My seventh Spring of living here on the Peninsulas has come to an end and I find myself reflecting on something that never ceases to mesmerise me during late May and early June each year. It is the sight of the delicate blue coloured, bell-shaped flowers of the bluebell creating intense blankets of colour in the woodlands, on the hillsides and along the verges throughout the length and breadth of the Peninsula. However, are these really bluebells I am seeing in this incredible wildflower spectacle, or are they something else?
Well, it seems that these little plants that spend most of the year as bulbs underground in our woodlands and hillsides, are what botanists call ‘wood hyacinths’ or “Hyacinthoides con-scripta” and have been given the common name of “English Bluebell” because their flowers are indeed blue, and they are indeed shaped like a bell.
What about the Scottish Bluebell though? Well, do you remember Scottish Bluebell Matches and the delicate blue and bell-shaped flowers on the matchbox? These are completely different from the “blue bells” on the plants in our woodlands. They are in fact “Campanula rotundifolia”, a creeping, rooted perennial that flowers from July to September and more commonly known as the Harebell. It favours dry, grassy places, so you will find it in the dry land around our sandy beaches as opposed to in our damp, shady woodlands.
Many English Bluebell tales involve dark fairy magic with bluebell woods being portrayed as scary, forbidding places that should be avoided. For example, if you do enter a bluebell wood, you should never pick or step on a bluebell for fear of breaking a spell that a faerie has hung on one of the flowers. If you do break a faerie spell, they will get extremely upset, seek you out and enchant you in such a way that you would be drawn further into the woods to wander lost for evermore.
Folklore says that you also need to be careful with the Scottish Bluebell because its common name is rooted in magic. Some say that the name “Harebell” was given to the flower because witches would turn themselves into hares and hide among them. It may also be the reason why the names Witch's Thimbles and Witch Bells were used for the flowers.
So, there you have it. Hyacinths or Harebells? English Bluebells and Scottish Bluebells? Different plants linked by a common name and a whole lot of myth and legend, both of which you should not damage for fear of being visited by angry faeries, witches or indeed, the Aul’ Man himself.
May is probably the month of the year that I look forward to most because it is the month in which the landscape well and truly awakens from its winter slumber. The dawn chorus fills the early morning air with birdsong, spring flowers cover the ground with a multitude of bright colours and trees burst with new leaves to create beautiful and vibrant sights in our woodlands. So, on bright May mornings while walking at Sàilean nan Cuileag near Salen and Phemie’s Walk near Strontian, I was compelled to capture the scenes shown in the images below because the fresh, bright green colour of the grass on the ground and the leaves on the trees was such a beautiful and vibrant sight. This ‘spring green’ colour is such a potent sign of new life and renewal. So much so, that it’s little wonder that Beltane, an ancient Celtic festival celebrating joy, renewal, and community falls on the first day of May.
Beltane marks the beginning of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and is considered one of the four major seasonal Celtic festivals along with Samhain, Imbolc, and Lughnasadh. As well as joy and renewal, Beltane is often associated with fertility, abundance, and growth, and has been celebrated for centuries with feasting, dancing, and bonfires.
In ancient times, bonfires would be lit on hilltops to honour the sun and promote fertility. The bonfire would be the centrepiece of the Beltane celebrations, symbolising the return of the sun and the warmth of summer. It was also believed to have protective and purifying powers, and people would jump over the flames or pass through them as a form of ritual cleansing and purification. They would also drive their livestock between the fires, believing that the smoke and ashes would protect them from disease and bring fertility to the animals.
I grew up in a large council estate called Burnfoot. It was built between the 1950s and 1970s and, in the early part of these years, a group of local people decided to revive the Beltane traditions and create a festival that would celebrate community and bring the people of this new housing estate together. Central to the festival was the crowning of a local girl as the Burnfoot Queen who, like the May Queens of the past, was chosen for her character and community spirit, and was considered to be a role model for other young people living on the estate.
I remember the crowning ceremony to be a big occasion. It was attended by a large crowd of locals and visitors and once it had taken place, there would be procession through the estate, with the Burnfoot Queen at its head, on an elaborately decorated float. To the small boy that I was, the parade was a colourful and lively event, featuring floats and displays from local businesses and organisations. So much so, that it would bring together people of all ages and backgrounds to celebrate what was known as the Burnfoot Festival and ultimately the community of Burnfoot.
As far as I’m aware, this Festival still takes place and I find it fascinating how this event from my distant childhood memories was a revival of Beltane traditions that can be traced back to pre-Christian times in Scotland.
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.