A history of Scotland's forests


18 March 2021
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James Loftus tells the story of Scotland's forests, from the Ice Age onwards.

I am a writer of Scottish history. I have written two novels on clan MacKay. I write about clan MacKay because my ancestry includes clan MacKay. The remainder of my ancestry is from County Mayo, Western Ireland.

I visited New Zealand in the 1980s, where I was told by a Scottish mate, that the trees growing in New Zealand are also in Scotland. After I did a little research of my own, I discovered that Scots pine, rowan and birch, are native to Scotland, and were introduced into New Zealand.

Larch, a striking tree in autumn, is found in both countries but not native to either. Larch although in Scotland is actually originally from central Europe, North Asia, and North America. The extensive larch forests in Scotland can be described as a folly, an ornamental addition to the estate of the Duke of Atholl for aesthetic purposes. The first larches were planted by the Duke of Atholl in 1738, and came from the Austrian Tyrol. Subsequent generations of Atholl dukes planted yet more larches. Larches now cover 10, 500 acres of hilly ground that is useless for farming. The trees stabilise the ground, and are a wonderful wildlife habitat.

The terrain in Scotland is similar to New Zealand in that both have towering mountains and exist in a similar climate, although for the most part New Zealand is more temperate than Scotland.

Thinking of those trees takes me back. I’ll never forget those trees I saw in New Zealand, whispering giants, shimmering in the afternoon sun, that sun drifting down like lost stranger and slowly retreating with the afternoon sun.

Scotland's medieval forests

The general opinion of scholars in the mid-1990s was that Scotland’s medieval forests were largely destroyed during the later middle-ages and in early modern times. Changing that scenario, further and newer studies reveal a more complex and fascinating tale.

Many tourists travelling through the Scottish landscape today do not expect to see extensive forests. Television programs like Outlander give us the stereotypical Scottish landscape, towering mountains, bleak and open moors, and the occasional copse of trees. In Scotland, you expect to stand on a hill or mountain and see open spaces all around you, and in some places you do, however, the regenerating nature of the forests in Scotland is progressively changing the aesthetic.

Forest at Kinnoull, Perth 

A number of factors contributed to this modern, bare landscape we expect to see in Scotland. Extensive forests grow at the same latitudes in North America and Scandinavia, which suggest that Scotland’s climate should be suitable for extensive tree growth. Thus, it is fair to ask why is Scotland different?

Firstly, let’s go into the climatic and geological factors.

Scotland has a maritime or oceanic climate that is cool, with a low annual temperature range and a high annual rainfall. Scotland has a lot of mountains, and trees only grow up to a certain altitude, whereafter conditions are too harsh for trees to grow. Scotland also has a far-northern latitude. Latitude plays a part in where trees grow as does altitude. But latitude and altitude tell only part of the tale in Scotland.

Stockholm and Oslo, for example, are further north than treeless parts of Scotland yet have thick forests. Soil temperature in summer and soil quality also affect trees growth, as do frigid, forceful winds, which are significant factors inhibiting tree growth in Scotland. Scandinavia generally has hotter summers than does Scotland, another factor which affects trees ability to grow.

The potential maximum altitudinal tree line in Scotland varies across the country reaching a maximum of 800 metres above sea level in Southern Scotland, and is close to sea level in the most exposed areas of the Northwest Coast. There, in the almost arctic-like far north, frigid, high winds make growing conditions very difficult. Scotland’s abnormally low tree line is thought to be due to a combination of harsh climate, the blanket growth of peat and grazing pressures, both historic and current.

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The Ice Age

Scotland underwent a landscape transformation that began when the last Ice Age age ended 11,400 years ago and slowly unfolded in the centuries following. Peat layers all over the Highlands contain the remains of tree trunks and stumps that testify to this transformation. These tree stumps are evidence of how heavily forested Scotland once was and these ghostly long dead trees, account for the mythic descriptions of the long lost Great Wood of Caledon.

When the ice retreated and the temperatures rose trees started to grow on formerly barren, frozen ground. Dwarf juniper, ash, birch, willow were the pioneer species that established an environment for other types of less resilient trees to flourish. Rather than being exposed to punishing winds, these newer species were sheltered from harsh conditions by the more hardy trees that had preceded them.

The pioneering species with deeper more aggressive root systems, were able to grow in thinner, poorer soils. The later arriving species, migrating more slowly, lagging behind those more hardy weather resistant trees. The newcomers were able to thrive once the pioneer species had built soil.  In addition, there was the factor of the wind-protection from the screen of previously established woods that the later arrivals could take advantage of.

For nearly 2,000 years, dwarf juniper, ash, birch, and willow were the only types of trees to grow in Scotland. It was a very long time before scots pine and oak could thrive in Scottish conditions.

