Very superstitious – nature and folklore in the spotlight

Explore Scotland’s natural environment and you will soon discover that it is packed full of folklore and superstition. Down through the years a close connection with nature led people to interpret its signs and symbols in many weird and wonderful ways. This Friday the 13th we take a look at a few of the best known tales.

White heather ©Lorne Gill SNH for web

White heather ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Lucky white heather

One of the best-known Scottish superstitions is that of lucky white heather. The old Celtic story goes that a young woman, discovering that her lover had died in battle, turned the heather white with her tears. As the legend tells, she declared that while white heather was a symbol of her sorrow it should bring good fortune to others. While purple heather is often abundant across Scottish moorland sites, the white variety is much less common. White versions of different coloured flowers crop up from time to time due to genetic mutations. Sometimes these are very rare which makes finding one a “lucky”. experience.

Rowan berries.©Lorne Gill/SNH

Rowan berries ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Rowan for protection

Heather isn’t the only flora that is associated with luck. Many say planting a rowan tree near your house will ensure a happy home and keep evil spirits at bay. Where a rowan grows on its own, good fortune will be bestowed upon the home but those who cut down a rowan tree will bring bad luck upon themselves. Rowan, also known as mountain ash, has brilliant red berries in the autumn and as the colour red was considered to be the best defence against magic or enchantment, this may have contributed to the reputation of the tree as having protective qualities.

Fungi, Cragbank wood NNR, Forth and Borders Area.©Lorne Gill/SNH

Woodland fungi ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Fungi fairy circles

If you’re planning a woodland walk, one thing you might come across is a fairy ring. Should you believe the ancient legends, these supernatural spots are where the woodland fairies dance and play and if you were to stray into the ring it might be the last you are ever seen. In fact, these “fairy rings” are actually naturally occurring loops of mushrooms spreading out in all directions. Eventually, nutrients in the central spot are used up and the spore network dies out leaving the circular pattern as it continues to expand outward.

Grey Seal ©Lorne Gill

Grey Seal ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Selkies from the sea

Scottish folklore tells of shapeshifting creatures that can change from a seal at sea to human form on land by casting off their seal skin. In many such stories one of these “selkies” or seal folk is forced to stay on land when their seal skin is stolen and hidden. The folk tales are said to originate in Orkney, where both harbour and grey seals can be found around the shores, although grey seals are more numerous. There are Special Areas of Conservation and designated haul outs for both species around the islands to recognise their importance.

Magpie (Pica pica).©Lorne Gill

Magpie ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Magpies for sorrow

Some birds and animals are said to have the powers of foresight. Magpies have often been associated with prophecies and many will know the old rhyme based on counting the black and white birds: “One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret, never to be told.” Another tradition is the practice of saluting magpies. Whether a simple “Hello, Mr Magpie” or a full conversation, some believe that if a lone magpie is spotted it must be greeted with good wishes or sorrow will lie ahead. It’s not clear where the ‘bad luck’ superstition arose, but magpies have gained a bad reputation for supplementing their diet by taking bird eggs and fledglings. However there’s no evidence that they have an adverse effect on song bird populations.

Posted in Folklore | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Foraging Fortnight – a celebration of Scotland’s wild food

Elderberries, brambles, crab apples, hazelnuts and chanterelles are just some of the delicious wild finds of early autumn.  The first Foraging Fortnight, supported mainly by EU LEADER funding, coincides with this season of abundance – it runs from 31st August until 15th September across five areas in Scotland.  Becky Shaw, our Rural Development Officer, tells us more…

The “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” of  John Yeats’ ‘Ode to Autumn’ will soon be here, bringing a rich natural harvest of fruit, nuts and fungi.

berries - rowan

Rowan berries

This celebration of food from nature is a great chance to explore the interesting tastes and flavours of wild food as well as spend some time outdoors, getting to know your local patch better.

Wild sushi

Wild sushi

In Forth Valley and Lomond, Fife, Lanarkshire, Moray and Orkney, there is a varied and wide-ranging programme of events to encourage people to find out more about responsible and safe foraging.  Long-table dinners, tasting menus, cookery sessions and wild beer workshops are among the ways you can enjoy the local flavours of the season during Foraging Fortnight.


Loch Fleet seaweed

Loch Fleet seaweed

The first and golden rule of foraging safely is being 100% certain of the identification of the plant or fungus you are planning to eat. Coastal and hedgerow foraging walks, fungi forays and workshops on medicinal herbs are all on offer throughout Foraging Fortnight to help give you confidence in knowing what is good and safe to eat and knowing how to forage in a responsible way that minimises any impact on nature.



Wild mint

The walks and talks will focus on the abundant and common seasonal plants, fungi and seaweeds that are all around us.  Foraging Fortnight events will hear from chefs, herbalists, brewers, foragers and food producers who’re exploring this local, seasonal and regionally distinctive food to create a ‘taste of place’.

