The Machair

IN

My childhood was spent by the sea. The summers were longer and warmer then. Weren’t they? Well, maybe not, but what sticks to memory is the sun on our tanned, feral faces, as we spent our days down by the shore; picking snails off the old dry stone walls and flowers from the shore. We’d nestle down on the edge of the beach with silverweed and thyme underfoot, unpack the barbecue and spend all evening there – it never seemed to go dark. Not once did it occur to us that we had crossed rare micro-cities of creeping thyme, eyebright, lady’s bedstraw, birds-foot trefoil, clover… The happy bees zipping around our ankles were something to squeal away from not to celebrate. The marram grass on the seaside dunes eliciting yelps as it whipped our legs in the breeze.

Here in western Scotland the ‘grassy’ grazed hilltops of the dunes behind the sandy shore are where the machair forms, one of the rarest habitats in Europe. Only found in the north and west of Britain, particularly the western Scottish islands, it is thanks to the fortuitous blend of a prevailing Atlantic weather system, longstanding calcarious marine sediment movements, as well as ancient and continued land practices. In early spring and summer, the wild machair flowers pull themselves up through accumulated sandy soils. A mix of wind blown sand onto soil has gradually created this unique seaside stage. Protected in winter by swathes of washed up kelp deposited at its feet; cultivated by our Hebridean ancestors and fertilised and grazed by their livestock – this unique but fragile fertile habitat has been created.

Lady's bedstraw (yellow) white clover and wild thyme

Lady’s bedstraw was once harvested in the Hebrides for its striking red and orange properties when used to dye fibres, particularly famed in the old Harris tweeds.

Now, as a grown up kid, the summers seem shorter and colder but the machair sights and scents still make my head swim in the summer. Clover’s honeyed high notes. Bedstraw, warm, savoury and subtle. The delicate intricacies of this landscapes inhabitants only adding to its splendour.

Lady’s bedstraw was once harvested in the Hebrides for its striking red and orange properties when used to dye fibres, particularly famed in the old Harris tweeds. Yet, so widely gathered was the bedstraw, that land owner’s sanctions were brought in to prohibit its picking – though like many an island tradition there are tales of undercover acquisitions.

Wild thyme pops out bright purple flower heads from early to high summer; scrambling down to the shore releases the herbal scent – sweeter than its backyard garden cousin.

Red and white clover spread out through the grassland, oh what a scent! We’d pick up a white flower head and sook out the floral nectar.

Purple harebells, yellow trefoil, self heal… The species found on the machair are wide and varying, a haven for rarer flora to flourish – indeed some of the rarest orchid species are only to be found in Scotland’s machair.

But the machair has more important things to do than bring back childhood memories. With intensive agricultural practices encroaching, grazing patterns changing, even increased visitor numbers to our beaches; stricter steps have been enforced to protect and educate people on this delicate land type. When visiting our northern island neighbour of Tiree last summer, I was impressed that restricted camping and walking areas mean Tiree’s natural machair is blossoming – never have I seen such abundance of healthy-looking bedstraw as we cycled across the island.

The machair is an almost unbelievably unique, complex, diverse and gloriously rich ecosystem but it will always be evocative of all that was good in my childhood summers; a place to indulge in scent and colour.

In but a few months from now, once summer has truly passed and the brightest flowers have gone, the Marram grass will hold steady the peripheries until the winter storms tangle the kelp and protect the precious machair once again.

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