The process in Scotland of reforestation was gradual and deciduous trees such as oak, elm and alder arrived only between 8,500 and 8,000 years ago. Scots pine, the first conifer species to establish itself in Scotland after the last ice age, notwithstanding dwarf juniper, more for a shrub, first appeared in the northwest of Scotland around 9,000 years ago. Genetic research on the genetic profile of Scotland’s scots pine matches a remnant population in County Clare, Ireland, thus reveals that the scots pine in the Highlands of Scotland descend from an Irish source. The Scots pine in Ireland originally arriving from Wales whereafter they went into extinction in Ireland except for that small remnant in County Clare, which provided the genetic match with those in the highlands of Scotland. Many Scots pine in the south of Scotland have a later continental origin.

Scots pine

Scots pine is the most widely distributed pine in the world and can range from Western Europe to Eastern Siberia, as far south as Turkey, and in sheltered places deep inside the Arctic circle. Arctic willows, spruce and dwarf juniper are the only other trees to appear in the Arctic Circle, usually, growing in rocky shelters away from the raging winds.

Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) botanical plate

The first wooded and forested areas in Scotland were probably populated with birch. Birch can tolerate extreme cold and is also wind pollinated, for though the climate was warming after the Ice Age it would have been too cold for many important pollinating insect species. Trees that rely mostly on insect pollination could not grow. Oaks are also to an extent wind pollinated but the overall conditions were too harsh for them to grow. Thus, birch’s wind pollination was a factor in their success. Species with wind-dispersed seeds such as scots pine, also, wind pollinated for up to 100 km, can spread faster than others.

As time went by, after the arrival of oak and alder, other species – pine, aspen and hazel arrived and established themselves. Pollen analysis of peat or other sediments/deposits tell us which species were present at a particular time, thus a chronology of reforestation in Scotland is possible.

Ultimately, forest spread across Scotland covering all the land except for the highest, wettest and coldest places.

Until recently it was thought that these trees fell the victim to invaders like the Romans, Vikings and later the English who felled them for timber, charcoal or for military reasons.

The Scottish forests reached their fullest extent around 5,000 years ago. A level of forestation never to be reached again. This dense forest period lasted for 1,000 years. Then came significant climate change. 4,000 years ago, trees, mainly Scots pine were the victims of one of the most dramatic climatic and environmental changes that Scotland ever experienced.

Scotland's ancient forests

Before I go further, I will explore the nature of these ancient extensive forests. During this period of heavy forestation, huge variations in the density, species and their distribution existed over short distances due to variations in topography, microclimate and soil quality. These ancient forests although extensive were not a closed canopy of trees covering Scotland from north to south and east to west.

Four broad woodland categories can be distinguished during this period, which roughly follow the spatial distribution of modern natural woodland types. A mix of birch and hazel shrubs dominated the Outer Hebrides, the Northern Isles, Caithness and Sutherland.

Woodlands in the other parts of the Highlands were predominantly made up of pine and birch, while the coastal areas of the west and east were mainly composed of a broadleaf mix of birch, hazel and oak. The southern part of Scotland was mainly composed of oak, hazel and elm dominated woodlands that covered all of the lowlands and much of the uplands.

The precise extent of the woodland cover is difficult to estimate but an educated guess based on palynological investigations (the study of spores and pollen, both modern and fossilized) suggest that at least 70% of the Scottish land mass was at that time some form of forest.

Until these woodlands collapsed.

4,000 years ago the climate turned wetter and cooler, and in response, the water table rose drowning the root systems of many trees. As a result, populations of trees crashed all across Scotland, leaving large parts of country without big trees.

This climate-induced deforestation happened just at the same time that agriculture had begun in Scotland. Agriculture meant a higher population density as agriculture allowed for more people to live per acre. Some have suggested that the coming of agriculture, and animal grazing in particular contributed to the formation of blanket peat and the demise of the forests. Others believe that climate was a more significant factor in the deforestation of Scotland at this time.

Further studies may perhaps resolve this argument, however, because of the sensitive balance that forests exist in, it may remain a contentious point as to what combination of factors, or which of these factors, was the main reason for the degradation of the trees.

Early colonists

The first people in Scotland pre Ice Age, and in the interglacial times, were hunters who came into Scotland were all likelihood seasonally and followed reindeer herds and spent winters further south. These early colonists were few in number and made no real impact on Scotland’s environment. The worsening weather made these early people retreat back whence they came from, the south. Stone axes from this period have been found on Orkney and mainland Scotland.

