Sandy’s Garden ... Scotland’s National Tree

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So the public have voted and the matter is decided.

The Scots pine is now declared to be Scotland’s national tree, beating the rowan into second place by more than three votes to one and the holly into third place by more than seven votes to one. Mark you, we do know that just over four-and-a-half thousand people exercised their democratic right to vote in the nationwide consultation which was launched after a petition at Holyrood; and I confess that this public consultation exercise passed me by … although whether I would have voted is another matter. Still, four-and-a-half thousand people have voted, meaning that something of the order of 0.008% of Scots have spoken. And so, on the strength of what by any reckoning is a remarkably low turnout, the Scots pine is now officially Scotland’s national tree.

At least pinus sylvestris … its botanical name … is believed to be native to Scotland, as well as to a wide swathe of Europe and Asia from Spain to Siberia and Turkey. The Scots version, pinus sylvestris scotica … the pine tree (pinus) found in the woods (sylvestris) of Scotland (scotica) … is a difficult beast to pin down. According to ‘Scottish Wild Plants’ by Philip Lusby and Jenny Wright, published by the Stationery Office on behalf of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in 1996, “Indigenous Scottish trees have been distinguished as the endemic subspecies or variety scotica chiefly by the shape of the crown, which remains pyramidal until late in life when it becomes rounded.” However, the authors then qualify this assertion in these words: “This feature has, however, been observed elsewhere in its range.”

Then there is the difficulty in determining just which Scots pines are thoroughbred Scots pines, for differing varieties of pinus sylvestris have been imported into Scotland for at least the last 400 years and have self-hybridised with the original denizen of the once-great Caledonian Forest, which was extensively cut down for its utility to mankind. Tess Darwin, in ‘The Scots Herbal’, published by the Mercat Press, also in 1996, describes the tree’s usefulness in these words. “Individual trees could grow to a great size, 25 metres tall, 2 metres diameter, of durable wood, light and strong, knot-free, suitable for house and boat building and only slightly inferior to oak. … Boat builders particularly valued the long, straight, pliable planks of Scots pine, and believed they should not cut the trees when the moon was waning, because the sap was tidal and the timber would then be less resinous.”

So the woodmen did not spare those trees, felling them until the only remnants of the once vast pine forests of Scotland were left in the least accessible areas; and perhaps we should be grateful that this inaccessibility has spared a least some of the native trees, for pinus sylvestris is believed to have been eradicated in England … where it was also a native species … during the seventeenth century. So, when the herbalist John Parkinson noted the continuing presence of the tree in the Highlands of Scotland in his book ‘Theatrum Botannicum’ in 1640, the felling of these trees began wherever they could be accessed.

One example of what is probably a true, native Scots pine can be found near New Scone in Perthshire. In ‘Heritage Trees of Scotland’, published by The Tree Council in 2003, authors Donald Rodger, Jon Stokes and James Ogilvie describe a massive Scots pine in Muirward Wood as ‘the King of the Forest.’ Standing 31 metres high … that’s 102 feet in old money … and with a girth of 6.09 metres … 20 feet …in 2003, this giant really is an outstanding example worthy of the title ‘Scotland’s national tree.’ And it may well owe its longevity to the fact that, although accessible by public footpaths, it is very difficult to find.