New Life in Scotland’s Ancient Forests

On the banks of the River Tay by Dunkeld in Perthshire stands the ancient “Birnam Oak”, reputedly the sole surviving tree of the famed Birnam Wood of Shakespeare’s  Macbeth. In Shakespeare’s “Scottish” play,  Malcolm’s soldiers camouflaged themselves with branches from Birnam Wood before capturing Macbeth’s stronghold at Dunsinane some 20 km away, making the prophecy of the infamous three witches come true.

“Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until Great Birnam Wood to High Dunsinane Hill shall come against him”


The Birnam Oak – several centuries old

This battle-scarred and ancient sessile oak (Quercus patraea) now has several of its limbs supported on wooden props and much of the trunk (5,5m girth) is now hollowed out and infected by fungae. Although the tree is likely to be several hundred years old, it is unlikely that it would have existed in 1057 when the Battle mentioned in Macbeth was reputedly fought.

However this ancient tree invites us to connect with a mythological past where “wild woods” dominated the landscape and when the “Great Wood of Caledon” reputedly covered much of ancient Scotland. We imagine the Roman legions venturing into dark and brooding forests only to be hunted down mercilessly by the ferocious Pictish warriors or picked off, one by one, by ravenous wolves and bears.


Scattered remnants of Caledonia’s “Great Wood”

Whilst the “Great Wood of Caledon” may have been more than a myth than a reality, there were certainly significant areas of ancient natural woodlands across Scotland, though even by the Iron Age these would have already have been significantly altered by people. Certainly by the Middle Ages, Scotland was largely a treeless land and this was later compounded in the Highlands by the collapse of the clan system and by ever-increasing, exploitative systems of land management.


Iron Age woods were widely managed for forest products


Scotland’s Iron Age inhabitants were skilled woodworkers

Woods in inaccessible locations, such as in deep ravines or on islands (i.e. away from the attention of browsing deer or livestock), or which had some economic value, such as for the production of charcoal or bark for the tanning industry, fared somewhat better. Many of these remnant patches of semi natural woodland survived down through the centuries. Other more accessible woodlands were slowly lost through a process of attrition, including through ever-increasing deer populations and through the use of woods as shelter for livestock.

Throughout Scotland, however, there are still enough remnant patches of ancient semi natural woodland to give, at least a flavour, of how ancient Scotland might have appeared; these include oak and ash woodlands in the lowlands and western highlands, birch woods in the uplands and Caledonian pine woods, which are located mainly in the North Eastern Highlands.


Ancient coppiced oak – Loch Tay

One area which illustrates traditional patterns of woodland management is around Loch Tay in Highland Perthshire. Above the shores of the Loch, numerous historic features including abandoned sheilings, “ferme toons”, lime kilns and old cultivation terraces proliferate across the landscape . One place where you can really feel the presence of the past is the abandoned village of Croft Feunaig; a cluster of dilapidated buildings where several families would have eked out a living through growing simple crops such as oats and barley and through tending sheep and traditional black cattle. Like many lochside settlements, the population of Croft Feunaig fell victim to the infamous Highland Clearances orchestrated, in this instance, by the ruling Campbell of Glenorchy elite. In the first half of the 19th Century, the area lost around one-third of its population through emigration to the New World or the emerging industries of the Central Belt.


The haunting abandoned “ferme toon” of Croft Feunaig

Canuschurich woods, located just below Croft Feunaig, comprise of an ancient underwood of oak, birch, ash, hazel and rowan, including some old coppice stools which appear to be centuries old. The woods would have been managed extensively to provide small round wood products such posts and hurdles for local people. Later on, as industries developed along the loch shore, the underwood would also have been used for commercially for charcoal production, perhaps for iron smelting. Oak bark, particularly, was a valued commodity and would have supplied the leather tanning industry. Given the age of these woods with their ancient coppice stools, it is certainly likely that their past economic value contributed to their preservation.


Coppice underwood after many years regrowth – Loch Tay

Managed coppice woods also supported a wealth of biodiversity including wild hyacinths (“bluebells”), wild garlic and dogs mercury. The cycle of coppicing ensured a steady supply of small wood products whilst providing a stable habitat for slow colonising specialist woodland plants. The dense shading, created during the mature phases of the coppice cycle, also discouraged competition from other rank grasses and herbaceous plants. The woods could therefore effectively provide a sustainable renewable resource for hundreds of years without the need for replanting. Sometimes larger trees, known as standards (usually oak) were allowed to grow up through the underwood to provide larger construction  timber.


