Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Every Picture Tells A Story

Glen Cannel and Glen Clachaig meet as neighbours at the head of Loch Ba, near the very heart of a landscape that has been moulded over the millennia in to what we now lovingly call home: the Isle of Mull. Once fertile straths, where communities of up to 800 souls lived and worked the land, the greed of 19th Century landowners cleansed these parts in favour of sheep. Today, all that remains of the lives once lived among this dark and brooding landscape are memories. As we walk among the hills, faces from the past etch themselves in the crags and the mournful bubbling of the Curlew carries the voices of those betrayed to the ears of a new day.

The Isle of Mull’s ‘Singing Shepherd’, Iain Thomson, has written a song about the effect of the Clearances on the population of Glen Cannel folk. It appears on his album ‘Fields of Dreams’ and serves as yet another poignant reminder of the island’s less glorious past. In fields adjacent to the Cannel River, crops of hay would have been grown and it is said that the workers used to inscribe their names on the bark of a Holly tree that still grows there. Like the Rowan and Elder, which were planted alongside crofts and homesteads, the Holly has been bestowed with magical properties and considered protective against evil.

Being an evergreen gave this prickly species even greater supernatural powers. It was considered something special to be able to withstand the onslaught of a Scottish Winter when all other trees had shed their leaves and gone into temporary hibernation. The trunk of this Holly tree, growing in the petrified woodland that flanks the shore of Loch Ba, reminded us of an aerial view of a crater, perhaps similar to that of a volcano. We thought this somewhat apposite seeing that Beinn Chaisgidle, site of the now collapsed Mull Volcano, overlooks the ruined settlement in Glen Cannel.

There were no names of folk, past or present, carved on the bark of this tree, but closer inspection revealed that Mother Nature had left her signature in the form of a colony of Common Script Lichen. This lichen is commonly encountered on smooth-barked trees, such as Rowan and Hazel, as well as Holly, on the Isle of Mull. Few lichens have a universally accepted English name, so it is possible for the same species to have more than one name in regular use. The scribbles of this distinctive organism are similar to the scrawls made by children, hence the vernacular name of Pencilmark Lichen, which we think describes it perfectly.

Common Toads have recently emerged from their Winter shutdown and are actively seeking suitable ponds in which to lay their long string of eggs (not clumps, like frogs). We were amazed to learn that Toads may live up to 12 years in the wild, somewhat miraculous when you consider the extreme distances these amphibians will travel to find the right breeding location. Of course, the handling of toads will not afflict you with the wart virus, although these creatures do secrete toxins which are poisonous to other animals. Special glands behind each ear and on their backs produce chemicals which serve as an irritant and deterrent to would-be predators. As if their lumpy, warty appearance wasn’t enough!

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