A highlight of the last weekend of Foraging Fortnight is the Scottish Wild Food Festival, taking place at Cardross Estate, Port of Mentieth. The busy programme will include foraging workshops, wild walks, plant folklore, tasters and cookery demos, family activities and long-table dining.  Twelve local businesses, which are taking part in an international project to develop foraging skills and knowledge for use in their own enterprises, will lead some of the workshops, foraging walks and food experiences. It’s a day not to be missed!

See the Foraging Fortnight website for further information about all the events.


Posted in Festival, foraging, Fungi, mushrooms, Outdoor learning, plants, Rowan, SNH, Uncategorized, wild flowers, woodlands | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Find autumn gold in Scotland’s National Nature Reserves

Autumn, with its depth of colour and light, is a fantastic season to get out and explore our mountains, forests and coasts, especially if you’re looking for ideas to get the kids active during the school break.

Scotland’s wonderful National Nature Reserves are a great place to start. With fantastic opportunities to get away from it all and connect with nature, whether you’re looking for a short stroll, an adventurous day out or simply want to sit and watch the local wildlife go by, they never fail to impress.

Here are 10 top nature experiences for autumn and where you can enjoy them across Scotland.

1. Hear the Monarch of the Glen roar


Rutting red deer Stag, Isle of Rum National Nature Reserve, ©Laurie Campbell/SNH

The roar of red deer stags across a Highland glen is one of the most evocative sounds of the season and hearing it for yourself is an experience not to be missed. The red deer is Scotland’s largest land mammal and stags can be seen and heard roaring from late September onwards on nature reserves from Ben Wyvis in the north to Cairnsmore in the south, and from Mar Lodge Estate in the east to Beinn Eighe in the west. For a really special experience, take a walk out to Kilmory Bay to watch rutting stags on the coastal grasslands on the Isle of Rum.

2. Fun with fungi


Chanterelles fungi and moss, Glen Affric National Nature Reserve, ©Lorne Gill/SNH

With autumn comes cooler nights and frequent showers, making it the best time of year for fungi to thrive. See how many different colours of mushrooms you can spot as you wander through the woods. Many nature reserves hold fungi forays during the season at locations including Muir of Dinnet in Royal Deeside and Beinn Eighe in Wester Ross. Or explore Glen Affric, regarded by many as Scotland’s most beautiful glen, with its stunning lochs, mountains and Caledonian forest – a wonderful mix of pine, birch and oak. The area is golden brown in autumn with the ochres, oranges and yellows of the birch and aspen leaves. Fungi, such as huge penny-buns, golden chanterelles and bright red fly-agarics, appear like magic overnight in the damp woodlands. Learn more with SNH’s guide to Scottish fungi.

3. A riot of colour


Looking over Loch Lomond from Duncryne Hill, Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park

At this time of the year Scotland’s west coast temperate rain forest transforms with the vibrant hues of russets, reds and ochres of oak, birch, willow and alder. Bracken and ferns add muted hues of brown and gold to create a feast for the eyes. Enjoy a scenic walk at Taynish in Argyll, Ariundle Oakwood on the Sunart Peninsula or The Great Trossachs Forest in Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park. Explore Scotland’s oldest and richest forest of oak, ash, rowan and hazel hidden in the dramatic gorges of the Clyde Valley Woodlands or visit the ancient, gnarled Cadzow oaks near Chatelherault.

4. A gaggle of geese


Geese at dawn in Loch Leven, Perthshire © Lorne Gill/SNH

Rise and shine to experience the dawn flypast of thousands of geese returning from their breeding grounds in the Arctic. Huge numbers of barnacle geese from Svalbard are a highlight in October as they arrive at Caerlaverock on the Solway Firth. Or you can explore the wonderful Loch Leven Heritage Trail on foot or by bike, which encircles Loch Leven National Nature Reserve. Stop by one of the many hides and listen out for the distinctive “wink-wink” call of the pink-footed goose. Visit early in the morning to see the spectacle of huge flocks heading off to feed or in the evening when they return to roost.

5. A feast of nuts and berries


Waxwings feeding on rowan berries © Lorne Gill/SNH

In autumn the rowan trees at Creag Meagaidh will be laden with vibrant red berries – look out for migrant thrushes such as fieldfares and redwings, or even waxwings newly arrived from Scandinavia. There may also be locally-breeding ring ouzels filling up before they migrate south to the mountains of North Africa for the winter. Walk a trail in the Glasdrum or Glen Nant woodlands further west which will be dotted with the bright red of holly berries, and the yellows and browns of hazelnuts and acorns as they ripen.

