The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of growing new
Is written down in rings of grain.
– Philip Larkin, ‘The Trees’.
What the trees might have seen #
Throughout the inconsistency and toil of life, few things remain as stoic and constant as the mighty tree. They form a constantly nurturing defense against the ravages of man’s misfortunes, and the dangers presented by an often cruel and callous world.
To the hunter, they provide wood for the limbs of his bow; to the monarchs of old, timber for the navies that built empire and established generational might. In our modern day and age, they perform this same service for us yet again, by filtering the choking fumes of industry and giving back to us clean air.
The fact that trees are so often imbued with wisdom in works of fantasy (chiefly as the wise Council of Ents in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy) is for a very good reason – after all, with all the average oak has seen, it must have a good stock of wisdom stored inside its trunk.
What might that ancient tree, steeped in the venerable insights of the past few hundred years or so, be able to tell us now, if it could only talk?
Auld Dougie Lang-Roots #
Let’s take the average Douglas fir on our estate. Douglas firs live for about 500 years unless disturbed, and some specimens have even been dated back 1,300 years. Let’s say one that fell down the other day lived for five full centuries. What might it have witnessed?
A Century of Progress #
Our tree’s roots (as it were) in the sixteenth century place it at a time of critical transformation in Scotland. 1523 stands only ten years after the Battle of Flodden, the largest ever fought between the Kingdoms of Scotland and England, and the site at which James IV lost his life.
This pivotal time would demonstrate a pace of rapid evolution for the historic European kingdom. In 1503, Scotland was a profoundly feudal kingdom; its king, James, was a reformer in the classic mold, expanding the navy, securing the power of the throne over the Highlands & Islands, and steadfast in his devotion to the Pope and Catholicism.
By 1603, James’s great-grandson, James VI, was expanding his titles, uniting the Crowns and becoming the first joint monarch of Scotland and England. In doing so, he established the foundation of the modern Union, accelerated the process of southwards drift in which all of Scotland’s nobles began their move to the seat of Parliament and London, and laid the grounds for the eventual full Union of the Crowns in 1707 (and the disillusion of Scotland as an independent nation).
Branches of Faith #
In addition to rapid political changes, Scotland’s faith was changing as well. The traditional Scottish faith of Catholicism, through the course of many political and civic changes, fell into a minority status, and was replaced in the halls of power with the rising force of Protestantism.
While the industrious Lowlands would quickly become entrenched halls of Protestant (and later Presbyterian) influence, the Gaelic-speaking and community-driven Highlands would hold firm in their Catholic beliefs for centuries afterwards. This division of faith only heightened the extant cultural divide between Highlands and Lowlands, and would eventually lead, along with several other factors, to a succession of Jacobite rebellions.
Oaken Rebellion #
It’s in here that the course of Scottish history might well drift back into our fir tree’s path. A brother tree in his forest, the venerable oak, was a potent symbol of secret Jacobite loyalties. The oak leaf had long been a symbol of the Stuart line, but other forest-related images began to join it in having this covert significance, added as decoration to drinking glasses and used for toasts to the monarchy.
Acorns, for instance, represented the concept of mighty movements starting from small beginnings; an abandoned oak with flowering roots, to show how life can be born again from seemingly lost causes. Often, a specific oak, the Boscobel oak, was used for these glasses – said oak being the tree that King Charles II successfully used to hide from Parliamentarian forces before fleeing to France. Even the Stuarts themselves recognised this link to the oak, as King Charles II wore oak leaves on his hat after returning from exile.
From Timber to Steel #
Much as the Act of Proscription in 1746 banned the wearing of tartan, the playing of bagpipes, and the speaking of Gaelic, it also set about the process of industrialising a land that, in many places, still looked and functioned much as it might have hundreds of years before.
The removal of weapons from Highland populations removed their ability to hunt, meaning that more and more families began having to move to Lowland cities and towns. Throughout the last few centuries, our tree may well have borne witness to the beginning of several defining aspects of Scottish culture.
Notably, depending on which yard it was on, it may even have directly seen the introduction of the ‘little kilt’ you see worn today, in which the ‘great kilt’ (something more like a grand tartan shawl) was cut down to a design closer to a skirt – a trend introduced by the industrialist Thomas Rawlinson, specifically to make it more convenient for his labourers while they worked.
