Sandy’s Garden ... Did the Scots Pine Once Live in England

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

The Sunday Times reported at the beginning of April – though not on the 1st – that a small cluster of what are thought to be true Scots pine trees had been found at Kielder Forest in Northumberland.

What is remarkable about this report is that the true Scots pine … Pinus sylvestris var. Scotica, to give it its Sunday name … has not previously been identified anywhere in England. So is this a genuine first or is it either a mistake or a misunderstanding?

Let’s begin with a bit of history. At the end of the most recent Ice Age, some 12 000 years ago, there were no trees on the Scottish mainland. Arboriculturists calculate that the first trees to take up residence here after the climate warmed up a bit were birch and hazel, perhaps 10 500 years ago. The first evidence of pine trees are pine needles found on Deeside, which carbon dating confirms are about 10 000 years old. Pine trees … Pinus sylvestris, the genetic name Pinus being pretty self-explanatory, while the specific name sylvestris means ‘of the woods’ … were, and are, common throughout northern Europe and northern Asia. But a particular variety of the species … Pinus sylvestris var. Scotica … has unique resin chemistry and is uniquely adapted to oceanic climates; and it may be that these trees survived the Ice Age on glacial islands off the west coast of Ireland or Scotland, spreading to the mainland when the climate warmed up. Alternatively, these trees …which are genetically very similar to a variety native to Sweden … came across the North Sea to reach this country.

The Caledonian forest, in which the true Scots pines are found, is unique to Scotland, although it is a constituent of the pine forests that stretch across much of northern Europe between latitudes 60°N and 70°N. The poor, acidic soil and drier peaty soils required to sustain the plants which make up the Caledonian forest are found principally in parts of the Grampian Mountains and in the northern and western Highlands. But … and this is an important caveat … most of the Scots pines in the Caledonian forest are not Pinus sylvestris var. Scotica but are kissing cousins of this particular variant; and the question is whether this particular Scottish variant has been found in Northumberland.

And now we return to the historical account of our national tree. Pinus sylvestris var. Scotica, with its short cones and short needles, is known to have been found in the hills around Wigtown, Kirkcubright and Moffat millennia ago - not too far from the English border: but we believe that its sojourn there was brief; and there is evidence of its having grown near Stirling about 4 000 years ago - again, for only a few hundred years. Is it likely, as suggested in The Sunday Times, that the Romans who built Hadrian’s Wall some 2 000 years ago felled large numbers of true Scots pines in Northumberland to use as scaffolding and that the few found there recently are descendants of a handful of survivors?

To my mind, the answer is an emphatic ‘no.’ First of all, Pinus sylvestris var. Scotica seldom grows in large groups, being usually a solitary tree; secondly, the Roman historian Pliny, who gave the impression that the gallant Roman legionnaires had to hack their way through dense forests in their vain quest to subdue the northern British tribes, was happy to invent fictional reasons for the Roman army’s lack of success; and thirdly, although we know that the habitats of Pinus sylvestris var. Scotica did change over thousands of years, there is no previous evidence of it ever having grown as far south as the Kielder Forest. And so I suspect that, if indeed these eight trees turn out to be true Scots pines, they are descendants of trees planted there by well-intentioned environmentalists in the comparatively recent past.