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Scottish Tree of the Year – Ray Colliers Wildlife in the North

Thursday, December 11th, 2014
beauly conifer

Beauly Conifer

Earlier this year I mentioned the national competition to find the Scottish Tree of the Year and said that it would seem obvious as we all knew it was the Scots pine.   Well the competition went further than that as it wanted a specific single tree so several weeks ago the hunt was on and people were asked to vote.  The competition was organised by the Woodland Trust  with support from the People’s Postcode Lottery.   This produced a great deal of interest from a wide range of people and organisations and the results are fascinating.   This was not only for the single tree but also the runners up and the final result gave a  list of six.

There is the temptation to consider what there is more locally in the Highlands that could compete  and there are some strong contenders.  For example the famous yew  tree in the grounds of Dundonnell must be a likely contender.    Fortunately the grounds are open at certain times of the  year and then there is the chance of seeing the tree close to.  It is the centre piece of the private garden and is very beautiful and ancient.   It looks as though it has been coppiced many years ago and the result is  a ring of almost awesome interlaced stems.   Its huge trunk, one of the largest recorded for a yew in Scotland  measures 7 metres in girth at ground level.  It is reputed to be up to 2,000 years old.  What many people do not realise is that its size is  remarkable considering just how far north it is growing near Ullapool.

Another obvious contender must be  the already famous  conifer near Beauly.  Famous because it is reputed to be the tallest tree in Britain and may well be the tallest  in Europe.   It is a Douglas fir growing in  an often overlooked glen near Beauly a  few miles west of Inverness.  The tree has its own name, “Dughall Mor” which is, aptly, the Gaelic for “Big Douglas”.  It stands an impressive 218 feet and, interestingly, there are three or four other trees nearby that are  almost as tall and all these trees are still growing!   The photograph  gives an idea of just how impressive these trees in Reelig Glen are.   The Glen is open to the public and the tall trees are included in the trail organised by the Forestry Commission.

Remarkably, to my mind, neither of these trees made it to the final 6 but the last one was one that I  doubt very many readers will ever have heard of.  It is the “kissing beech” in the grounds of Kilravock Castle to the east of Inverness.   It is rare as it is  layered beech in that branches have grown right down to the ground and some of these have been rooted  to create small trees in their own right although still attached to the main  tree.   The characteristic smooth grey bark has been used for ages as a “trysting tree” where lovers carved their initials.  It first became known as the “kissing tree” after a member of an early owner’s family and a housemaid were witnessed in an embrace under the huge branches.

So even with all these options the final choice came down to the now famous Lady’s Tree, a 100 year old Scots pine at the SWT’s reserve on the Loch of Lowes reserve near Dunkeld.   Here the lady,  an osprey, has made it her home for nearly quarter of a century and reared no less than  50 chicks.  An iconic tree for an ionic osprey and a suitable choice for Scottish Tree of the Year 2014.

Blackthorn and Sloes – Ray Colliers Wildlife in the North

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

apples-and-sloesIf you stand in front of a blackthorn bush and look at its various features  there is a feeling of mystery and it is almost  eerie.  One of the reasons is that the whole of the shrub  is so dark with very little  colour variation.  In contrast if you stand in  front of a rowan tree it is likely to have great clumps of red berries  weighing its branches down.  Later in the season even the  rowan’s leaves will change to a riot of colour such reds and yellows.  The bramble is another example  of a colour variation as the berries vary from black to almost white and the range of colour of the leaves is quite impressive.   In contrast, the leaves  of the blackthorn are dark green that seem to blend well with the dark stem and twigs.   Even the fruits, called sloes,  are like a very dark plums with, later in the year, a dark bluish bloom that seems to match the tree as it has a very sharp taste.   The dense bushes , right down to ground level, present a very dense thicket that seems to have its own particular defence as it has very sharp thorns.