The second advance of people came into Scotland via north-west Ireland. The first wave it is believed came from southern Britain, what is today, England. At that time the upper margins of England consisted of dense forest, making headway difficult, thus preventing a migration from that region. The Irish immigrants had artefacts of the Larnian cultureArtifacts include, tools, axes, beads, pendants, and bone pins. Many of these items were elaborately decorated with engraved designs.

This culture was particularly known for its porcelain polished axes. Porcellaminte was mined on the Antrim coast and on Rathlin Island. Bruce’s Cave, where Robert the Bruce supposedly found inspiration to continue with his struggle to free Scotland from English tyranny by watching a spider trying to build her web, is on Rathlin Island.

These newcomers to Scotland found a land that was uninhabited, and heavily forested with oak, elm, alder and hazel. The hills and mountains were clad in Scots pine and birchwoods. These Larnian migrants made little or no impact on the subsequent make-up of the Scottish or Irish DNA, in the male line, later being overwhelmed by a group who still dominate the Brittish Isles gene pool even today. Those who overcame the Larnians, known as Yamnaya, swept across Western Europe from what today the Russian Steppes around 3,000 years ago.

Scots pine leaves and cones

It is a good guess that males who consider themselves of Irish or Scots Gaelic ancestry today are descendants of those Bronze Age invaders, the Yamnaya. There are rare exceptions. One is, the O’Connors of western Ireland some of whom have a very ancient marker, a Stone Age, haplogroup I. Sixteen percent of the O’Connors in Galway have this haplogroup, elsewhere in Ireland and Scotland it is almost non-existent. The other five septs of clan O’Connor have the far more common Steppe ancestry, called in scientific terms, RB1.

At some time in history one of the conquered underclass changed their status joining the elite class in Ireland, taking the name O’Connor, even to the point of perhaps becoming High Kings, because O’Connors have been High Kings of Ireland, and the last High King of Ireland was Ruadri O’Connor. Whether any of these high kings had the haplogroup I is as yet, unknown. It would be a significant achievement to be of the underclass and rise to the highest in the land. Most of these holders of this marker disappeared soon after the arrival of the RB1 haplogroup in Ireland and Scotland. RB1 was rare in Western Europe until before 3,000 years ago, when those with RB1haplogroup swept Western Europe as invaders. That haplogroup I fell so drastically is probably because the RB1 group had control of food and shelter which meant over time, in a harsh environment, more and more of those less able to eat well, have suitable shelter and warmth fell victim to starvation or disease, or failed to find marital partners. It is believed RB1 haplogroup brought Indo-European languages to Europes, which is all languages in Europe bar, Finnish, Hungarian and Basque.

The most westerly early examples of RB1, before 3,000 years ago, are in Italy, and another in Romania from around the same time. The Italian specimen is from approximately 14,000 years ago - an Ice Age man had the genes for blue eyes. Most commonly this haplogroup was found much further east in the Volga, Caspian Sea region thought to be the later homeland of the Yamnaya culture.

The Yamnaya were warlike, and originally horse nomads. They were early users of the wheel, drove chariots and used metal weapons. Many of them possessed the genetics for blue eyes but generally had yet to develop the lighter skin generally associated with native Europeans today. Intermixing with early farmer genes from the Middle East helped the mutation for fair skin spread. 

Slightly later than the Larnians, about 8,000 years ago, the Maglemosians came into Scotland. That they originated from the Baltic is drawn from the material cultural finds and DNA evidence. At this time the southern part of the North Sea was a land-bridge, so nomads following herds of reindeer easily entered Scotland. Analysis of ancient DNA shows these people had blue eyes with darker skin.

At the time, blue eyes and darker hair and darker skin was the dominant characteristics of hunter gatherers in Europe, farming had yet to be introduced to Northern Europe with its associated fair-skin genes.

The gene that is the primary driver of light eye colour in Europeans appears nearly simultaneously in specimens from Italy and the Caucasus ~14,000-13,000 years ago. The Caucasus being the original home of the Yamnaya.

Eye colour it seems preceded changes in skin pigmentation in Europe far earlier than the genes associated with fair skin and hair.

Another group from north-west France the Tarfenorians appeared in Scotland, centuries after the Larnians and the Maglemosians first came into the country. So, you had an Irish, a Baltic and a French source for these early people into Scotland, and subsequently only their female gene lines survived, the male lines overtaken by the Yamnaya. These pre-Yamnayans all lived by fishing, and hunting in the forests. Their middens contained remains of red deer, roe deer, wild pig, wild ox, badger and cat. At this time the small numbers hardly affected the forest at all. They lived on the coastal and river-fringes in woods of oak, ash, elms, alder woodlands, birchwood and there were also hazel woods.

