Wildflower Watch

Wild Heathers of the Scottish Highlands

By Derek Norman with Guest Author Bruce Wilson

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist - Volume 15, Issue 3


Here Bruce Wilson, an ASBA award recipient, offers an account of an unusual and ambitious endeavor – researching, reaching out, crossing borders and making connections to produce a unique and an original body of work. 

In the spring of 2007, the time came for me to decide on a subject for my Independent Study Project for the Certificate Program at the Minnesota School of Botanical Arts. I had been kicking around the idea of painting the heathers and moorland plants of the Scottish Highlands for some time and with the encouragement of my wife Lindy, I was off to bonnie Scotland. 

The first few days of my initial research were spent at the Royal Botanical Gardens Edinburgh sketching and photographing the three principal wild heathers and companion plants in the excellent Scottish Heath Garden. I then drove north to Grantown-on-Spey, located in the rugged mountains of Cairngorms National Park, to use this town as a base from which to compass out and study the different heather habitats. 

Heather moorland is a semi-natural habitat not directly created by man but one that has evolved over time as a reaction to natural and human influences. Seventy-five percent of the world’s moorland is found in Great Britain and 41%  of the moorland is in Scotland resides in Cairngorms National Park. 

The wild heathers of Scotland are Erica tetralix (crossleaved heather), Erica cinerea (bell heather), and Calluna vulgaris (ling). Ling is considered the most common and hardy of the heathers on the moors. From the family Ericaceae, this low-growing perennial shrub is singular to its genus. 

My project includes graphite, watercolor, pen and ink, colored pencil, and carbon dust renderings. Additional botanical and moorland subjects incorporated are Onopordon acanthium (Scots thistle), Lochmaea suturalis (heather beetle), Sorbus aucuparia (rowan), and a graphite image of Lagopus lagopus scotica (red grouse) in a heather environment. I included this bird because the grouse shooting interests are related positively to the retention of the heather moorland. The revenue from the hunting is very instrumental in financing and conservation of the moors. 

The upland heather habitat in Scotland is currently on the decline. Since WWII, the heather moorland of Scotland has shrunk by an average of 40%.

The moorlands have been affected over the years by factors such as grazing pressure by sheep and red deer, air pollution, the timber industry, invasive bracken, and climate change. Over-grazing and trampling in the uplands leave many of the fragile fauna at risk. Conservation work by citizens, the government, and private organizations are being undertaken. With these efforts and more, the precious habitats will be enjoyed for generations to come. 

I would like to thank the American Society of Botanical Artists for help with my project through the Anne Ophelia Dowden Grant. It helped immensely with my Independent Study Project and meant a lot to me. For those who are interested more information (and images) can be found about the project at brucewilsonart.com. 

I took a trip back to Scotland at the beginning of June this year to exhibit the work at the BISCOT show at Gardening Scotland and at the Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh. My wife and I drove back to Grantown-on-Spey and visited the moors where the heather was recently out of the snow gathering energy for the time again when it will explode on the hills in a carpet of color.  

  • A highland moor, adrift in heather, © Bruce Wilson, 2008
  • Erica tetralix, graphite © Bruce Wilson, 2008