6. Winter is coming


Looking over Lochan an Ais to Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh, Knockan Crag, Assynt © Lorne Gill/SNH

Scotland’s mountain landscapes are amongst the most scenic in the world, whether you want to photograph the view from the roadside or have the itch to embark on a challenging hike. Short trails and a visitor centre at Knockan Crag provide a spectacular panorama of Assynt’s hills, while Craigellachie offers one of the best views of the Cairngorms National Park. For keen walkers it’s hard to beat the glaciated, ice sculpted landscapes of Glen Coe near Fort William in the west, or Corrie Fee in the Angus Glens further east. You might even spot a ptarmigan or a mountain hare changing colour from summer grey to winter white as the hills are dusted with their first sprinkling of snow.

7. Stunning coastlines


Hermaness on Unst in Shetland is Scotland’s most northerly National Nature Reserve © Lorne Gill/SNH

Scotland has a long and incredibly varied coastline, which you can celebrate as part of our  Year of Coasts & Waters 2020. From wide sandy beaches to towering sea cliffs, this diverse coast supports amazing wildlife and is great for exploring during autumn when gales can drive huge waves ashore, making reserves, such as Hermaness on Shetland, exhilarating places to appreciate the power of nature. If you’re really lucky you might even see whales like orca from Noss on Shetland, or a humpback from St Cyrus or Forvie on Aberdeenshire’s east coast.

8. Waders and wildfowl


Evening light on Forvie Sands, Aberdeenshire © Lorne Gill/SNH

Scotland’s estuaries come alive in the autumn as summer birds get ready to leave and winter birds arrive. Look out for vast wheeling flocks of waders, like knot, which have returned from their Arctic breeding grounds. Listen for the evocative whistling call of wigeon as they start to arrive in big numbers from their Russian wintering areas. Visit bird hides at Loch Fleet on the North Coast 500, at Forvie on the Ythan Estuary (where you’ll also find a half-buried 12th century church ruin and large numbers of basking seals) and at St Cyrus at the mouth of the River North Esk.

9. Squirrels get ready


Red Squirrel, Royal Deeside © Lorne Gill/SNH

Who could resist watching red squirrels preparing for winter, hiding food in scattered places to prevent it being pinched by other animals? In autumn these charismatic characters also grow their bushy winter coat ready for the cold nights ahead. The woodlands of Muir of Dinnet on Royal Deeside are home to red squirrels while at Tentsmuir on the Fife coast, visitors to the squirrel hide at Morton Lochs have an excellent chance of seeing and photographing their antics.

10. The last days of summer


A beautiful Scotch argus, Cairngorms National Park © Lorne Gill/SNH

Take a walk in grassland or through woodland clearings at Glasdrum or Beinn Eighe and look out for the last flight of the Scotch argus, a local specialist with the ability to survive cooler temperatures than other butterflies. Elsewhere butterflies such as peacocks, red admirals and small tortoiseshells will be feeding up before hibernating over the winter in cool sheds and outbuildings in places as far flung as the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth.

These are just a few of the wildlife treats in store this autumn, find out about some of Scotland’s key species in this wildlife calendar. Pick up some ideas on what to do with the kids in Visit Scotland’s autumn breaks in Scotland guide, or why not become a leaf peeper in our colourful woodlands?

Posted in Argyll National Nature Reserves, beaches, Beinn Eighe NNR, Birds, coastal, deer, Flanders Moss NNR, Glasdrum NNR, green health, Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve, mushrooms, National Nature Reserves, Natural Health Service, Noss National Nature Reserve, photography, Rum NNR, Scotland's Protected Places, Scottish Natural Heritage, SNH, St Cyrus National Nature Reserve, Taynish NNR, The Flow Country, trees, Uncategorized, woodlands | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Faoileagan nan Seanfhaclan / Seagulls of Many Proverbs

Tha na faoileagan a’ nochdadh ann an mòran sheanfhaclan is abairtean / Seagulls appear in large number of Gaelic proverbs and observations about nature

Faoileagan nan Seanfhaclan

Herring Gull and Thrift ©Lorne Gill

Herring Gull and Thrift
©Lorne Gill

Tha e iongantach na th’ againn de sheanfhaclan co-cheangailte ri faoileagan. Bidh sibh eòlach, tha mi cinnteach, air an abairt cho còir ris an fhaoileig. Tha feadhainn dhen bheachd, ged a tha i dha-rìreabh an-diugh, gun do dh’èirich an abairt à ìoranas. Cia mheud faoileag a chunnaic sibh, agus i a’ toirt seachad biadh gu saor-thoileach gu creutair eile?! Agus tha samhlaidhean eile ann nach eil a’ toirt meas do bheusan an eòin – cho faoin ris na faoileagan, cho gòrach ris na faoileagan agus – à Eilean Leòdhais – cho faoin ri faoileag ann an Ach (a’ ciallachadh an Acha’ Mhòir, an aon bhaile anns an eilean aig nach eil cladach!)

