Purple Hairstreak, Gait Barrows

‘Look for the oak tree with the butterflies dancing round the crown.’

Or a needle in a haystack.  How many oak trees ( or ash trees if its brown hairstreaks you’re after) are there in  a forest?


Managing a nature reserve for invertebrates is really  a type of gardening – selective pruning and lopping of native vegetation. It leaves herbaceous borders of knapweeds and ragworts, standard tress unexpectedly naked, walkways and trails to peer from, and somewhere in amongst that,  by consciously getting lost and learning to look again at insect level ( hover, bumble, damsel, dragon, beetle), something immersive and satisfying happens  to me again.


Limestone pavements are the main feature of Gait Barrows. The woods and marshes are there because it has been impossible to adapt it for intensive agricultural use.


Hairstreaks dance up from the upper branches of oaks ( purple) and ash (brown,preferentially), and do so with the sun on their backs (or really wings) in late summer when there is sap to lap off the leaves or apical buds.  They are drawn to a central tree in the midst of the small colony where they feed , meet and mate.

Towards my end of my own lolloping circumnavigation of the Barrows  I find one. We are both looking for something- either by gradually tuning in, through patience or just  by happenstance. It lollops from one leaf to another about every thirty minutes. This feels a long time to stand staring fixedly at an oak tree, but is almost sustainable as an act of anticipation. Its like it used to feel waiting for the Band to come on.


Its up there somewhere, honest..


I am delighted with a couple of quick silhouettes , a rustle and a surprisingly plosive sound as the creature disappears again in to a floret of leaves. I now have the thought of how something lives.


Then I meet the guys who are staking out  brown hairstreak. They’ve already been there for two and a half hours. This is a rarer butterfly, which they tell me  conspiratorially ,shouldn’t really be there (this is because Gait is a long way away from the other known colonies of brown hairstreaks, and dispersal  – like other hairstreak modus operandii – does not take them anywhere fast). They are armed with telephoto lenses and camoflague fatigues, but dimming senses. ( I  notice again how our urge to find things seems to grow in inverse ratio to our ability to do so). And of course I am delighted to become the sharp eyed tracker of the group (at least temporarily).

They draw a crowd ( 6 people at Gait Barrows is a crowd). After the sense of anticipation falls again their leader/guide strides over and hoofs an oak tree which trembles and two hairstreaks pop out of the top and wobble off  to cover.

I am a bit shocked , but am enjoying the group dynamics. Two ramblers they have tempted in by showing them the telephoto pin ups, have joined the chase and are perching on boulders to get better vantage points of the canopies.

I find one of the displaced hairstreaks silhouetted through the lower surface of than oak leaf. It is beautifully complete I think , and  from this perspective,verdantly green, but the others need to see its colours and take off for better vantage points – which scares it off again. I see the white line ( the’ hairstreak’) as it wobbles off into the foliage of an unkickable birch stool, and sanctuary.

Meanwhile the guide has remained remarkably patient training his optics on the spot in the foliage where the hairstreak first emerged, and sifting through the green. Eventually it returns as butterflies will do – although I remember he told me that the brown one he found yesterday took over four hours to do so.

One of the safari guys tells me his son-in-law moved up to Fife.

‘To  a place beginning with an R’


‘That’s it! He wasn’t the only one who went- but hes the only one that talks like you’


By now dark clouds have gathered (as they do) and I feel if I stay any longer I will have become part of the group, an object of easy scorn for the next fully-facultied young whippersnapper who may be passing. Despite the tantalising hope of a clear view through the scope, it is not a tough call.


I dont know that I definitely found a purple hairstreak, or five – I didn’t see any purple and only one streak which i might easily have imagined. And yet I have the sense of  getting what I wanted  -which is to know where and how they live. As one of the ramblers , who are also making their excuses, says ‘ I never thought of butterflies up trees’.


We do owe the the guys though .( You also  if you  enjoy  the amazing , and uncharacteristic pics they or others like them posted). Thus they have pride as their finders fees, and  I have  gained a sense of a purpose for  searching. For the rest of the week I scan the silhouettes of all the oaks I pass for  blurry speckles.

How many ash crowns would you examine before you quit hoping? How many cars did I smile at when I thumbed on the slip road at the services? How many conversations started? How many breaths taken? How many heartbeats?

Sometimes you are defined by when you feel you’ve had enough.


Ploughmans spikenard, growing in a grike. Gratuitous image, but I liked the sound of it.

Cosmic, mate

Why would anyone not want to explore the multiverse? Its an opportunity to go where no man has gone before . And it only costs a fiver..

I give the admission guy a twenty..

Do you want change ?

Well I could go round four times instead..

I ve passed the humorous retort test. There’s not much to do in Sanquhar but manning the car park in an open cast site can be a long day even so. They tell me I am  the fortieth visitor.

Thats quite a good day for us

Space is lonely , and as destination for a traditional brown sign daytrip it can feel fairly immense. It does look a bit like an abandoned quarry, which could be  a reasonable analogy for the universe, all rock and sharp sides.IMG_20170810_141016759


My most frequent fellow orbiter is a sprightly pensioner known as Poppa to his satellite grandweans, who he is failing to frighten with rumours of dragons and unicorns. I think The Alien might work better.