Timeless scene – coppice hazel and “bluebells”

Another tree associated with Scotland’s ancient woodland must be the birch. Birch woods are relatively common in many parts of the highlands and often represent a transitional habitat; the birch generally not being noted for its longevity. Certainly the birch, along with other pioneers such as aspen and hazel was one of the first colonisers to take advantage of the warmer conditions following the ice age and it paved the way for other species such as Scots pine, oak and ash. There are however sites such as Morrone Birkwood near Braemar which have retained much the same species composition for thousands of years.


Native Birchwoods in Highland Perthshire

autumn gold

Autumn colours of Loch Tummel

Reforesting Scotland – the Sitka Revolution

By the turn of the 20th Century Scotland’s woods were reduced to just a few tiny fragments, although some pioneers, particularly the “planting” Dukes of Atholl, had already been experimenting with large-scale replanting of areas with introduced species such as European larch. In 1919 The Forestry Commission was created in to effectively reverse the depletion of timber stocks following World War I and to create a strategic reserve. Whilst the creation of the Commission helped to reverse the trend towards deforestation, particularly in the Highlands, Scotland’s native woodland fragments continued to be eroded away through a combination of neglect, overgrazing and poor management.

The initial emphasis was very much upon establishing plantations of exotic conifer species including Sitka spruce, Lodgepole pine and Douglas fir, which all grew well in the damp Scottish climate. Since 1945, many ancient woodlands were under-planted with conifers which rapidly altered the soil chemistry and damaged the woodland understory resulting in a loss of biodiversity and the creation of monoculture stands of trees.


Commercial forestry plantation

Unlike the more sensitive traditions of continuous-cover forestry, practiced in Europe (in which individual timber trees are selectively removed from the forest) the approach in Scotland has been a more “colonial” approach of planting, thinning and eventual clear felling of large areas, leaving un-harmonious scars on the landscape. This relatively insensitive approach has been at the expense of Scotland’s landscape, biodiversity and ecology.

However around the late 1960s things started to change as awareness of Scotland’s ancient woodland legacy started to increase. The Publication of Steven and Carlisle’s authoritative work “The Native Pinewoods of Scotland” in 1959 marked perhaps the first major turning point in terms of the recognition of native Scottish woods (in much the same way that ecologist Oliver Rackham’s work on the English Countryside did much to raise awareness of the plight of ancient woods South of the Border).


Harvesting commercial plantations on Skye


Timber awaiting transportation

Winds of Change in the native pine woods:

In the early 90s one of my first jobs after graduating, was as a seasonal ranger for the Scottish Wildlife Trust at the Pass of Ryvoan in Glenmore, Speyside. This small remnant of ancient Caledonian pinewood will always hold a special place in my heart.

The area is alive with history and legend; an ancient thieves road, used by highland cattle rustlers runs through the Pass towards Abernethy Forest and there are tales of hauntings and witchcraft. Most beguiling of all though is the turquoise coloured Lochan Uaine (The Green Loch) which nestles in a small hollow near the main path surrounded by ancient, gnarled old Scots pines. Legends say that the remarkable colour came about due to fairies from the nearby fairy knowe washing their clothes and staining the water green; more scientific explanations point to fine particles of suspended sediment in the water causing a refraction effect of the light. Over the course of the summer I enjoyed many happy days amongst these beautiful old pines, sometime battling through dense undergrowth to carry out surveys of the woodland.


The Pass of Ryvoan Native Pinewood

Ryvoan is one of a number of remaining areas of native Caledonian pine forest fragments identified by Steven and Carlisle; others include gems such as Rothiemurchus, Glen Affric, Glen Feshie, the Black Wood of Rannoch and Glen Quoich. The story of Ryvoan is pretty much the story of the Caledonian pine woods as a whole. As nearby estates became increasingly managed for sporting purposes (deer and grouse shooting), deer numbers increased and regeneration of native woodland pretty much ceased. During the War the area was logged by Canadian lumberjacks, who took out the best and the straightest stems, leaving just a few stunted and mis-shapen “granny” pines. It is these “reject” timber trees which give the old Caledonian forests much of their inherent charm and character today.