Post-glacial times

The earliest hunter-gatherers lived in birch-hazel woodland environments that were in many places gradually being replaced with a more diverse, richer forest. The glaciers left behind a landscape of lochs and rivers, of hill-land, glen and mountain with a diverse and mixed vegetation; a landscape rich in resources with increased opportunities for human exploitation, including hunting, food gathering and utilisation of stone and wood for tools and to build shelters.

Activities such as hunting, fishing and the first attempts to control watercourses and wildlife disturbed the balance of vegetation, however, to no major degree unlike farming with its larger populations and wider land usage.

With the appearance of the Tarfenorians, people altered their landscape through fire. This was a distinctive technique that marked them out from their predecessors and by doing so they created a more predictable environment for themselves. Burning grasses, heather and other vegetation rejuvenated environments over a period of 5-6 years, attracting game, especially if open areas were maintained near water sources. Fire also promoted the spread of under-storey plants with edible fruits or berries. This practice spread throughout Scotland, thus it may be assumed the Tarfenorians practised it first and then introduced this practise to the Larnians and Maglemosians.

Even today, gorse, heather and the stubble of arable fields are burned as a means of land management in Scotland. However, it is taught that regular burning is also a contributory factor in the creation of degraded upland environments with impoverished vegetation diversity, decreased forest cover and a propensity for water-logging. In short, early modern humans were likely capable of altering and manipulating entire ecosystems. So although climate was the primary factor, according to most analysts, humans had a significant effect on forests in Scotland almost from when they first arrived.

It was a gradual process of a clearing and burning, but the repeated nature of these activities and a rising population resulted in a patchwork of open spaces amid forests. This mosaic landscape is something that prominent paleo-anthropologists view as the most important environmental legacy of the British Mesolithic peoples, living in the Middle Stone Age about 5,000 years ago.

However, it must be kept in mind that distinguishing between natural and human agency in vegetation changes is difficult. It has been suggested that human penetration of Scotland's inland and upland areas away from the major river valleys is likely to have been too ephemeral to have caused detectable changes to the vegetation cover during the Mesolithic period.

Farming degrading forests

The emergence of agriculture in Scotland affected Scotland’s forests to a significant degree. Large-scale farming allowed for rapid population growth and was thus a factor in hastening environmental change.

With the arrival of agriculture, evidence of forest clearance becomes more widespread and less ambiguous. Woodland clearance in the west and on the Western Isles started early in the Neolithic between 6,000 and 4,200 years ago (4000 BC and 2200 BC), depending on the location. On the Isle of Arran forest clearance started around 2600 BC and parts of the Isle of Skye were treeless by about 600 BC. The Orkney Isles off the north coast of Scotland were entirely cleared by 3,000 years ago and the woodlands never recovered.

The west and north of Scotland seems to have been affected by woodland decline earlier than the more southern and eastern parts of Scotland. This was probably due to the fact that there was less forest vegetation to start with due to climate constraints. We must also keep in mind that this part of the country is very sensitive to climate fluctuations and that woodland clearance is almost certainly the result of an interaction of human and natural processes.

In the eastern Highlands ‘low-intensity grazing pressures sustained over long periods of time’ effectively led to a serious decline of the woodlands long before the Romans arrived. In the southern half of Scotland the onset of clearance for agriculture started around 2800 BC, when semi-permanent areas for pasture and crops were established.

The Romans in Scotland

By the time the Romans entered what is now Scotland in 80 AD, it is estimated that about half of the original woodland vegetation had been cleared. This meant that about 25 percent of the land was under some form of woodland cover, but there were large geographical differences. The Highlands were much more wooded than the Lowlands, the Western and Northern Isles and the Southern uplands. The furthest extent of the Roman occupation closely followed the Highland Boundary and included much of the arable district in southern and central Scotland that is classified today as first class agricultural land.

The wooded Highlands were not of much interest to the Romans because they did not produce the grain needed to feed the troops. Overall the direct Roman occupation of the southern part of Scotland did not last more than 40 years, spread out over three periods between the first and third centuries AD, but the empire successfully dominated the country beyond the fixed frontiers for most of that time, employing raids, bribery and the establishment of client states to achieve that level of influence and control. The extent of the indirect Roman pressures on the woodlands is unknown but it is likely that they bought wood from areas they beyond the established areas of Roman occupation. Roman forts and other military installations, required large quantities of wood.

For example, it is thought that the legionary fortress at Inchtuthil near Dunked required over 100 hectares of wood for its walling and other structures. Regrowth would have readily occurred after the Romans had left, provided that grazing pressures were low, which they were, but not sufficiently low to stop there steady decline of woodland. Almost constant warfare among waring tribes and the influx of the Anglo-Saxons and later the Norseman - which was another cause of conflict - acted to suppress population growth, but, again, not enough to allow for major reforestation.

