The Scottish coastal strips where a rich tapestry of plant life flourishes.

Along the north west coast of Scotland and on Atlantic-facing beaches in the Herbrides and in parts of Orkney and Shetland, one of the country’s most vivid natural spectacles is just getting underway.

From now until July the narrow, grassy strips that divide sand dunes from peat bogs, will be transformed by a staggering abundance of wild flowers.

This annual flowering of the Machair, a unique kind of species-rich grassland, takes place only in Scotland and, to a lesser extent in Ireland, making it one of the rarest natural phenomenon in the world.

It is only made possible by a combination of geography, climate and low-intensity farming, which for more than a millennium has provided exactly the right conditions for flowers and grasses to flourish.

Scottish Gardener:

It happens where a wind-borne layer of crushed shells and sand has built up on top of peat bogs and coastal marshes, providing a lime-rich environment for plants that would otherwise fail to find a foothold in the harsh environment close to the water’s edge, and it is sustained by the rhythms of crofting life, where grazing animals crop the sward, seaweed is used to fertilise the soil and cultivation is followed by periods when the ground is allow to lie fallow.

Compared to meadows, where flowers are sprinkled like confetti at a wedding, the blooms that make up the Machair are a dense carpet of marsh marigold, daisies, buttercups and ragged robin.

Lesser meadow rue and wild pansy jostle against self heal and black knapweed, all of them fighting for space with fescues and clovers. Lichens grow here too and bryophytes and, like the flowers, their species vary from beach to beach, depending on whether or not conditions are damp during the summer.

And then there are the orchids, a dazzling mixture of common tray blade, western marsh orchid and frog orchid. One kind of marsh orchid, Dactylorhiza majalis ssp. Scotica, is found only in a few places on North Uist, while the North American Lady’s Tresses, which is found on small stretches of marshy grazing on Coll and Barra, is believed to have arrived on the feet of the migratory geese that make the islands their winter home.

Scottish Gardener:

The Machair is an important bird habitat, providing a refuge for corncrakes, corn buntings and little terns, as well as for the thousands of waders that inhabit the water’s edge, while linnets and skylarks sing overhead.  And the Great Yellow Bumblebee and the Moss Carder Bee, both of them on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, are just two of the threatened insects that can also be found here. 

According to Scotland’s environmental agency, NatureScot, Machair is one of the best examples of humans and nature co-existing in harmony, but there are clouds on the horizon. Global warming and a rise in sea levels, alone with increased Atlantic storms and unrestricted access by caravans and motorbikes, are all threatening the future of this unique and irreplaceable habitat. However steps are being taken to secure its future and to ensure that this unique mix of flowers and grasses continues to flourish.

More information on this and Scotland’s other living landscapes is available to download from


Machair is the Gaelic word for low-lying, fertile plain and the best places to find it are in North and South Uist, on Coll and Tiree and on Colonsay and Oronsay, but there are pockets of Machair to be found on islands from Unst to Jura as well as on the mainland.