The Highland Clearances #
Throughout the century afterwards, however, the trees would have witnessed one of the last great stages of Highland deforestation – the Highland Clearances. As the formerly absent landlords began to return to their Scottish estates, filled with romantic notions of Waverly and Burns, the inconvenient hills loaded with ancient trees and unprofitable tenants irritated them greatly.
They turned out the land, evicting the people, and setting sheep to graze upon the hillsides. As part of achieving this ‘Balmoralist’ aesthetic (named for Balmoral Castle, the Queen’s Highland residence), much of the landscape was ripped up to make space for shooting trips and countryside excursions.
Although the demands of industry in the last few centuries had seen a lot of wood cover stripped aside, this final stage opened the floodgates to widespread deforestation across landscapes formerly coated with dense tree cover. It’s always important to remember that, when you see ‘untouched Highland hillsides’ on television or film, you’re often seeing a landscape intentionally wiped clean by the demands of tourism and uncaring industrialists.
When the aftermath of the Clearances had settled, an underpopulated Highlands remained; both in terms of people and tree cover. Where the Romans had once talked of legends of vast Caledonian forests, it’s estimated that only 1% of Scotland’s native pinewood trees remain in place.
The stripping-back of the Victorian era was followed immediately by the government’s wartime demand for timber; in doing so, they introduced sitka spruce to the Highlands, which support a very limited range of native wildlife compared to the diverse ecosystem the native pines and larches could before. Little care was taken to preserve native woodlands, as the land and people themselves were held in little value. In that sense, our remaining tree is not only wise, but lucky, too, as he has held himself in the ground far longer than his many brothers were able to.
Hope Takes Root #
However, as is the case with so many things, times have now changed. The Scottish Forestry Commission, which once happily accommodated the demands of industry by replacing native tree species with imported specimens, is now very particular about the sections of the forest that can be cut down, and what can be planted in their place.
Keeping Scottish forests populated with native species and supporting local ecosystems is now seen as a much higher concern, and local sawmills are a lot more invested than in previous generations.
As an estimated 85% of new-build Scottish homes are now made from (or heavily use) timber, bills to aid in reforestation have achieved broad cross-party support in the Scottish Government. Where once market forces and absentee landlords had forced people out from the forested lands where their families had lived for centuries, many areas of natural beauty in Scotland are driving a thriving ‘woodland tourism’ industry, worth approximately £183 million a year.
Where prior governments have shown genuine apathy towards environmental concerns, the far-reaching issues climate change poses has motivated the Scottish Government to heavily prioritise ecological matters. Recent polls also show that many people who formerly were uninterested in conservation and environmental protections are becoming more engaged by these matters, and want to help fund solutions.
Furthermore, for our tree – which has witnessed the past four monarchs hold the Scottish Highlands in contempt, indifference, or as an abstracted aesthetic fantasy – there exists some small cause for hope with the new King Charles; who, as Prince, committed directly to various ecological initiatives, and has been very engaged with the matter of achieving climate neutrality.
As the man himself said: “Forests are the world’s air-conditioning system – the lungs of the planet – and we are on the verge of switching it off.”
You’d like to think that, if this 500-year old Douglas fir came down today, it could rest a little easier knowing that it’ll be taken to a sawmill working to balance its emissions; that it’ll be converted into a product to safely store yet more carbon for at least a few more decades; and that the land it occupies will be replanted soon afterwards, using native species, and keeping the land thriving for the generations to come.
Logie Timber’s Historic Commitments #
If this article has peaked your interest in historic timber, please feel free to get in touch with us at Logie Timber. As an artisanal, community-oriented lumber mill, we have a great deal of respect and veneration for the historic trees that we’re working with, and we’re actively investing in initiatives to help research and demonstrate the storied and long life each tree in our yard would have been through. Much like whisky or beef, aged timber brings with it a character and quality unmatched by its synthetic counterparts, and it makes a fantastic addition to a new build or home renovation. Reach out to us on Facebook or Instagram; e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org; or call us on 01309 611769.