Dark Ages and the Early Middle Ages

By the early Middle Ages there are indications that the amount of woodland on the east coast in Fife and further north in Aberdeenshire had increased. It has been suggested that these localised increases are related to the Roman invasion and that local populations were either wiped out or compelled to abandon the area.

However, in other parts of the country, for example in the Borders and the western Cheviots, there are indications that from the early 5th century, grassland increased in a partly wooded landscape and has persisted ever since due to grazing pressures. These pressures have prevented a reemergence of forest up to the present day.

By 1100 AD most wildwood had gone, except from the remoter parts of the Highlands. Forest cover had shrunk to perhaps as low as 20 percent of the Scottish land area. With the shrinking forests, habitats of many animals came under pressure and large mammals such as aurochs, beaver, boar or red deer were disappearing fast.

Coppicing

Most remaining woodlands were small and probably intensively managed as coppice. Coppice wood can be described as an area of woodland that is periodically cut back to ground level to stimulate growth and provide firewood and timber. Most rural houses and barns, as well as town houses, were constructed of turf, wattle and thatch using wooden frames obtained from readily accessible coppice wood. Coppicing is the oldest sustainable form of forest management, it is not suitable for all species but ash, elm, chestnut, hazel and oak are well suited to coppicing.

Prestige buildings in Scotland

As opposed to humbler dwellings more prestigious buildings in the 1100s, such as churches, castles and the houses of richer merchants in towns, contained large oak and pine timbers. During the 12th century many emerging towns were granted burgh status. This change of status was followed by a flurry of building activity that may have resulted from the prosperity that new status brought.

Being created a burgh allowed those within the burgh to have tax exemptions, thus creating wealth and attracting business and residents. Many of the new buildings used locally-sourced oak from mature woodlands which suggests that there was not at that time a severe timber shortage in Scotland.

However, the fact that they sourced local wood is deceptive because timber for such high status sites was often sourced from protected reserves to which the owners of the buildings had access, either through ownership or royal grants. These wood resources were limited and not accessible to most of the population and as a result, major problems of supply already existed before 1200. Excavated evidence from Perth shows a gradual increase in the use of scrub and hedgerow species in domestic buildings during the 13th century. This trend suggests that local sources of structural timber were increasingly exhausted due to overexploitation.

In response to these timber shortages the import of fuel-wood and building timber from outside the burgh’s hinterland was encouraged by special protections granted by King William I of Scots(1165-1214) in 1205 to anyone bringing ‘ligna vel materiem’ (wood and timber) and prohibiting anyone from troubling people bringing those commodities to the burgh.

Declining timber resources

Further evidence of a lack of wood in eastern Scotland is the fact that wood was being moved over long distances. In 1178 King William failed to grant Arbroath Abbey any nearby woodland as its source of building-timber, but granted instead Trustach Wood which is nearly 55 kilometres away near Banchory on Deeside. The same story was repeated when Earl David, brother of King William, founded Lindores Abbey in 1195, and no local timber resources were granted. Instead, the monks received grants for access to building-timber and firewood 30 kilometres to the west in Strathearn. In addition they were granted the right to collect ‘dry’ or ‘dead’ wood for fuel and broom, a hundred loads of hazel rods for making sleds, and one hundred long alder rods for making hoops, in the woods of ‘Tulyhen’ in Glen Garry in northern Atholl, 70 kilometres north-west of the abbey.

In the 1450s, Perth was able to get some wood for constructing carts from Birnam Wood 25 kilometres to the north on the Bishop of Dunkeld’s land. By 1500 the Bishop himself had no good timber source closer to Dunkeld than the Black Wood of Rannoch, almost 50 kilometres away in the central Highlands. Sadly, today Birnum Wood consists of only two large and very old oak trees, so is hardly a forest.

In the west of Scotland there is evidence of the availability of wood resources throughout this period in contrast to eastern and central parts of Scotland. It is known that there was sufficient supply of timber for the construction of Highland galleys for the local chiefs and in particular the Lords of the Isles. The maintenance of the fleet on which their power was based presupposes the availability of mature local woodland resources.

Imported timber

Despite the existence of these significant areas of oak and pine woodlands in the Highlands and the west, they were beyond the effective reach of most consumers in the lowlands, who became increasingly dependent on imports of foreign timber. Over much of the Lowlands large timber became an increasingly scarce resource during the course of the 14th and 15th centuries.

Few buildings constructed after 1450 contain oak identifiable as native and increasingly timber beams for the construction of churches and other large buildings were imported. From at least the 1330s, Scottish burghs on the east Coast were obtaining their timber from the Baltic, and so-called Estland Boards were being imported from Poland-Lithuania into Berwick and Dundee.

The shortage of large construction timber affected royal construction projects most, such as the castle and palace at Stirling, where timber needs were met through imports.

