We are now in May, the last month of Spring and the landscape has well and truly awakened from its winter slumber. The leaves have unfurled on the trees, the wildlife is thriving, and the colourful blooms have appeared. We’ve seen snowdrops in February, wood anemones in March, primroses in April and now it’s time for the carpets of bluebells to appear in the ancient woodlands across the Peninsula. This wildflower spectacle is a magical sight and one that leaves you with a feeling that these woodlands with carpets of blue are indeed enchanted.
In Celtic folklore, bluebells have a strong association with spirits and faeries. They are often called faerie flowers and their small bell-shaped flowers are believed summon the faeries when rung. This is not necessarily a good thing because faeries are believed to hang their spells on the bluebells to dry and disturbing them may unleash wild magic upon you, leaving you dazed by enchantment and unable to find your way out of the woods. It can be even more serious for children who pick bluebells because it is believed that they could be snatched away by the faerie folk, never to be seen again.
So, if you do visit a bluebell wood, just remember to stay on the path and to not pick or disturb any of the flowers. Besides risking the wrath of the faeries, another good reason to avoid disturbing them is that they are poisonous, and this might be the reason why there are so many old tales and legends warning people away from them.
However, these beautiful little flowers have also been valued for their useful properties and have been used over the centuries by herbalists to prevent nightmares and to treat leprosy, spider bites and tuberculosis. They contain at least 15 biologically active compounds that provide them with protection against insect and animal pests and in recent years, some of these compounds have been investigated as possible treatments for HIV infection and cancer.
Bluebells have practical uses as well. They produce an exceptionally sticky sap which was used by our Bronze Age ancestors to make a glue that they use for attaching flights of feathers to their arrows. This glue has also been used for several centuries by bookbinders to make and repair books, while in Tudor times, starch was extracted from crushed bluebell roots and used to stiffen the ruff collars that were very much the fashion back then.
Finally, some bluebell folklore gives a positive impression of this beautiful little flower. For example, some believe that by wearing a wreath made of the flowers, the wearer can be compelled to speak only truth while others believe that if you can turn one of the flowers inside out without tearing it, you will eventually win the one you love.
It’s mid-February and the end of this last month of winter is fast approaching. The evenings are getting lighter and my thoughts are turning to Spring and the sense of renewal, hope and happiness that it brings. The image below was taken out at Smirisary, an old crofting village about two miles to the west of Glenuig, on a Spring evening and shows a tree adorned with the fresh green growth that encapsulates these “Spring” feelings for me. It was a beautiful evening and I felt a true sense of calm contentment as I sat there listening to the call of a nearby cuckoo while waiting for the right moment to press the shutter button. I was left thinking that it is little wonder that the benefits of photography on mental wellbeing have been well studied and documented.
I spent much of my childhood outdoors exploring the rolling Scottish Borders countryside and have many fond memories of the adventures that this entailed. Back then, I’m sure I never gave much thought to the benefits of time outdoors and it wasn’t until I moved to Glasgow for work that I started to appreciate how differently I felt when I was in the countryside. Day trips for a walk in the hills became a welcome relief from both the pace of city centre living and the pressures of my work. A camera always accompanied me and, as the years passed, photography became a bigger and bigger part of the experience, acting as my “mind medicine”, encouraging me to slow down, look carefully and really appreciate my surroundings.
Studies by researchers at Lancaster University into the effects of photography on mental wellbeing back this up. They found that the act of finding a subject, trying different compositions and changing positions to alter the light requires such focus that it can be a meditative task, or an act of mindfulness that allows you to focus not on your outside concerns, but solely on the moment and the task at hand. I find this with landscape photography because it requires a great deal of patience to sit on a hillside, having framed a composition and wait for the right light and the perfect moment to press the shutter button. During this time, nothing else is on my mind and I feel completely detached from any stresses and pressures that life might hold.
Photography can also provide an artistic outlet, which many people may not have through any other means, and other studies have found that immersing yourself in a creative activity elevates mood while lowering both anxiety and stress hormone levels. Additionally, there are the general physical benefits of going for a walk with a camera, with the desire to capture images translating into the motivation to get outdoors at times when you would otherwise remain at home.
Finally, please do not think that landscape photography is limited to people with lots of expensive equipment. You will probably have a perfectly capable camera in your pocket because the quality of smartphone cameras nowadays allows almost anyone to capture some good images. So why don’t you get out into the beautiful landscape that surrounds us here on the Peninsula and try it out. With the sun still low enough in the sky to give us some lovely light, it is the perfect time of year to start. Get out there, take some pictures and feel all the better for it.
Hi, I’m Steven Marshall, a Scottish landscape photographer based at Rockpool House in the heart of the beautiful West Highland Peninsulas of Sunart, Morvern, Moidart, Ardgour and Ardnamurchan. Get in touch for photography tuition, tours and print sales.