Thathar ag ràdh mu neach òg a tha a’ feuchainn ri dèanamh a-mach gu bheil iad nas sine na tha iad ann an dha-rìreabh gu bheil guth na faoileig ann an beul na sgairig no gu bheil guth na faoileig aig an sgliùbraich (faoileag òg). Nuair a nochdas faoileagan ann an achaidhean air falbh bhon chladach, thathar ag ràdh gu bheil sneachd air an rathad. Ach, mas iad sgaireagan a tha a’ tighinn cruinn, ’s e uisge a tha san amharc. Tha an seanfhacal ann – faoileagan manadh an t-sneachda, sgaireagan manadh an uisge.

Bidh sinn a’ gabhail faoileagan a’ chladaich againn fhèin air feadhainn a bhuineas gu làidir don choimhearsnachd againn, agus ma tha feadhainn a’ leantainn ann droch shuidheachadh nuair a bu chòir dhaibh gluasad air adhart gur e faoileagan an droch chladaich a th’ annta. Bha beachd aig na seann daoine nach biodh na faoileagan a’ falbh fada on dachaigh. Ged nach eil sin buileach fìor, tha iad rim faicinn fhathast ann am mìosan a’ gheamhraidh, eucoltach ri mòran eun-mara eile.

©Lorne Gill/SNH

tha an fhaoileag air a’ mhuir  ‘the seagull is on the sea’ 
Ness lighthouse, Montrose ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Agus ’s ann tric a chithear faoileag air a’ mhuir. Chan eil sin a’ ciallachadh nan eun fhèin, ach na barran geala air muin gach stuaigh air latha gaothach no stoirmeil.

Seagulls of Many Proverbs

Non Gaelic-speakers might be surprised by the number and variety of Gaelic proverbs connected to our native seagulls (the generic Gaelic term for the various species is faoileag). Perhaps the proverb most commonly encountered in conversation is cho còir ris an fhaoileig ‘as generous-hearted as the seagull’; it’s been suggested that, while the sentiment in today’s language might be genuine, the origin of the simile might be based on an ironic observation (given the selfish behaviour of gulls who are scrapping for food!) This is perhaps supported by two other sayings with a largely negative flavour – cho faoin ris na faoileagan ‘as vain as the seagulls’ and cho gòrach ris na faoileagan ‘as silly as the seagulls’.


Lesser black-backed gulls (Larus fuscus), ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Lesser black-backed gulls (Larus fuscus),
©Lorne Gill/SNH

A young seagull (in its first year) is called a sgaireag. It is said of a young person trying to sound older than they really are that they have guth na faoileig ann an beul na sgairig ‘the old gull’s voice in the young gull’s mouth’. When the young gulls appear in numbers in inland fields, it is reckoned to presage wet weather – but when older gulls gather, it is said that snow is on the way. This is summed up in the observation faoileagan manadh an t-sneachda, sgaireagan manadh an uisge ‘adult gulls foretell snow, young gulls foretell rain’.

It might be said of people who belong to our own community and are unlikely to venture far from home that they are faoileagan a’ chladaich againn fhèin ‘the seagulls of our own shore’. If they persist in staying in a poor situation, when they should really move on to better things, they might be termed faoileagan an droch chladaich ‘seagulls of the bad shore’. These sayings arise from the traditional observation that gulls are not as strongly migratory as some other species of seabird – or, at least, many of them can still be seen locally during the winter months.

Bass Rock from Belhaven Bay, Dunbar.©George Logan/SNH

tha an fhaoileag air a’ mhuir  ‘the seagull is on the sea’
Bass Rock from Belhaven Bay, Dunbar.
©George Logan/SNH

And what is the Gaelic equivalent of the English ‘white horses’, referring to the white caps on waves on a windy day? It is also biological, but refers, not to horses but to seagulls – tha an fhaoileag air a’ mhuir ‘the seagull is on the sea’; the singular, of course, is collective!

Posted in Gaelic, Uncategorized

The fruits of Snapberry

Caroline Anderson has been coordinating the Snapberry project since 2009.  Snapberry uses photography to connect school pupils with the natural landscape of Argyll. It is a collaboration between local Scottish Natural Heritage staff and Lochgilphead High School.  Under the expert guidance of our award-winning photographer, Lorne Gill, students are encouraged to take a closer look at their surroundings and explore different aspects of photography.  A talented wildlife photographer herself, today Caroline reports on the 11th year of the project.

The 2019 Snapberry Project was a little different to the previous 10 years.   This year Lochgilphead SNH staff and Katie, from the Argyll & Isles Coast and Countryside Trust, took 10 pupils with additional support needs (ASN) out for the day to Taynish National Nature Reserve.  We have always included ASN pupils in previous years but never before had we taken out a whole group.


The 2019 Snapberries

The day was glorious with the sun breaking through by mid-morning, and the midgies were almost bearable too!  As usual Taynish provided lots of photo opportunities for the pupils who explored a range of habitat types, from the bog at the boardwalk, to the woods and the shore, snapping away as they went.  The Art Trail is on display at the reserve just now,  so that added an additional dimension to the day. Our national nature reserves are just the most perfect places for this type of project!