Ordinary people were much less affected by the lack of large timber because their needs were met with the products of the native woods which were managed through the sustainable practices of coppicing and pollarding. 

The use of the woodlands for wood pasture, providing shelter and grazing for domestic stock, was also extremely widespread. In one sense, there was not a general shortage of wood, but there was a lack of locally-produced large straight timbers necessary for major construction projects or shipbuilding.

First attempts at preservation

It is not surprising that various attempts were made by the crown to improve timber production in Scotland by protecting the forests. For example, in 1503 the Scottish parliament exclaimed that ‘the Woods of Scotland are utterly destroyed’ and passed two Acts to deal with the problem. Felling and burning were outlawed and in a second Act landowners were instructed to plant at least one acre (0.4 hectares) ‘where there are no large woods or forests’.

The twin measures of halting deforestation and encouraging reforestation were repeated in legislation in the next two centuries reflecting concern with problems familiar across Europe. In Scotland, as elsewhere, monarchs and their agents were nervous about being unable to get their hands on the timber supplies needed to build castles and forts, to maintain navies, which were seen as essential for the national economy and security. Further measures followed at intervals, but none was successful in reversing the long history of forest contraction.

The problem lay in enforcement and in translating the aspiration of woodland protection into action on the ground because local interests in traditional forestry made the enforcement of forestry laws by local lairds almost impossible.

The 17th and 18th centuries, the Industrial Revolution brought colossal devastation to Scotlands forests. The start of this began slowly, there were many long years of respite, initially, eventually though, the exploitation of woodland escalated to devastate the landscape to the point that Scotland became almost totally devoid of forest.

We will start at the beginning. Capitalists were granted the right to construct iron works at Loch Maree, in Wester Ross, in 1612, exploiting the local woods as a source of charcoal for this industry. This operation was short-lived and ceased in 1630 due to exhaustion of the local wood resources.

It took nearly a century before the oakwoods again attracted industrial scale iron-making, when a sophisticated blast furnace and forge was established at Glen Kinglass, in Argyll, in 1725. This furnace operated for only twelve years before it was closed due to the commercial incompetence of its operators. This was a taste of things to come and in 1753 Richard Ford and Company of Furness in Lancashire opened the Lorn furnace at Bonawe on Loch Etive, which straddles Argyll and Bute on the Western Scottish mainland.

A couple of years later in 1755 a furnace on Loch Fyne, again in Argyll and Bute, was established by Henry Kendal and Richard Latham and Partners, also of Furness. Over time six blast furnaces operated in western Scotland, all of which had been attracted by a cheap and abundant supply of wood for charcoal. The amount of wood needed to sustain these iron works was quite significant.

The reason for this focus on western Scotland was because elsewhere in Scotland commercially viable woodland was gone.

Lorn furnace at Bona-we, Argyll and Bute, produced 700 tonnes of iron by the end of the 18th century and it has been estimated that at least 8,000 to 10,000 hectares of oakwood per annum were needed to supply this furnace with fuel. Wood was sourced from a remarkably wide area of the west coast and islands, with some woods more than 60 kilometres away.

In an effort to ensure these industries were sustainable, efforts were made to manage wood resources to avoid the industry collapsing. Mixed semi-natural woods were turned into highly profitable oak coppice monocultures. 

During the 18th century the main estates in the region were organizing woodland into haggs or felling coups, cropped on a 20 to 30 year rolling program.

From an ecological point of view the Scottish oakwoods that were prevalent at this time were artificially kept in a state of immaturity and structural uniformity and the later stages of stand development were eliminated. This management regime lasted through into the 1800s and played an important role in the survival of the Atlantic oakwoods.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, interest in the commercial use of the native pinewoods of the Highlands also increased, and wood from young native pine trees was increasingly used in buildings. This coincided with the creation of new plantations by Scottish landowners for profit and ornament. At the same time, the native pinewoods of the more remote parts of the Highlands were being exploited by outside speculators. One of the features of this activity appears to be the high rate of business failure, generally, before much sustained felling had taken place. A piece of luck for those of us who appreciate woodland.

Coming to the 19th century, by the early 1800s iron making on the west coast was in decline and Craleckan, in Argyll, blast furnace closed in 1813, while Bonawe continued at a lower level of production until 1876. This period is the high water mark of coppice management in the Atlantic oakwoods of western Scotland, fueled by a demand for tanning bark by a growing shoe and leather industry.

Landowners quickly switched to tanbark production because it was usually worth twice the value of charcoal in a coppice rotation. As a result many landowners considered a combination of tanbark and spoke wood (used for wheels) sufficient justification for managing their woods regardless of the demands of the iron industry.

