History of Plant Recording


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In 1549 Sir Donald Monro, High Dean of the Isles, visited many of the islands off the west coast of Scotland and recorded "birkin woodis" (birch woods) and "twa fair orchards" on Raasay. The manuscript (A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland Called Hybrides) appears not to have been published until 1774.

Martin Martin (Mŕrtainn MacGilleMhŕrtainn) was probably born on the Trotternish Peninsula of Skye1669 and in the 1690s travelled the Hebrides resulting in the publication of  A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland in 1703. Raasay, he noted, "has some wood on all the quarters of it" and at Clachan there was "an orchard with several sorts of berries, pot herbs, &c". Martin's book stayed in print for over a century after its initial publication, assisting later travellers like Thomas Pennant, James Boswell and Samuel Johnson. The book was revived, with a special edition being printed in 1884 as background for the members of the Napier Commission

In 1768, James Robertson was recording plants on Skye and elsewhere in Scotland and on 8th October he sailed past Raasay and Rona when leaving Portree.  He describes Raasay as having "some wood in all quarters especially along the east side" but did not land (Henderson & Dickson, 1994).

On 19th July 1772 John Lightfoot (author of Flora Scotica) and Thomas Pennant sailed past Raasay as part of their voyage to the Hebrides and heard tell of "twa fair orchards" but they did not land. Lightfoot (1777) records under Huperzia selago that "In the Island of Raasay near Skye...the inhabitants make use of this plant instead of alum to fix the colours in dyeing".  This is repeated in William Hooker's Flora Scotica (1821).

The following year in September 1773 Samuel Johnson and James Boswell visited Raasay. The only plants mentioned by Johnson (1775) in his account  of the visit are grass, corn, forest trees and an orchard.  However, he does contrive to mention Joseph Banks, one of the most famous botanists of all time, in a Raasay connection - noting the similarity between stone arrow heads found on Raasay and those found by Banks in the Pacific Islands.  This is actually quite strange since no stone arrow heads have ever been found on Raasay by archaeologists (Sharpe, 1982).

Being 31 years the junior, Boswell explored Raasay somewhat further than his companion and in his journal (Boswell, 1785) he specifically mentions gaul (Bog Myrtle), dwarf juniper, plane trees (a Scottish name for sycamore) and ash trees.  Like Johnson he mentions grass, corn and trees but also a number of crops - vegetables, potatoes, strawberries, raspberries, currants, etc.

When the Napier Commission visited Raasay in 1883, crops such as oats and potatoes were mentioned and "scrub bush" at Torran was mentioned by Murdo Nicolson. There are references to grass and woods but no specific plants are mentioned.

The next records included in this flora are over 120 years later, from H. B. Woodward's presidential address to the Geological Association in 1894 in which he mentions birch, heather and beech on Raasay. J. A. Harvie-Brown and  H. A. MacPherson mention holly on Raasay in "A fauna of the North West Highlands and Skye" dated 1904. No doubt further reading would uncover more early anecdotal mentions of plants on Raasay.

Botanical recording started in earnest in the 1930s when J. W. Heslop Harrison was the guest of an expedition organised by Professor A. D. Peacock of the University College, Dundee in 1934. Like many before and since, he appears to have caught the Raasay bug and he returned with teams of fellow botanists, family members and students for long summer visits in 1935 and 1936.  Large numbers of first records for Raasay and for Rona date from these trips and are listed as JWHH et al. 1934-36. These records were collated and published as "The Flora of the Isle of Raasay and of the Adjoining Islands of South Rona, Scalpay, Fladday and Longay".

This flora (Harrison, 1937a) is the major reference work, but at about the same time a shorter paper (Harrison, 1937b) was also published which gives some of the same information but with far less detail. Despite correspondence with the University of Durham Library, it remains unclear which was published first. 

Harrison (1937b) includes the following: "if further details are required. they may be obtained from the Flora of Raasay published from this department" and a review by P. M. Hall, in the same part says (p364) “…a short synopsis is given in this part on p299 et seq…. for greater length see the Durham paper”. It is clear that the longer paper (Harrison, 1937a) was intended as the definitive source and it has been assigned priority in this web-based flora.

