The expedition to the east coast of the island to listen for gowks is normally followed by an outing to look at trees. Once the islands had extensive woodlands, but now the forces of nature and man have left the mountain slopes and moorland virtually treeless. Only the toughest specimens survive on inaccessible islands in lochs, on cliff faces or in ravines and hide their beauty in silent and remote havens. So a visit to admire the creamy blossom of the rowans and the new pale green leaves of the birches and the aspens is more akin to a pilgrimage than a stroll in the park.
To reach the ravines on rocky slopes of Ben Mhor or Hecla requires a trek of an hour or more over moorland and sphagnum bog; or in our case several hours as we are constantly distracted and fritter the time away looking at the flora and the insects. This absorption in the miniature world at my feet not only slows the rate of progress but normally ends up with partial immersion in a bog! However, the aching knees and wet feet are a small penance to pay for entry into this enchanted world. Cool, damp and shady the deep crevices carved into the hard grey rocks hide nature’s secret gardens. The narrow gorges are clothed in mosses, liverworts and ferns in rich hues of green and in the dappled shade the rocky niches protect clumps of violets and primroses which delicately scent the air. Mayflies and red damselflies dance above the tumbling waters and creamy butterflies languidly glide from flower to flower. Up above, clinging to the rock face are the aspens, a shimmering diadem and the object of our quest. Slow growing in a harsh landscape and climate these are venerable trees. I am told that the aspen does not produce viable seed this far north and it is possible that these trees could be vegetative clones of the original trees which once graced these hillsides over 3500 years ago.
The aspen’s leaves shimmer and quiver in the wind; hence the scientific name Populus tremula, the trembling poplar. The Gaelic critheann (crith – to tremble) and the Scots vernacular name old wives tongues similarly refer to the movement of the leaves. Here the aspen is a faerie tree – an aspen leaf placed under the tongue produces eloquence, traditionally a gift of the faeries.
Although a crown of aspen was reputed to allow Celtic heroes to return from the underworld and shields made from its wood were endowed with magical qualities, as a faerie tree its reputation suffered a reverse with the advent of Christianity. In the Uists no crofter would use the cursed wood of the aspen in the house or the field; for the aspen trembles in shame for having supplied the wood for the crucifixion cross. Such taboos are widespread in Scotland and are also attached to other faerie trees such as the rowan.
Whatever its reputation to me the aspen is the lady of the wild wood, tall slender and pale, and perhaps a little aloof. As the fresh apple green leaves rustle in the faintest breeze, they whisper faerie secrets to those who have time to listen and dream in lost Edens.