Mature Native Pine – Ryvoan

When I worked at Ryvoan, the area had been leased by the Forestry Commission to the Scottish Wildlife Trust for a nominal fee. However it was obvious that the Commission were just then starting to realise the conservation, amenity and PR benefits of managing ancient woods such as Ryvoan. New FC signs proclaiming “Forest Nature Reserve”  appeared mysteriously next to the original Scottish Wildlife Trust signs one day (which were, even more mysteriously, damaged by a vehicle necessitating their removal about that time).

Twenty five years on from then and there have been huge changes at Ryvoan and the surrounding Glenmore Forest. I’m now amazed when I go back there to see how much natural regeneration has occurred and how young Scots pines along with aspen, birch and willow are colonising further up the surrounding hills. Even more remarkable is the greater concept to create one large, linked up area of native pinewood habitat across a number of neighbouring estates including Abernethy, Glenmore Forest, Cairngorm Estate and Rothiemurchus. A wonderful visitor centre has been constructed in Glenmore, with preservation of the old Caledonian pine woods being the key message.


The future “goes native” in Glenmore

The realisation of this is having huge impacts on the landscape; non native areas of plantation forestry are being removed to leave a few surviving stems which will act as seed sources for new native trees or as standing deadwood. Although it will take many years for a “natural” looking forest to develop across the whole of Glenmore, the ambition to recreate a large area of continuous habitat is laudable.  The partnership-working required has also, no-doubt, been considerably helped through the creation of the Cairngorms National Park Authority and the fact that neighbouring estates have, over the years, been acquired by public bodies which are sympathetic to conservation.


Survivors – a few remaining native Scots pine after felling


Lochan Uaine – a magical place


View across Loch Morlich to the Cairngorms

One of the greatest challenges in taking forward this ambitious forest restoration programme is to keep deer numbers down to sustainable levels to ensure continuing woodland regeneration. There is also an emphasis on trying to maintain local genetic diversity within seed sources. This will be more difficult to achieve, I feel, as many of the plantation forests, which have been felled, contained identical looking Scots pine of Continental provenance; no doubt many of these seeds will have dispersed widely and hybridised with local provenance trees. I think though that even purists would agree here that there must be an element of realism here and that the emphasis should be upon restoring broad ecosystem function across a large area of habitat rather than the somewhat utopian (and perhaps slightly sinister) objective of turning back the clock to a time when only local genetic sources existed in Glenmore.


Expanding tree line – scots pines creep up the hillside

Recreating an Ancient Royal Hunting Forest in the Trossachs

Another place dear to my heart is the Trossachs area between Callander and Aberfoyle.  Me and my school friends used to cycle around there on weekends, making occasional and strenuous round-trips over the Duke’s Pass; a favourite destination being the famous Brig o Turk Tearoom (which remarkably still stands and is in business all these years later).


Glen Finglas – an ambitious native woodland restoration project

Brig o Turk marks the starting point for Glen Finglas, a broad side glen which has been exploited over the years for hydro power, plantation forestry and sheep farming. The upper end of the Glen however contains some remarkable treasures and was a former royal hunting forest of the Stewart Kings. The remaining area of upland wood pasture comprises the largest collection of ancient trees in Scotland and includes oak, alder, birch, hazel, rowan and willow. Originally many of these old trees would have been pollarded or coppiced and the area grazed lightly by cattle.


Changing landscapes – mixed native woodland (foreground) and spruce plantations (background).


Royal hunting ground – ancient wood pasture in Glen Finglas

Centuries of overgrazing, however, prevented any further natural regeneration from occurring thereby reducing the wood to just a few scattered remnants. In recent years however the Estate has been acquired by the Woodland Trust under the banner of the Scottish Forest Alliance. The aim is to turn around centuries of mismanagement and to restore the wood pasture and the surrounding native woodlands to their former glory. This has involved fencing to reduce deer and sheep numbers (to allow natural regeneration) and the reinstatement of cattle grazing under controlled conditions which are compatible with conservation objectives.

The regeneration of native woodlands in Glen Finglas is one element of the Great Trossachs Forest initiative which is being led by the Scottish Forest Alliance to recreate native woodland over a core area 17,000 ha of Loch Lomand and the Trossachs National Park, between Inversaid, Loch Katrine and Loch Venachar. The Vision of the partners is a very long-term one and will take 200 years to achieve. There are clearly parallels with the Glenmore Forest initiative and the situation is in some ways quite similar.