Some of the junior members of the expeditions published folksy accounts of their expeditions in Vasculum under the general title “The Chronicles of The Armstrong College Expedition to Raasay (Inner Hebrides)” during the years 1935, 1936 and 1937. These papers contain references to plants and so in some cases become the first published records for Raasay.

These six publications are:

  1. Anon. (1935) Longay . Vasculum XXI 139-142

  2. Bond, Helena B (1936) Around the Island. Vasculum XXII 16-19

  3. Harrison J Heslop (1936) We Climb Dun Caan. Vasculum XXII 59-64

  4. Anon (1936) Across Scalpay. Vasculum XXII 136-139

  5. Bolton, Ethel (1937) Around Northern Scalpay. Vasculum XXIII 14-16

  6. Anon (1937). The Shore from Fearns to Hallaig. Vasculum XXIII 48-50

Papers I,  IV and V are not relevant to the current version of this flora. Papers II and III being published in 1936 take precedence over the two more significant papers discussed above. Paper VI was published in 1937 and it is unclear how its publication date compares with the two more significant papers. Fortunately the number of records in VI that are not mentioned in papers II or III is small. Where it has proved necessary to make a decision, precedence has again been given to the main flora (Harrison, 1937a).

In 1951 Harrison returned to Raasay (Harrison & Morton, 1951) and added a number of further taxa to the Raasay list

It appears that most of Harrison's notebooks have been lost, perhaps in the bonfire of specimens and written material undertaken by his housekeeper after his death (G. G. Graham, personal communication). A few remain in the library of the University of Newcastle but they shed little light on the work undertaken on Raasay or Rona.

Raasay was the springboard for Harrison's botanical work in the Inner and Outer Hebrides.  With large parties he covered all the significant islands except Skye and used the results to formulate his theories of island biogeography.

Much has been written about Harrison's more extraordinary records, especially on Rum, but it was on Raasay that he first reported plants whose presence has since been put down to deliberate introduction.  Four species on Raasay fall into this category:

In 1946 John Raven visited Raasay to see Harrison's site for Exaculum pusillum and Juncus capitatus.  He failed to find either.

Enough has been written about these aberrations (e.g. Sabbagh, 1999; Pearman & Walker, 2004)  but they should not overly detract from the excellent coverage achieved by Harrison and his colleagues in mapping the flora of the Hebrides.  A great many plants are still to be found exactly where they were described in the 1930s.

In more recent times Mrs C. W. Murray visited Raasay many times in her role as BSBI vice-county recorder. She ran a week-long field meeting on Raasay in 1969 and during the 1978 field meeting on Skye, one day was devoted to Raasay.

Mrs Kirsty Creighton first visited Raasay on honeymoon in 1949 and returned many times.  Notable amongst her finds was the first record for Hymenophyllum tunbrigense near Fearns.

The author of this flora first visited Raasay in 1983 and started recording on a1km square basis in 1992. He brought a BSBI field meeting to Raasay in 2005.  In recent years, having taken over as vice-county recorder rather less time has been devoted to Raasay since the Small Isles and particularly Skye have demanded attention.

Various botanists have  visited Raasay in recent years, notably Richard Bateman (orchids) and  Alan Newton (brambles).


On Monro's 1549 trip he noted that Rona was "full of wood and heddir".

Martin Martin (1703) noted Rona to be "covered with long heath (Calluna vulgaris), erica-baccifera (Empetrum nigrum), mertillus (Vaccinium myrtillus), and some mixture of grass".

Harrison was beaten to Rona by Edith Smith who was part of the Dundee-based  expedition and in 1934 published records made during 1933.  The Harrison expeditions then visited Rona but many first records for Rona belong to Smith. However, some of her records are clearly incorrect.

In 1934 Delaney and Copland published  a paper on the effects of depopulation on Rona.  This contains some interesting plant records, not all of them entirely reliable.

Mrs C. W. Murray visited Rona a couple of times before joining the author who continued to make visits almost every year from 1994 to 2009, in some years achieving more than one visit.


Loch Braig, Rona

Loch Braig, Rona 



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