Wild Words: Kirsteen Bell

NO F11 Kirsteen Bell 1
NO F11 Kirsteen Bell 1

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Saturday August 1 was Lùnastal, or Lughnasadh, the old Gaelic festival marking the coming of the harvest season, but I wasn’t feeling very hopeful about the harvest I was meant to be celebrating.

Like a lot of folk this year I have been trying to grow more of my own fruit and veg.  Unlike a lot of folk, I have been trying to use the soil we already had.  While Gardenstop was selling lorry loads of fertile compost, I was happy in the thought that I didn’t need to buy any.  Rookie error.

On that first August morning, instead of casting an expectant eye over a maturing crop, I stomped up the hill in a grump, away from the half-grown, struggling contents of the polytunnel.

Where the ground levels out you cross an old stone wall that takes you from hill grass to a weave of heather and moss.  Below both grass and heather though lies dark, acidic peat.

In The Dark Stuff: Stories from the Peatlands, Lewis writer Donald S. Murray talks about failed attempts to farm the Lewis moor, saying ‘too much fertiliser had been required to create apportionments of ‘improved’ land’.  It can take years of applying fertiliser to alter soil pH. Polytunnel or not, without a lot more work on the soil, my onions had no chance.

However, as I sit on an old upturned bottle-crate left there for that purpose by my late father-in-law, surrounded by purple bell-heather and orange stars of asphodel, my eye catches on something else at the fenceline; I remember him coming in to tell us that there was a good crop of blaeberries one year.  Could this be them?

NO F34 Blaeberry_Kirsteen Bell
NO F34 Blaeberry_Kirsteen Bell

According to A Handbook of Scotland’s Wild Harvests, ‘The berries are ripe between July and September’.  Crows cackle above me as I rummage through the low, sprawling shrub.  Shorn twig ends suggest that the deer have been here browsing before me, so it would seem that if there were blaeberries here I’ve missed them.

Just as I allow a moment of sadness for another failed ‘harvest’ I spot one.  A single blaeberry, soft, blue-purple, deep within the green and red-gold mottled leaves.  I come back a few days later to show the boys and we manage to find a small handful of berries.  Admittedly it is not much of a harvest – but they grew, without fertiliser, or weeding, or any kind of human attention at all, in fact.

The Handbook says that blaeberries are harvested in commercial quantities in Scandinavia ‘without detriment to the plants or the environment’.  It adds: ‘The potential to do this in Scotland has yet to be realised, although it has been suggested that this native plant could yield a better return per hectare than is gained from sheep farming.’

My one berry, harvested on Lùnastal, might not be much now, but it has potential.  The blaeberry is one of countless native plants that thrive on acidic soil.  Instead of working to change the landscape, maybe I can work with it.

NO F11 Kirsteen Bell 1

NO F34 Blaeberry_Kirsteen Bell