovely fresh foil for the deep-pur­ple-black glob­u­lar hips that fol­low. These were tra­di­tion­ally used in the dy­ing of lo­cal cloth. A plant of poor land, in the wild it forms dense patches on sand dunes and sandy heaths, ven­tur­ing fur­ther in­land on lime­stone soils. In the gar­den se­lect a lo­ca­tion ex­posed to full sun, it is un­fussy about soil, is wind tol­er­ant and drought re­sis­tant once es­tab­lished. This is a lovely rose for wilder ar­eas of the gar­den, its low grow­ing habit mak­ing it ideal ground­cover.

Guides and maps

Scot­tish Wild Flow­ers by Michael Scott (Collins Guides, 2000).

Grouped into habi­tats, with their Latin, English and Gaelic names.

OS Ex­plorer 455 South Har­ris

Where to stay Scarista House

Sgarasta Bheag, Isle of Har­ris HS3 3HX.

Tel 01859 550238, scaris­ta­ A hand­some and beau­ti­fully run, small ho­tel over­look­ing a breath­tak­ing beach­scape. Bagh Al­luin

21 Bale­share, Isle of North Uist HS6 5HG. Tel 01876 580370,

A fun and in­ter­est­ing B&B run by the ab­stract artist Jac Volbeda.

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