On the western shores of most Outer Hebridean islands, you’ll usually find long strips of machair running along the coast. Machair is the Gaelic word for the land that lies just above a sandy beach. It’s intensely fertile land, generally because the sand of that adjacent beach has a high seashell content (sometimes as much as 90%) which neutralises the acidity of the peat bogs that lie further inland. Machair represents a unique ecosystem that is characterised by a vibrant array of wildflowers, and that is host to a wide range of bird and insect life.
The closest coastal land to our croft isn’t quite machair; along this rocky, geodha-rich strip of coast, there are a number of beautiful sandy beaches – but they’re interspersed by cliffs and by rocky beaches, above which the machair effect isn’t quite so intense. And so, in some places, peat bog extends very close to the shore. If you walk along a stretch of headland here, you’ll find yourself frequently transitioning from one habitat to the other. The combination of bog and machair interwoven in the same narrow coastal strip leads to a rich and often unusual combination of flora. And so, for example, bog asphodel grows side by side with thrift – the one thriving in the wetter hollows of the land, while the other clings to higher, rockier tufts. And as we walk a little way inland, come closer to our croft, the land becomes pure bog. An intensely windswept bog, bearing the full force of the salt-laden prevailing southerly and westerly gales, flat and exposed until the land rises up into the mountains behind us.
This may not seem like the obvious place to keep bees. On the machair, maybe, yes – if you can find a place that’s sufficiently protected from the weather, as honeybees won’t fly in wind and rain. But honeybees in the middle of a bog?
When we moved to the Isle of Lewis two and a half years ago from the north-west coast of the mainland near Ullapool, we brought a hive of bees with us. That hive had thrived on gorse, broom, fruit tree blossom and the many other plants that flourished on the shores of a more protected sea loch. It had been a hard winter here in the islands; spring had come late, and the coastal wildflowers that are usually available to bees in May were up to six weeks behind in flowering. Needless to say, our bees failed to make the transition, and the hive died. We looked around at what seemed to be a bleak, empty landscape, and thought that perhaps we’d never have bees again.
But the survival over the last two winters of a new hive in our village, derived from bees that were local to the island and so arguably much better adapted, gave us hope that bees could thrive in land that is predominantly bog. And so this summer we took on a small nucleus of bees, and we’ve been researching – and watching – ever since.
What can honeybees find to feed on in this place? Curiously, amidst this strange landscape of part-machair mixed with bog there is a surprisingly diverse array of flowers that honeybees are known to visit. Bird’s foot trefoil, tormentil, bog asphodel, red clover, marsh marigold, milkwort, devil’s bit scabious, lesser celandine, cuckoo flower (lady’s smock), heather, kidney vetch, purple northern marsh orchid, prunella/self-heal, spring squill, thrift … as well as the small number of scrubby cultivated plants that manage to survive on our croft – escallonia, low shrubby willow, even rosa rugosa – as well as the herbs and vegetables in the garden.
In spite of their apparent bleakness, bogs are among the most intensely affecting landscapes I’ve ever lived in – and I’ve written previously here about the vivid clarity of bog, so won’t repeat myself now. I offer you only a few lines from one of the finest of Seamus Heaney’s bog poems, Kinship: ‘This is the vowel of earth/ Dreaming its root/ In flowers and snow.’ ‘This centre holds’, Heaney tells us of bog, in direct opposition to Yeats. ‘This centre holds/ and spreads…’ And standing as I do each summer morning in the heart of this apparently bleak and empty land, surrounded by meadow brown butterflies and bees among the bog asphodel, listening to golden plover and lapwing, dunlin and wheatear, ringed plover and oystercatchers calling by the shore, it is hard not to believe that there might yet be a life for a hive of honeybees in this place.