But this was not to last and after the 1860s it became clear that traditional coppice management would no longer be profitable. This was caused by foreign competition and the invention of cheaper chemical substitutes for oakbark tannin. By the beginning of the 20th century the commercial exploitation of the oakwoods of western Scotland had all but ceased.

Commercial exploitation

In the first half of the 19th century, the impact of commercial exploitation of the native pinewoods increased when local lairds took the management of their estates over from outside speculators in order to increase the revenue from their estates. There was substantial felling in the native pinewoods of the Highlands driven by high timber prices, particularly during the Napoleonic wars.

This episode of felling was partly replenished with the creation of non-native conifer plantations by lairds all over the Highlands, in the early 19th century. The most extensive of these plantations were the woods created by the Dukes of Atholl, who planted millions of European larches on their estate in Perthshire. Today beautiful woodlands of larch are resplendent in their autumn beauty and draw many visitors, not withstanding, they also provide sanctuary for varied native wildlife.

By 1850 timber prices had fallen dramatically and lairds responded in three ways; most abandoned active forest management and turned to sport (hunting) as the main source of income from their estates; large areas of land were cleared of people to facilitate the introduction of large scale sheep farming; millions of sheep were introduced into the Highlands.

A minority of landowners concentrated on modern forestry plantations of pine and non-native conifer species, which became the core on which the Forestry Commission would be built in the 20th century.

As a result of depopulating the Highlands, the felling of native semi-natural pines declined dramatically, which allowed natural regeneration of the pine stands where sheep grazing was not too intense. Keep in mind this was a minority of the land in the highlands. That said, some areas long deforested over a long period of time experienced a regrowth of forests.

By around 1800, the forest had probably contracted from a historical maximum of 50-60 percent to as little as nine percent of the Scottish land area. Many ancient woodlands disappeared because of increased grazing pressure caused by the large number of sheep that were introduced in the Highlands during this period and in the later decades of the 18th century.

In addition the rising popularity of deer and grouse shooting required an open landscape and forestry was abandoned on many estates in favour of sport. Unfortunately in some instances this resulted in felling of some of the last remaining woodlands on these estates.

As a consequence, the woodland cover fell to a historic low of about six percent by the beginning of the 20th century. If Scotland’s forest declined any further there would be hardly any forests left in Scotland at all.

Glen Artney, copyright Tuck DB Postcards

Some luck came the way of some of the surviving forests. Industrial felling in the Cairngorm Mountains failed as a result of financial mismanagement and bankruptcy and, as a result, the pinewoods survived there. This was repeated on a minor scale elsewhere. These exceptions are noteworthy for their rarity.

The Forestry Commission was created in 1919. After the First World War when forest cover in Britain was at its lowest, the need for forest management was seen as crucial to the national interest. Much of Britain had been deforested in order to fuel the war effort. The Forestry Commission was created in reaction to the fact that Britain and Ireland, at the time, were the least forested countries in Europe and were almost solely dependent on timber imports for their wood supply.

The goal of the Forestry Commission was to establish strategic wood reserves in order to decrease reliance on imports in case of another war. The Commission had two main roles. It was to function as a ‘forestry enterprise’, which would acquire, plant and manage forested lands. Its second function was to serve as a ‘forestry authority’ that would administer policy instruments such as planting grants and felling licenses.

The Forestry Commission was given cross-border public authority over all of Great Britain and the legal status of a government department. It was the first state-controlled production industry. The powers and duties of the Forestry Commission were stated in the Forestry Act passed on August 19th, 1919. The ultimate goal of the Commission was to plant 2 million hectares of 'well-managed, productive woodlands' by the turn of the century, that is the year 2000.

It was estimated that 800, 000ha could be obtained by restocking existing forests and the remaining 1.2 million ha would be obtained through afforestation of bare lands. The creation and structural organization would serve to shape the nature and distribution of forested lands in Britain, Ireland and in Scotland. Ireland at the time was part of the British Empire.

The Forestry Commission got off to a false start as the least valuable land at the time was in Ireland and a large number of trees were planted in Ireland only to be lost to the British government when Ireland achieved its independence in 1921.

Whilst on holiday with my family in Ireland 1983, I visited my father’s birthplace, which is, Attymass, County Mayo. There were extensive tracts of forest in my dad’s part of Ireland. I commented on how lovely this woodland was to my relatives. I was told that they were not Irish trees, being mostly, Norwegian pine and sitka spruce, planted there a long time ago. No one wanted to enlighten me further. In fact, I detected a note of deflection when I wanted more information on these trees. They had been left to run wild and were very beautiful. Perhaps they were a reminder of the English suzerainty of Ireland, an inconvenient reminder of Ireland's turbulent past. Why they were left largely unmanaged by the Irish government was something I never got to the bottom of.