Cows are back – but carefully managed to promote natural regeneration of woodland fragments


Wood pasture – many ancient pollards survive

When we look at the examples of Glenmore and Glen Finglas, it seems incredible to think how things have moved forward from just half a century ago when Scotland’s native woodlands were very much the Cinderella of the Scottish countryside. Let’s just hope that this  momentum and ambition can be maintained over the next couple of centuries to see these projects through to fruition; though who knows just what sort of world we will be looking at then and what environmental challenges we will be facing.

Community Woodlands and Rural Development:

In recent years another interesting trend in woodland management with Scotland has been the growth of community woodlands and local development trusts. These  have been helped greatly helped by Scottish Government legislation including the Land Reform Act (2003), The Community Right to Buy Scheme and the National Forest Land Scheme.  Under these schemes, many communities have had the chance to aquire land which was formerly in private or State hands and to bring this under local community management. This has usually involved the creation of a local partnership or trust to representing the views of the various stakeholders and co-ordinate management as well as the flow of resources and revenue. These groups have also been highly successful over the years in levering in money from diverse sources such as the National Lottery.

Community woodlands vary ernomously in their scale, extent and ambition; from a just a few hectares adjoining urban areas, to huge estates covering 1000s of hectares of the Highlands. Some of the most celebrated examples of Community buy-outs include Assynt, Knoydart, Eigg, Gigha and North Harris, have been well publicised. Many of these groups are now actively involved in native woodland regeneration, ecotourism and diversification of the rural economy. In this respect sustainable development is often at the core of long term planning.


Community management in action – log splitter

For several years, I served as a director the Community Woodland Association (CWA), an umbrella body which provides information, advice and networking to its member groups, who now number around 200 across Scotland. During my time with CWA, I was able to see some superb examples of community woodlands in action. The good examples are too numerous to mention here (although there are sometimes less successful examples, particularly in urban areas which pose unique challenges requiring additional support).

One example which particularly stands out is Abriachan Forest Trust which is located not far from the shores of iconic Loch Ness. In 1998 the community purchase the 534 ha estate from Forest Enterprise. Whilst the wood is less interesting from an ecological standpoint (although this is work in progress), the community have made huge strides to manage the woodland productively as a source of local forest products, including fuelwood and also as an educational, health and recreational resource. Achievements to date include the creation of a forest classroom for educational activities, a forest playground, a trail network and fitness facilities.


Forest classroom – for a new generation of foresters

Each community woodland has its own particular emphasis; for example, at Milton Community Woodland near Tain, there has been an emphasis on involving local young people in the local woods through providing training and workshops on woodland crafts and log building construction. In other woodlands, such as Anagach by Grantown-on-Spey, the emphasis has been more on enhancing ecological habitats with the pine woods and upon providing a network of trails to support sustainable tourism whilst ensuring productive use of the woodlands. Meanwhile the Galgael Trust, based in Govan and Argyll, tackles the problems of the inner city and  uses traditional woodland crafts as a means of engaging long-term unemployed people through providing them new skills, challenges and a sense of purpose.


A sustainable future for Scotland’s woods ?

The Future is bright:

Despite the challenges faced by centuries of neglect and poor land management, Scotland is now paving the way in terms of developing sustainable forestry and land use practice which benefit both nature and people. Although other European countries have protected and managed their forests far more sustainably over the centuries, Scotland is now catching up fast. In this respect, necessity is the mother of invention and there is a level of energy and innovation in Scottish forestry and rural development which few other countries can currently match.

However, there is still a huge amount  of catching up to be done and the challenges of developing a truly sustainable forest economy are immense; particularly considering the issues of climate change. To ensure that this continues, all sectors of the forestry community (including private estates and commercial companies) need to continue to forge effective dialogue; to share innovation and to learn from examples of others’ best practice. It never ceases to amaze me how the radicals of 3o years ago have moved very much into the main stream and how their ideas have now become embedded into the heart of public policy. Just think back to the 1980s when tax incentives were being paid out to pop stars to turn the Flow Country into low grade Sitka factories; so much has changed since then.

The future is bright for Scottish woods…

This entry was posted in History & Culture, In Scotland, Trees & Greenspaces, Wild Places and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s