Machair


Machair, a Gaelic word meaning fertile, low lying, grassy plain, is a very important habitat of the Hebrides.


Within the inner isles, Coll has highly significant machair, some 680 ha (hectares) compared to, for example, Tiree's 510 ha. Worldwide, the West of Scotland hosts 70% of all machair, the other 30% being in Western Ireland.

There's always been debate as to whether machair is a consequence of geography, geology or......
Perhaps the answer's similarly obscured with grey like the conflicting ethics of archaeology and grave-robbing?


Geographically, machair is a result of wind-blown shells and sand that significantly alters soils' basicity and porosity. Geologically, today's machair has formed on some of the oldest and hardest rock to be found, Lewisian Gneiss. This rarther inert base of gneiss may explain why machair differs to 'dune links/slacks' where soils' compositional elements are quite different.

No matter, as a consequence of both, together with the influence of man, the biodiversity found on today’s machair is hugely rich and important. The list of rarities, as long as diverse, attracts many speciality biodiversity-ists. For us lay-persons, the wealth and pleasure may just be the vast spectacle of naturally prolific displays of wild-flowers, bees and butterflies, set in an amazing locale.

Geographically, machair is a result of wind-blown shells and sand that significantly alters soils' basicity and porosity. Geologically, today's machair has formed on some of the oldest and hardest rock to be found, Lewisian Gneiss. This rarther inert base of gneiss may explain why machair differs to 'dune links/slacks' where soils' compositional elements are quite different.

No matter, as a consequence of both, together with the influence of man, the biodiversity found on today’s machair is hugely rich and important. The list of rarities, as long as diverse, attracts many speciality biodiversity-ists. For us lay-persons, the wealth and pleasure may just be the vast spectacle of naturally prolific displays of wild-flowers, bees and butterflies, set in an amazing locale.


Even in my short time on Coll (almost twenty years) machair has been subjected to development unabated by planning control. Some may consider it gentrification and to some it's just inevitable progress, no matter, the swathes of butterfly and frog orchids have morphed into the 'occasional clump'. The numbers of lapwing and the little brown birds that form the backbone of hen harrier fodder seem impressively dwindled. Machair grazing has intensified and there is now machair fenced off and mown like some suburban ritual!

These comments aren't to judge but are from observation and, hopefully, if we're a little more empathic our machair with thrive and continue to marvel our visitors and future generations.

Common Twayblade
Sadly, all too uncommon.

© All photos, Tony Oliver.