The scent of May

Across the land, spring is fervently gathering pace. We are considerably behind realms further south; nevertheless, in spite of biting blusters from the far north, there is activity aplenty in hedgerow, woodland, along the shore and high on the hills.

A few miles away from Red River Croft, between Kerrysdale and Sheildaig, on the narrow road to South Erradale, is a complex mixture of wood and scrub, combined with heather and bog moorland. The tallest trees are principally ancient oaks which stand tall and proud, gnarled and lichen-bearded. Many are set among groves of birch, hazel and alder which are tangled with bramble, heather, honeysuckle and ivy, yet because of their great age these grand oaks rise imperiously above the jumble below, their long outstretched branches like protective arms, mindfully ministering to the young, beckoning for them to take heed of their age-old tales, of wisdom and of warning. There go people, destroyers of forests! Branches and trunks are moss and lichen covered; for some, the bark is barely visible. This is indeed a “cool, temperate rainforest”.

Lichen covered ancient oak

Lichen covered ancient oak

Tree bark decorated with many species of lichen

Tree bark decorated with many species of lichen


Now the winter, royal purple finery of silver birches is steadily being replaced by livid lime brightness, larches are outfitted in bushy costumes as needled tresses sprout in vibrant jades and greens, and, at last, the solemn brown buds on oaks are opening and burnishing branch tips lightly and joyously with copper before their full leaved gorgeous emerald radiance is wholly realised.

Oak buds bursting into vivid green brightness

Oak buds bursting into vivid green brightness

On peaty moorland bog myrtle is flowering now. It is another gilded glory but one whose scent is entirely intoxicating. I adore this shrub. Here on acid soils it has dark russet and chocolate coloured stems, bronze buds which open out into delicate, orange flowers before the olive green leaves develop. Oh the gorgeous perfume when you crush buds and flowers between fingers: fragrant, resinous, unique, uplifting, healing and tantalising. It is a magical thing, revitalising the sense of smell, transporting and transformative. If only it could be bottled!

Young, lime green birches fronted by burnished orange and bronze of bog myrtle

Young, lime green birches fronted by the burnished orange and bronze of bog myrtle

If I could capture the scent, I would, and send it to you, dear reader!

If I could capture the scent, I would, and send it to you, dear reader!

The scents of wild places, and familiar places, are often forgotten or overlooked, especially when we gaze about at our favourite places. But all around us, especially in the sap-rising rush of Spring, the living, breathing earth, the very vibrancy of plant and animal, insect and fungus, are interacting with us, stimulating, and tickling the nose. Close your eyes and breathe in deeply, think not about what your are listening to but pause to sniff the delicate airs passing by, filled with stories to tell, of moss and lichen, of flower burst and leaf growth.

But it is windy here, still. Cold too. Waves of grey rush at us from the north, first like mists and fogs, then dropping with iron-clad force, raindrops huge and unforgiving. There is a gritty saltiness in the rain. The icy wetness drives hard and hurls the scented gentleness away.

Wild seas and biting winds, but the pale glimmer of evening sun hints at warmer days to come

Wild seas and biting winds, but the pale glimmer of evening sun hints at warmer days to come

But it is May! And we long for the warmth and yellowness to return. It will. Soon.


About Annie O'G Worsley

I'm a mum of four, gran, writer, crofter & Professor of 'Environmental Change'. I now live on a small farm (known as a croft) by the sea in a place surrounded by the ‘Great Wilderness’ mountains of the Scottish NW Highlands. I was a full-time academic, a geographer, but I decided to go feral and follow my dream of living a smaller, simpler, wilder life. I have always loved wild places. As a child I was inspired by tales of Trader Horn (my great-great-great uncle Alfred Aloysius Smith) told to me by my mother. Trader Horn spent his life wandering, mostly in Africa. I too, love stravaiging (Gaelic for wandering) and spent time in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea as a young researcher, living with tribes there. Although I spent years researching and teaching university students about environments, processes and habitats, I am discovering much, much more exploring the wilds around me. In moving away from scientific writing, I have rediscovered my wilder self and have a much deeper, truer understanding of nature than I ever had before. My work is published by Elliott & Thompson in a series of anthologies called 'Seasons' and I am currently writing a book about this extraordinary place. I continue to write academic papers with my research colleagues but I am developing new skills including landscape photography and painting. And of course, I still love to wander.
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2 Responses to The scent of May

  1. Your writing is just delicious, Annie!! I could eat up the images your words conjure in my minds eye.
    Bog Myrtle is probably my favourite smell in the world. I just adore it. I keep sprigs of it in my van but unfortunately the scent dissipates quickly. Perhaps that’s why it’s so special; you have to be in the right place at the right time to experience it 🙂 Can’t wait to “get up North” again soon!


  2. beatingthebounds says:

    Bog myrtle is wonderful stuff isn’t it. It’s not found very near home, because we are on Limestone, but there’s plenty on the raised peat bogs on the other side of the River Kent. The Treboom brewery in York make a Wheat Beer which uses it alongside hops. I haven’t tried that, but it’s also in the wonderful Fraoch heather ale brewed in Alloa. I imagine somebody somewhere is making something which at least purports to have the scent – it is a lovely aroma.


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