Posted by: christinelaennec | March 7, 2015

Whin

The year that Katharine Stewart was writing the essays in A Garden in the Hills, March 7th was “a day of calm, when to get up and go straight outside is sheer indulgence”.  She made a bonfire and began clearing her borders, in the company of the blackbird that lived in her cypress tree. (p. 53)  It hasn’t been a day for gardening here today, but we have had company and have kept busy out and about in other ways.

She goes on to write, “It’s good to be able to share… plants with people starting gardens from scratch.  Scratch it really is, up here.  The first year must be spent digging up heather, rushes, all the moorland scrub, before applying a good dose of lime.” Lime is used to counteract the acidity of the peaty Highland soil.  “Black plastic is spread and at last some sort of tilth emerges.  But all that work goes for nothing if the garden ground is not protected from the invasion of rabbits, hares, roe deer, sheep.  John Reid said in the seventeenth century ‘As there is no country can have more need of planting than this, so none more needful of Inclosing, for we well know how vain it is to plant unless we Inclose’.” (p. 53)

She then goes on to discuss various plants used for hedging:  briar rose, broom, and gorse, called “whin”.  Here is a photo of a whin hedge in Donegal, Ireland, where Michael’s family comes from:

A whin hedge in Donegal, Easter 2006.  With an 8-year-old Dafter and me.

A whin hedge in Donegal, Easter 2006. With an 8-year-old Dafter and me.

Curiously, Katharine Stewart writes as if she has only heard of whin made into hedges, not actually seen such a thing:  “A New Zealander tells me that they make hedges of whin (gorse).  That should keep everything out!  There is certainly plenty of whin here.  In early summer it brightens the whole landscape.  At one time growth was encouraged, as whin was used as fodder for the horses when winter supplies were finished.  Every place had a ‘knocking stone,’ a hollowed-out stone in which the plants were pounded into a mealy substance.  … Broom too, makes great splashes of yellow, of a much warmer shade than that of the oilseed rape favoured by the low ground folk.  Ach buidhe, the yellow field, is a common place-name in the heights.” (p. 54)

It’s true that the yellow of both whin and broom are wonderful to see in the spring countryside.  What she doesn’t mention is that whin smells like coconut – really divine!

The fact that these two plants were of great importance in former times is reflected by street names.  In Aberdeen, for example, Broomhill Road and Whinhill Road are close to one another (linked by Fonthill Road, which goes past the church).  In Glasgow, Broomhill is the name of a neighbourhood, and there are many place names beginning with Whin-.  (My favourite is Whinny Burn.)

I hope you are all enjoying the weekend, and indeed the month of March!

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Responses

  1. The ground is not really dry enough to start gardening here yet.

  2. “A day of calm, when to get up and go straight outside is sheer indulgence” what a great sentence. It left me with so many warm spring feelings. Early spring, after a long dark winter. Being outside is the only option and the only place to be. I can nolonger cope with too much bright sunlight and hard physical work, but l put on my sunglasses and potter around happily on such days. Pam

  3. Longing for the coconut smell of the whins!

  4. No gorse here in southern French Alps, but less and less snow and the first flowers : primroses, veronica… and birds singing and singing. Time to go out and gardening !

  5. I never knew the name ‘whin’! Beginning to flower here.

  6. I so enjoyed reading this post. In Tacoma/Gig Harbor, Washington area we had a lot of “Scotch broom”. It was always a joy to see the beautiful yellow flowers but it is a bit of an invasive plant. I was just reading Edith Holden’s “The Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady”. She mentions in the March 4th entry….Whin-bushes in full bloom in many places. She was writing from Warwickshire. I hope that you and your family are all doing well. Wishing you a great week 🙂

    • Lilly’s Mom, I had forgotten about the name “Scotch broom”! I remember when we first came to this country (nearly 22 years ago now), thinking, So THAT’s why it’s called Scotch broom! There must have been enough Scots immigrants to the Northwest to make that the common name. I wonder if it’s called that in other parts of the States? Thanks for the reminder.

      • Lilly’s Mom’s comment prompted me to read the March entries for the Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. While I have not noticed Whin-bushes mentioned in this diary, on the 10th, she mentions cycling to the “withy-beds” which puzzles me. Do you know what she meant, Christine?

        Someone had told me that Scotch Broom looks like Forsythia, and the yellow blossoms do resemble each other, but our Forsythia bush is a more fountain shaped bush…like a short Weeping Willow tree…sort of 🙂 although perhaps the hedge where you and Dafter were photographed had been pruned [unlike our unruly bush.]

  7. I’ve never made the connection before but funnily enough the first thing I thought of was Broomfield Road when I read your sentence about broom and gorse 🙂 Interesting to learn about whin also.
    A friend of mine did research on upland heath, so when he got married his buttonhole included some gorse / whin. A lovely splash of yellow but a little prickly when hugging!

  8. Thanks to everyone for all your comments! It is lovely to think of those first tantalising days of spring, isn’t it?

    Gracie, both gorse/whin and broom are members of the pea family. You can see the resemblance if you look at their flowers – like miniature sweet peas. Forsythia belongs to the olive family, apparently! It’s named after the Scottish botanist William Forsyth – something I didn’t know until I came to Scotland, where people say ‘for-SIGH-thee-a’.

    Yes, the hedges have to be trimmed. There are special sideways cutting machines that go along the country lanes to trim the hedges.

    I had never heard of withy-beds, but it means beds where willows are planted for basket-making. I expect it’s not something that is done in Scotland, but who knows, I could be wrong. According to this website http://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/woodland-activities/willow-and-wetlands/#
    willow basket-making had its origins in the Somerset levels, a very wet part of England.

    Sakthi, you will never think of Whinhill and Broomhill Roads quite the same way! Funny about your friend wearing the object of his research to his wedding. 🙂


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