Exploring Environmental History: Selected Essays

By T. C. Smout | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9
Trees as Historic Landscapes: from
Wallace’s Oak to Reforesting Scotland*

The main purpose of this paper is to sketch, in a Scottish context, the relationship between trees and our sense of landscape, especially of historic or cultural landscape. Trees have always been many things to many people, and it is as well to start by reminding ourselves that mostly they have been, for those who planted or managed them, timber: utilitarian, not ornamental.

Before the present century, Scottish wood was widely used when there were no cost-effective substitutes in the form of alternative materials or cheap imports. There was no subsidy or protection except that afforded by primitive technologies and underdeveloped markets, so when something better or cheaper was available, the woods were abandoned. Take its use as fuel. Where there was abundant coal or peat for domestic heating and industrial uses like salt panning, the woods were readily and anciently converted into arable or pasture land because there was no incentive to maintain them as a source of energy. The wide and desolate spaces of Buchan, or the empty fertile plains of Tothian, were described by seventeenth-century commentators as having an abundance of fuel that greatly added to the comfort of the inhabitants, but it was not wood. One of the reasons why Scotland has so little natural wood remaining compared to most European countries is just because it has so much fossil or semi-fossil fuel. Fuel-providing woods survived only where they had a specialist use: birch wood was unbeatable for smoking fish, and coppiced for that purpose in the hinterlands of fisher towns; sycamore, ash and elm were used for starting the fires in limekilns that later burned with coal; above all, charcoal, best of all oak charcoal, was used for smelting iron. Perhaps some woods were lost due to these activities, but the many surviving oakwoods of the western sea lochs of Argyll are testimony not to the profligate nature of the ironmasters and the landlords but to their practice of sustainability by coppice and rotational

*An earlier version of this paper appeared in Scottish Forestry, 48 (1994), pp. 244-52. Thanks to the editor for permission to reuse.

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