Caithness Field Club Main Page

See North, See South
Miss E. R. Bullard, Orkney Field Club.

Most of us see what we expect to see, and therefore, what a botanist from Orkney will see in the flora of Caithness will be different from what is seen there by a botanist from further south. Ideally, someone born and bred in a county makes its best naturalist. In Orkney we were lucky to have the late Col. Henry Halcro Johnston as our greatest botanist, to study our plants for more than 40 years, for he was 83 when he died in 1940. Nowadays conservationists would criticise the vast number of specimens he collected regardless of their rarity and, as a perfectionist, he was never sufficiently satisfied to commit his great store of knowledge to print. But his huge "Orkney Collection", now in Edinburgh, is his monument and at least everything he found can be seen there, and checked.

It seems probable that much botanical work in Caithness over the last 40 years has been carried out by people from the south judging by published records. They expected (and saw) garden escapes aliens and weeds of cultivation but oddly missed Marsh Cudweed uncommon on wet farm roads, and they either, overlooked or there really is a paucity of Funaria species.
Riparian species are well recorded. Several Caithness riverside plants are unknown in Orkney and so new to me. Marshes on heavy land are alike in the two counties although we do not have Narrow Small-reed, which seems fairly common in the N. and E. of Caithness and we do have rather more Phragmites, Common Reed.

Eyes accustomed to Orkney are more appreciative of low fen vegetation affected by base-rich water, e.g. Scrabstor Loch, and spot the dainty Bog Pimpernel and Knotted Pearlwort, hitherto neglected to some extent. Obviously peatlands have been expected and their commoner species well listed; after all, it is almost a matter of luck for anyone to find the rare calcifuges such as the Cranberries, Wintergreens and Bog Orchid.

The majority of botanists expect to see alpines on mountains, calcicoles on limestone, woodland plants under trees and saltmarsh plants in saltmarshes, usually muddy estuaries. Because the higher Caithness Hills are of botanically uninteresting rock, dry and exposed, visitors have found it difficult to transfer their search for montane species to lower levels; I had a heated argument about the possibility of Alpine Meadow Rue at 450' near Latheron, but it does grow there and also much nearer sea level on the north coast.

Alpine Bearberry, which textbooks allocate to 2000' contours, comes down to 750' on Caithness Hills, 400' on Dunnet Head and around 200' in Orkney, and in such places is accompanied by the Least Willow, another alpine shrub.

The high lime content of Caithness flagstones, shelly boulder clay and the springs and flushes derived from them is well known to geologists but the consequent possibilities seem to have boon ignored by recent botanists at least, names of plants from some conspicuous rock outcrops have not appeared in published lists, e.g. "The Atlas of the British Flora". In Orkney such outcrops arc fruitful sites for exploration and therefore in Caithness I expected, and saw such lime-loving plants as the three Spleenworts, Asplenium adiantum-nigrum, A. trichomanes and A. ruta-muraria, Stone Bramble, Early Purple Orchid, Hoary Whitlow Grass and Downy Oat, but it was pleasant to see also such things as Bearded Twitch, Geulder Rose and Upright Currant, which do not occur in Orkney. Ono unexplained absentee seems to be the northern Slender Bedstraw, Galium sternerii which grows in such places in Orkney and also on shell-sand dunes and gritty roadsides. In Orkney we can look for woodland plants in our "lush" dales which lack only trees, and on some sheltered cliffs. Heavier burning and grazing prevents much of this lushness in Caithness although the coast south of Lybster to the Ord rivals our Scapa Flow-facing cliffs. Nevertheless, the possibilities of many scrubby or even treeless nooks and crannies seem to have been underestimated; in recent "Fern Hunts" no less than fourteen different ferns were counted on one small Reay hill, and, as with us, plants like Valerian, golden Saxifrage and Yellow Pimpernel occur in open situations.

Caithness does lack saltmarsh of any extent; with us there are patches in almost every parish but the lists of approriate plants are about the same in each county so it seems likely that tidal parts of Thurso and Wick Rivers supplied suitable sites in years gone by. As with us, places where tiny burns flow out over cliffs support Sea Milkwort and Sea Mud Rush and rarer plants may occur there; dune slacks, as at Ackergill and Keiss also supply suitable habitats for such things as Curved Sedge.

There are of course problems of mis-identification, many southern visitors perhaps not realising that in the north, Pea pratensis is almost replaced by P. subcaerulea, Puccinellia distans by P.capillaris, etcand that hybridisation and extremes in size can cause confusion.

Perhaps, after all this, some Caithness botanists will feel the urge to visit Orkney and "see South" where we have only been able to "see North".

Published October 1973