Midge protection for better focus

After lunch at the picnic area down by The Mill we enjoyed a treasure hunt and played a pollinator word game.  We then headed up through the woods to the hut circle, as one of the pupils was particularly interested in archaeology.


Measuring out the hut circle.

In previous years we have seen remarkable responses from ASN pupils when they are taken outside of the classroom and into nature.  One year a boy whose responses were pretty limited in school interacted with his peers in a way never before seen by the teachers.  We have also seen pupils discover a natural talent for photography that they never knew they had.

DSC_9574 (A2968602)

Exploring art at The Mill

This year was no exception and the highlight of the day for me was a teacher expressing her delight that one pupil was so comfortable that he had removed his earbuds for the first time in two years.  Because of his condition he is very sensitive to noise and wears earbuds to cancel it out.   Another great example of the positive benefits of nature for young people!


Connecting young people with nature.

An exhibition of the pupil’s photographs will be on display at Taynish Mill during Artmap Open Studios – from 27th August to the end of September.


Posted in Argyll National Nature Reserves, art, National Nature Reserves, Natural Health Service, Nature and technology, Nature in art, photography, SNH, Taynish NNR, Uncategorized, Young people | Tagged , , , , , ,

The Terns of Forvie

At Forvie National Nature Reserve (NNR) the breeding season for the terns is coming to an end. It has been another mixed year for one of Scotland’s biggest colonies of terns and a time when the NNR staff and volunteers can breathe a sigh of relief. After much hard work, most of the species have delivered another cohort of youngsters into the wide world to swell the tern population. Read on to find out more about the Forvie terns from Reserve Manager, David Pickett. 


Terns are just amazing birds. They are the greatest of travellers despite some only weighing the same as a blackbird. Many terns winter off the coast of Africa but the arctic tern heads to Antarctica, forever chasing summer. At the colony, terns are so noisy, frenetic and stressed that you could imagine them burning themselves out quickly. But, at Forvie, we have recorded the two oldest known arctic terns in the UK. At 31 and 32 years old they have survived long enough to have a million miles on the clock, despite their frantic life.

The success of breeding terns can be affected by many different factors so no year is ever the same. At Forvie we put up an electric fence around a four hectare area to protect these ground nesting birds from foxes. We also keep visitors out of the ternery during the breeding season to avoid nests from getting trodden on and birds disturbed. But crows, kestrels, gulls and even oystercatchers can still take eggs and chicks. Heavy rain and cold weather can also decimate young chicks and, crucially, the fish that the terns need to grow strong chicks need to be present and healthy.

Forvie Sandwich tern adult and chick both with darvic rings © Cat Reid

Forvie sandwich tern adult and chick both with darvic rings © Cat Reid

This year at Forvie the terns have mostly found these requirements to their liking. To work out how well the terns are doing each year we count the number of nests, the clutch size and, most importantly, the fledged youngsters that have left the nest. This number gives us an idea of how successful breeding has been. We have four species of terns breeding here. The highest number is of sandwich terns, 1100 pairs of them and they have a peak fledged chick count of nearly 700 – one of the best years yet. The arctic terns and the common terns look very similar to each other so for monitoring purposes we combine their totals. This year, 1600 pairs bred but we have a peak fledged chick count of only 350 chicks. This indicates that either predation of some sort was higher than normal or the fish weren’t as plentiful. Our rarest tern is the little tern; there are only about 2000 pairs across the UK. At Forvie, 27 pairs attempted to breed but it appears that they have all failed. Awful weather in June didn’t help them but we have also evidence from trail cameras that black-headed gulls and oystercatchers have been eating eggs and chicks.

Besides nearly 3000 pairs of terns at Forvie, other birds have been taking advantage of the excellent nesting conditions provided. We have some 2000 pairs of black-headed gulls, 100 eiders, a few pairs of ringed plovers and oystercatchers and, remarkably, one pair of hole-in-the-ground nesting jackdaws! This all makes the seabird breeding colony at Forvie exceptionally important.

Forvie tern colony terns in flight ©David Pickett

Forvie tern colony terns in flight
©David Pickett

The success of here is down to a partnership. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) staff work tremendously hard to perfect the protection system and then monitor the birds afterwards. The fence has to be checked every single day of the breeding season and our fantastic team of local volunteers play a really important part in this, as well as doing the grunt work of putting up and taking down of the fence and clearing the site in the winter.