After the loss of Ireland to the Empire, the expansion of afforestation has almost exclusively been confined to uplands, mostly in Scotland. Much of the uplands, especially in England and Wales were considered unsuitable for planting due to elevation, incline, infertile soil and high wind exposure.

Planting was further restricted to only the sub-montane zone (a maximum of 500m above sea level) above which it became unfeasible to plant due to harsh environmental conditions. Reforestation was relegated to the uplands mainly to avoid competition with agricultural land uses, food production was viewed as more important than forestry.

Furthermore, as the Forestry Commission began to acquire land, it could only afford to purchase cheap, marginal, upland areas that were dedicated mainly to grazing lands. In order to reduce the costs of forestry, the Commission also had to carry out land acquisition at a large-scale to reduce unit costs, and the only place where inexpensive land was held in large unit ownership was in the uplands. Because Scotland had the greatest plantable land availability (34 percent); Scotland became the obvious emphasis of the afforestation program. Afforestation in England and Wales, peaked in the 1950s and continued to press on through the 1960s, but soon after began to decline. This was partially due to high prices of land and public opposition to conifer plantations.

The people of England were especially opposed to reforestation with conifer plantations, as their traditional landscape consisted of scattered broadleaved woodlands amongst a rolling open landscape. Finally, in 1988, the Secretary of State for the Environment announced that large-scale reforestation projects would no longer be permitted in the English highlands.

Reforestation

Scotland became the centre for the reforestation industry. However, this was not because it wanted to be but rather because it was less contentious to concentrate efforts to grow trees in Scotland than to try to deal with the public opposition in England and in Wales.

Tax Concessions played an important part in regrowing Scotland’s forests. Afforestation was made even more appealing, especially in Scotland, by the introduction of a series of grant schemes and tax avoidance programs administered by the Forestry Commission in order to encourage continued reforestation.

In 1947 a ‘Dedication Scheme’ was introduced to encourage landowners to enter into formal legal agreements with the Forestry Commission to dedicate part of their lands to forestry for use in timber production in exchange for grants. Tax concessions were also offered by the Forestry Commission in exchange for legal agreement by landowners to conduct forestry on part of their land. This tax concession was the driving force for reforestation in Scotland throughout the mid-20th century.

Many landowners were not really interested in forestry or rural development. Rather they were seeking a means of tax avoidance on income they had generated elsewhere.

Changes in economic, social and political climates were not significant enough to totally halt reforestation of Scottish uplands so planting pressed onward. Annual planting rates have fluctuated throughout the reforestation process. The original target rates for Britain were 20,000 to 25,000ha per year. In March 1986, the annual planting target was increased to 30,000ha per year, and further increased a year later to 33,000ha per year.

Scotland, from the 1970s through to the 1990s accounted for nearly 80 percent of new plantings in Great Britain. Not only did planting rates fluctuate throughout the process of reforestation, but so did the ratio of conifers to broadleaves planted.

The native vegetation in Scotland was composed mainly of mixed oakwoods in lowland areas. Pine dominated the highland regions and birch was found in the far north. There had been a shift in species choice between the 1950s and the current day. The planting of exotic conifers increased dramatically from the 1950s through to the 1980s. Since the 1990s, there has been a rise in the planting of broadleaved species.

Scotland has nearly two billion trees growing across more than 1.3 million hectares - that's around 17 percent of Scotland's total land area, or one in every six hectares. This makes Scotland the most wooded country in Britain. Scotland’s trees account for almost half of all Britain's woods and forests.

Conclusion

I love the wildwoods. Green limbs swaying in the breeze exemplify all the majesty of existence. Efforts to restore native woodlands deserve all the effort we are willing to give them.

I acknowledge the following sources.

  • Scottish Forestry Commission Bulletin, 2019
  • wildwoods.com.uk
  • A Brief History Of The World, H G WELLS
  • K Jan Oosthoek (2005) Conquering the Highlands
  • A History of the Afforestation of the Scottish Uplands Genome-wide patterns of selection in 230 ancient Eurasians, I Mathieson
  • Who We Are And How We Got Here David Reich
  • 2016 Nature article, The Genetic History of Ice Age Europe

James Loftus is the author of the Celtic Blood novels

POSTSCRIPT

HERC2 locus, where a derived allele that is the primary driver of light eye color in Europeans appears nearly simultaneously in specimens from Italy and the Caucasus ~14,000-13,000 years ago.

The first identification for the classic northern European look, blue eyes, light skin, and blond hair mutation is found in Lake Baikal in the region of eastern Siberia, in Asia, and likely to have come into Europe with a massive migration into the region of people bearing the Ancient Eurasian ancestry which was a component of Yamnaya ancestry.