Hes good at quips.. ‘Might be nice when they finish it’, which feels like something one of Douglas Adams‘ characters might have said.

I m headed for the Omphalos at the Centre of the Universe – navels having become one of my things this summer. The Vogons appear to have fenced it off, but somehow I am gravitated into its vortex.IMG_20170810_143519690

This is the most sculptural part of the park, it most pompous and least successful. Thankfully it’s being inhabitated by a rabbit and a pair of wheatears, and already has the feel of an abandoned civic sculpture rusting on a roundabout in a new town.


What I like about Charles Jencks, from a distance at least , is that he appears to have no concerns about pretentiousness , scale or limitations on genre.At his best he is syncretic, at his worst pompous and simplistic. Maybe these have to come together.

I think you’d need to be a bit arrogant to design and build your own universe. At times I quite applaud this and am expanded- at others, much like Poppa, am having a good time practicing my sense of facetiousness.  I contemplate the view from the Omphalos down the column of megaliths marking a ley across the site and out into the distance . I follow the avenue and find it trained on the Portaloo in the car park – marked’ WC in Fields’.


The most interesting monument on the site breaks the line of megaliths leading away from the Omphalos. There’s a kind of amphitheatre, a couple of symmetric geometric pools and an inlaid …. sculpture containing a spiral of lots of red cup and ring marked pebbles> the explanatory text ( I assume by Jencks)



They contain red spirals and target forms, looking like ancient life, but actually they are self organising patterns. I call them Liesgang rocks , after the German chemist who discovered such patterns in 1896.Pulsating rhythms of iron oxide formed in a white desert, and then solidified. They are little globes of energy , micro-suns and stars, except in a white matrix, and tiny. They grew, in a few places in the Nith, through a reaction diffusion cycle, wave forms that pulsate again and again, 1-2-3-4 – supersaturation, nucleation, precipitation, depletion. The rhythm builds up and dances to exhaustion.


Poppa and his clan pass. He murmurs  ‘Bah  humbug’ , I think, at me poring over the commentary.  I smile but my connection to cosmic speculation has loosened. I feel a little exposed – but he hasn’t actually called me a swotty bastard ,and I have been able to retain that old Caledonian antiszygy which is our birthright.

Unfortunately the  next line  I read is

The non-living looks strangely alive , like a work of art, an agent of the sun itself . In the mosaic Madame Sun pulls Monsieur Earth in spirals , just as she spirals around our galaxy every 200 million years

Its like, all connected..


In fairness I don’t know of anyone who has been able to contemplate the vastness of the universe with out talking a pile of pseudometaphysical bollocks . Carl Sagan, Arthur C Clarke, Albert Einstein, Brian Cox, Leonard Nimoy, Stephen Hawking – all apparently smart dudes whose heads ultimately expanded infinitely into space.

But does that mean that we should not look at it/ or try to expand our horizons?


The Multiverse has a companion exhibition , Cosmic Collisions, at the modestly named (not!) Merz Gallery in  an old washhouse just off the High street in Sanquhar.

In the exhibition I read the following exemplar by Noam Libeskind, who has become a decipherer of cosmology

According to what astronomers have dubbed the Strong Copernical principle, we live in a universe which looks  the same in every direction one looks at, from every point in space and time.. It is only when one zooms in that features start to stick out..

His sister, Rachel, an artist , has tried to create something approximating to 4 dimensional  space to  represent what this might feel like .I dont like it much , but that’s not the point. Its the kind of hippy crap I can relate to.IMG_20170810_154557620

It seems to me the clever stuff is not to apply overarching metaphors to the universe but to see if the universe can teach us different ways to think about our world, and of course, ourselves.

From my visit to the Multiverse I learnt that my wondering needs to pass through a filter of plebean skepticisms before I can make use of it. There appears to be a small Maxwell’s daemon somewhere in there sorting out the destiny of these ideas.


One of Jencks’ big things is that Universes seem to be created from collisions and chaos, and that these things are therefore potentially creative . He is, of course, talking about art and ideas, at  least by implication (which may be why entropy doesn’t seem to form part of his thinking). Around the site  there are designs of universes emerging funnel-like (or phoenix-like if you prefer) from  preceding ones.


The guys in the Portacabin don’t have any souvenirs for sale, but they are glad to see me again. They ll make it to Edinburgh one day , to look at that gallery thing – but maybe they ll have better things to do ‘on thon Rose Street’.

They are selling very cheap ice creams. Unsurprisingly they haven’t any tubs left ( I guess they had less than forty in stock), but they do have ice lollies for 50p. I last had an ice lolly in the 1970s and it looked (and cost) kind of the same. Like a space rocket, and as I suck it new layers of brilliantly dyed cylindrical ice emerge from the funnel-shaped preceding layer. I wonder if God, or Charles Jencks , might have a sense of humour after all.