A key part of the Forvie tern project is gaining an understanding of the importance of Forvie in the context of the North Sea. For many years the Grampian ringing group, led by Ewan Weston and Raymond Duncan, have been ringing young and adult terns and, by monitoring returning ringed birds, a better picture is emerging. Some terns have darvic rings put on which have an obvious and unique colour and letter combination that enables the rings to be read as the birds go about their lives. From these, the ringers have found where some Forvie birds winter – for example, yellow ECB has been seen twice off the coast of Namibia. And there are indications that Forvie exports birds to other colonies that may be doing less well while still supporting the strong colony here. Also, birds from across the North Sea head to the Ythan estuary and Forvie after they have finished breeding to fuel up before starting on their seasonal ocean wanderings. So it appears that Forvie is important on a much wider European scale. The Forvie colony continues to thrive thanks to the partnership of SNH, volunteers and the bird ringers but also thanks to the visitors who follow the signs and leave the birds in peace.

Forvie tern colony ©David Pickett

Forvie tern colony ©David Pickett

However, we can only help the terns from egg to first flight. After that, they are on their own until they return three to four years later to breed again. For tern populations to survive they need more than just a safe place to breed, they also need healthy oceans with good fish populations to feed chicks and feed themselves. At a time of climate emergency with changing oceans and more extreme weather this is something that everyone has to play a part in.

You can find out more about the Forvie terns and Forvie National Nature Reserve on their dedicated blog:

Posted in biodiversity, Birds, Ecology, National Nature Reserves, Scottish Natural Heritage, SNH

Butterfly invasion!

Our guest blog this week is written by our Isle of May national nature reserve manager, David Steel, who saw an influx of a favourite visitor to the island this week.

Isle of May - Painted Lady Butterfly - blog.jpg
Painted Lady butterfly

Over the last five days, the Isle of May has experienced an invasion only rarely seen before. At the weekend, the island welcomed thousands of Painted Lady butterflies with an estimate of 10,000 individuals present on Sunday, with several thousand a day since then. Staggering numbers for an insect, let alone a butterfly! 

Isle of May - Painted Lady butterfly on ragwort - blog

A Painted Lady butterfly taking advantage of the flowering ragwort.

This invasion was not just confined to the Isle of May, as the entire east coast of the United Kingdom were reporting vast numbers and it’s just so impressive to witness. But why were we getting so many and where were they coming from?

Isle of May - Painted Lady Butterflies - how many - blog
1, 2, 3…it’s easy to lose count!

Every year, huge numbers leave tropical Africa and head north reaching as far north as the Arctic Circle (over 7,000 miles…for an insect!) However once every decade or so, numbers are great (the last big invasion occurred in 2009) as a result of good breeding conditions on their migration route — hence the bigger than normal numbers. The natural world can be mind-blowing at times and this is just another fine example. So the next time you see one, just appreciate how far those little wings have travelled!

Posted in Uncategorized

Crios Gaisgich, Aspirin agus Tì / ‘Cuchullin’s Belt’, Aspirin and Tea

Seo àm math dhen bhliadhna airson a bhith a’ faicinn agus a’ cruinneachadh lus a tha co-cheangailte ri fear de na gaisgich as ainmeile againn / This is a great time to see and forage a plant named for one of Gaeldom’s greatest warriors

Crios Gaisgeach Gàidhealach, Aspirin agus Tì

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria). Weem meadow SSSI near Aberfeldy. July 2016 ©Lorne Gill/SNH For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) © Lorne Gill/SNH

Tha beul-aithris a’ ceangal an Eilein Sgitheanaich gu làidir ris an t-seann ghaisgeach Ultach, Cù Chulainn – agus tha lus sònraichte a’ comharrachadh sin aig an àm seo dhen bhliadhna. ’S e sin Crios Chù Chulainn (Filipendula ulmaria) a tha aithnichte ann am Beurla mar ‘meadowsweet’ (oir bhathar a’ mìlseachadh mil-dheoch no mead leis). Thàinig Cù Chulainn mar dheugaire don Eilean Sgitheanach far an d’ fhuair e oideachadh ann an sgilean sabaid aig cùirt na Banrigh Sgàthach (no Sgiath mar a their feadhainn). Bha Cù Chulainn gu math crosta, caiseanach na nàdar, agus chaidh leigheas a dhèanamh air turas leis an lus seo, nuair a bha e an impis bàs fhaighinn leis a’ chuthach.

Ged a bhios sinn a’ ceangal nar n-inntinn an droga aspirin leis an t-seileach (salix ann an Laideann), thàinig am facal aspirin fhèin bho sheann ainm saidheansail aig Crios Chù Chulainn – Spiraea ulmaria – oir gabhaidh an droga a thoirt às an lus sin cuideachd.