The blackthorn also features in  myth and folklore, perhaps more than  any other shrub.   The blackthorn is the sister of the hawthorn and they represent the dark and light halves of the year.  Both trees are said to have formed Christ’s crown of thorns and this was the reason Christian monks gave for their unluckiness.  However, blackthorn’s sinister associations have older roots , for it is traditionally the tree of black magic. Its thorns are long, strong, and extremely sharp, proving ideal for piercing the skin.  A simple scratch often leave wounds that turn septic and the thorns,  when tipped with poisons, made a weapon ideal for killing enemies. The myths have it that this was the thorn that pricked Sleeping Beauty’s  finger and she fell into a long deep slumber!   The blackthorn is well known for being the traditional wood of the Irish  to make their cudgels called shillelaghs.  However, there was a more sinister use as   Witches used blackthorn wood as a walking stick, known as the dreaded black rod.  If the witch even pointed it at someone that person would suffer from whatever the witch cursed on them. It was the great herbalist Culpeper in “The Complete Herbal” published in 1653 who described the sloe as “when ripe, of a fine purplish black colour, of a sour austere taste, and not fit to be eaten until mellowed by frost”

In contrast, sloes are very useful for the keen “Food for Free” enthusiast as, apart from anything else, it makes the famous sloe gin.  However, a word of caution as sloe gin is what it means – sloe gin – as the main component is a bottle of gin to start with.  One point to remember is that as with most sloe drinks the fruits need pricking with a darning needle to release the juices.    As you might expect large amounts of sugar are needed and there is the proviso that the bottle should be shaken daily until the sugar  is dissolved and then occasionally shaking  for another two months.   Then strain and bottle but do not be put off as it should then be ready for Christmas!    I looked at the nearest sloe bushes and the crop is very good and the photograph shows the sloes and the “bloom” on them.    I have tried sloe gin, sloe whisky and sloe vodka and the latter is thoroughly  recommended!

Yew Trees – Ray Colliers Wildlife in the North

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

dundonnell yew treeYew trees are one of the oldest trees and they can be very imposing and even dramatic, yet we hardly ever notice them. This is partly because they are mainly found in churchyards or burial grounds and, in the north, the tree only has a scattered distribution. For example, they are absent from large parts of Caithness and Sutherland and the latest maps show only one site in the Western Isles and none in the Northern Isles. As for the rest of the Highlands there is still some debate as to whether the tree is native or introduced although, increasingly, the argument for it being native seems to be winning the day. What is certain is that it is one of the trees that is surrounded by folk lore and myths, perhaps even more so than most other trees.

One of the mysteries that surrounds the yew tree is its presence in churchyards. It was long assumed this was because it was planted there for various reasons such as keeping the poisonous branches away from stock and, a very important consideration, the trees were needed to make the famous longbows. There are problems about both these ideas. To start with it was often the case that the yew trees were there before the churches were even built. Yews are often over 2,000 years old so this is not surprising and the answer seems to be that the sites were the origin of another religious context. It seems likely that the ground was used for pagan worship before later religions built their own churches on or near the same site.

As for the yew tree’s use in making the traditional long-bows, there is no doubt it was by far the best timber to use. The timber of the yew could be cut so that it contained both sapwood, to give springiness, and heartwood, for the sheer strength. The problem was that there were just not enough yew trees to meet the increasing demands of the archers. So the problem was overcome by importing very large quantities of the timber from the Continent, mainly from Spain. There was an added bonus, which is rarely taken into consideration and easily overlooked, the seeds of the yew tree yielded a deadly poison and that was used to tip arrowheads.

So why this sudden interest in yew trees? The reason is that it seems almost a long standing tradition that the oldest tree in Britain, and possibly Europe, is the famous yew at Fortingall, a Perthshire village. It is estimated to be around 5,000 year old. Estimate is the key word as, because of the structure when they age, yew trees are very difficult to age accurately. The fact that it is the oldest yew has just been passed down through generations but now it appears to have a rival. The yew in question is estimated to be over 5,000 years old and it is in a churchyard, where else, in Defynnog in Wales. It has been stated by a “tree aging expert” that it is the oldest tree in Europe. So the scene is set for a battle between Scotland and Wales and no doubt the repercussions will be felt far and wide. As for the Highlands, if you want to see a yew tree that is a mere 2,000 year old then go to Dundonnell House, south west of Ullapool next time they open to the public and there is a magnificent yew I photographed. I prefer the one in the Highlands even if the age is only an estimate. The Dundonnell yew just has to be seen.