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria). Weem meadow SSSI near Aberfeldy. July 2016 ©Lorne Gill/SNH For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria). © Lorne Gill/SNH

Le aspirin ann, cha bhi e na iongnadh gum biodh daoine a’ cleachdadh Crios Chù Chulainn mar leigheas airson ceann goirt, ach bidh luibheanaich an latha an-diugh fhathast ga chur gu feum airson iomadach tinneas – fiabhras no ain-teas nam measg. Bidh feadhainn a’ dèanamh tì de na flùraichean agus duilleagan. Bidh daoine a nì mil ann an Nirribhidh gan suathadh fhèin le Crios Chù Chulainn mus làimhsich iad an cuid sheilleanan oir tha stuthan ceimigeach ann a’ fàgail nam meanbh-fhrìdean nas socraiche.

Chan eil fios le cinnt an do dh’ionnsaich Cù Chulainn mu bhuadhan an luis ann an dùthaich a bhreith, ach tha e nas coltaiche gur ann an Alba a thachair e, oir thathar a’ gabhail ‘airgead luachra’ air a leithid ann an Gàidhlig na h-Èireann. ’S ann an Gàidhlig na h-Alba a-mhàin a thathar a’ dèanamh ceangal eadar an gaisgeach Gàidhealach agus an lus sònraichte seo.

‘Cuchullin’s Belt’, Aspirin and Tea

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria). © Lorne Gill/SNH

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria).
© Lorne Gill/SNH

The folkloric connections between the Isle of Skye and the ancient Gaelic warrior Cuchullin are many and varied – and highlighted at this time of year by the impressive flowering, in Skye’s abundant damp meadows, of a plant intimately connected with him – Crios Chù Chulainn (‘Cuchullin’s belt’), generally known in English as ‘meadowsweet’. An Ulsterman who was easily raised to temper, Cuchullin came as a young man to Skye where he fell in with the redoubtable Sgàthach (also known as Sgiath), a warrior queen who trained him in the skills of combat. The plant’s Gaelic name originates in the story that it was used to save his life by curing an apoplectic rage, following which he would gratefully carry a sprig of the shrub in his belt.

While we might more immediately associate aspirin with the willow tree (salicylic acid being derived from salix ‘willow’, the seileach of the Gaels), the word aspirin itself comes from an old scientific name for the meadowsweet, Spiraea ulmaria, from which the drug could also be obtained. The species’ modern name is Filipendula ulmaria.

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria). Weem meadow SSSI near Aberfeldy. July 2016 ©Lorne Gill/SNH For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria).
©Lorne Gill/SNH

Meadowsweet is an important plant in the herbalist’s toolkit. Some people make the flowers and leaves into a tea, others take it as required as an anti-inflammatory or painkiller, or to treat fevers. Norwegian beekeepers believe that rubbing their hands and clothes with the shrub before handling bees will make the insects calmer and more compliant.

It is not known for certain if Cuchullin learned of the powers of meadowsweet in his native Ulster, but the likelihood is that it happened on Skye, for the connection between warrior and plant is only known in the Gaelic of Scotland, and not in Ireland.

Posted in Gaelic, Uncategorized

Island life – volunteering on The May

You might have noticed from Twitter that last week our Chief Exec, Francesca Osowska, was working on our Isle of May National Nature Reserve (NNR).  Her reasons for spending time on the Isle of May were twofold: to see life from the perspective of our NNR volunteers, while promoting volunteering opportunities; and to talk about the five major causes of nature loss, as highlighted in the recent UN IPBES report.  In our blog post today Francesca tells us more about her time on the island.


Welcome to The May Team

We have two employees on the Isle of May: Reserve Manager, David Steel and Assistant Reserve Manager, Bex Outram.  They are joined by two seasonal volunteers: Ella Benninghaus and Cristin Lambert. Also on the island are researchers from the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) and this week, a young birders group. So pretty busy for a small island!


Ella recording BBC Radio 4’s Puffin Podcast

I shadowed Ella and Cristin for the week, joining them on tasks such as the morning puffling rescue, various bird surveys (tern, wader and great black-backed gulls this week), beach cleaning, preparing for visitors (and clearing up after them) and talking to visitors when they’re on the island. A lot of this is fun (although when the puffling you’re trying to rescue runs even deeper into vicious nettles you begin to wonder…) but there are plenty of mundane tasks too. Cleaning the visitor toilets, trying to keep the accommodation tidy and cooking for up to 18 (happily I wasn’t put on the cooking rota), for example.

If you’re used to office work, working on a reserve can come as a bit of a shock.  Instead of the working day being dominated by the calendar and meetings, it’s dictated by season, weather and visitors. Some work is best done when visitors aren’t on the island and when they are, the job is to spend time with them. Wet weather can impact on the outdoor work, making time to input all the bird data that has been collected. ‘Working day’ has a different concept compared to the office based day. Some days start early (for example, one morning we started a rota from 06:00 to keep watch on vulnerable tern chicks) and the team here is often working late into the night (for example, helping the CEH researchers with their monitoring of puffin eating habits).

It was brilliant to see Ella and Cristin at work: natural and knowledgeable with visitors and a source of expertise on the island’s birdlife. Our NNRs simply wouldn’t function without our fantastic volunteers. It’s hard work, but also a lot of fun and very rewarding. We have a range of opportunities available to suit different interests, skills and availability. If you’re interested in volunteering on an NNR your first point of call is our website

The other thought that struck me whilst I was on the Isle of May was how much our NNRs encapsulate all the work that we’re doing to try to prevent biodiversity loss by tackling the key drivers highlighted in the IPBES report:

  1. Changing land and sea use;
  2. Pollution;
  3. Climate change;
  4. Direct exploitation;
  5. Invasive non-native species.

Much of our work across NNRs is directly addressing these issues in a very practical way.

It was brilliantly educative week – thank you David, Bex, Ella and Cristin for having me.


Posted in Uncategorized

The wild flowers of St Cyrus

Simon Ritchie has been working at St Cyrus National Nature Reserve since he was 16 – initially as a volunteer, he is currently employed as a Seasonal Reserve Officer. Here Simon talks about one of the many features that make this reserve such a special place to visit at this time of year.

There are a lot of things I love about St Cyrus National Nature Reserve (NNR); the people, the landscape, the history, the birds, the butterflies, I could go on forever. However, one of the features that tugs on my heart strings the most at St Cyrus are the wildflowers. The botanical life at St Cyrus is astounding! It is one of the reasons that St Cyrus was designated an NNR back in 1962. The plant communities at St Cyrus are more characteristic of 200 miles further south: we have a lot of southern species that are at their northern range here.

Dune grassland

St Cyrus dune grassland

This is mainly due to our neutral, base rich soils and mild climate. The dune grassland at St Cyrus is sheltered in among volcanic andesite and basalt cliffs that stretch to 75 metres on one side and a protective dune ridge on the other. This provides a more sheltered, mild climate which allows the flowers to grow. We have over 250 species of flowering plants on the reserve, some of which are extremely rare in Scotland. This rich floristic diversity also in-turn boosts our Lepidoptera numbers; we are the best site in North-East Scotland for butterflies and moths!

Brimstone moth

Brimstone moth (Opisthograptis luteolata) on gorse

One of the rare plants at St Cyrus is Nottingham catchfly (Silene nutans). It is named Nottingham catchfly because it was first found on the walls of Nottingham castle. St Cyrus is one of the few sites in Scotland in which this plant occurs. It is a very characteristic plant with a pinkish-white colouration and hairy leaves. This plant is carnivorous and feeds on night-flying insects, including moths!

Nottingham Catchfly (Silene nutans)

Nottingham catchfly (Silene nutans)

The nationally important dune grassland at St Cyrus really comes into its own in mid-summer; it’s like walking through paradise! As you walk through our ‘Floor’y Meads’ trail (flowery meadows in north-east Scots) the first thing that becomes apparent is the colour. The yellow of the lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum) is extremely vivid. It carpets much of the dune grassland along with the subtle pinks of restharrow (Ononis repens). In among the carpet of yellow and pink we get clumps of clustered bellflower (Campanula glomerata) which provide a dark, rich purple colour.

Clustered Bellflower on the Dune Grassland

Clustered bellflower on dune grassland

White is another colour dominant in the dune grassland; eyebright (Euphrasia sp.) covers the shorter areas of grassland and provides a nice colour contrast to the yellow, pink and purple. Other plants that occur on the dune grassland and provide a lovely mix of colour include; maiden pink (Dianthus deltoides), yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) and the ‘deep’ purple of bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum).

Bloody Cranesbill

Bloody cranesbill

As well as  a pleasant sensory overload on your eyes, dune grassland is also an extremely fragrant habitat; it smells phenomenal! The strong smelling restharrow is locally known as ‘stinking oxters’ in which ‘oxters’ is a Scots name for armpit. Although to give it it’s due, I rather like the smell! We have lots of wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare) which is actually the same herb as oregano that you would have on your pizza! Wild thyme (Thymus polytrichus) fills the air with a delightful fragrance and Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) also produces an extremely sweet smell. If only smell-o-vision was invented!

Wild thyme

Wild thyme

It’s not only the dune grassland that boasts a species-rich flower community, the whole reserve is a haven for flowers of all different types! That’s why I love St Cyrus NNR, there is always something to see no matter what part of the reserve you are on, and what time of year you are visiting. If you want to visit St Cyrus specifically to see the dune grassland and the vast plethora of flowers, then Mid-July is the best time to visit. It’s when the grassland is at its most vivid in colour!

Northern Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza purpurella)

Northern marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza purpurella)

If you do visit St Cyrus NNR, be sure to pop into the office and say hi! If I am not in the office, I am more likely out on the reserve, crouched over on the dune grassland smelling the flowers…

Thanks for reading!

Simon Ritchie – Seasonal Nature Reserve Assistant at St Cyrus NNR


Posted in Uncategorized