In 2006 Ruth Tittensor recorded a series of in-depth audio interviews relating to an oral history of Whitelee Forest.
It is a fascinating listen. Excerpts from the vast catalogue of recordings are available here, and will be added to regularly. If you would like to delve deeper into this work, please get in touch.
Or continue reading Ruth’s introduction to this work.
An Oral History of a 20th Century Scottish Forest
Oral history records, stores and collates people’s spoken memories of happenings which they experienced during their lifetimes and their opinions of the events.
An oral history project usually focuses on one subject or sequence of events, for instance: school days in the 1940s; decline of the coal-mining industry in the 1980s; life as a gamekeeper; experiences of National Service; midwifery in the 20th century; decline of the Fife fishing industry when the herring shoals disappeared; train travel in the last days of steam engines.
Contributors to a project are volunteers keen to participate. The project organiser meets each Contributor when and where they wish, and asks a few agreed questions to start off the discussion, which is recorded on an unobtrusive recording machine or computer. The discussion may continue for two hours and, if a Contributor has plenty to offer, there may be a second or third session on later days.
Each person’s recorded memories are then stored on computer and on a DVD. A specialist transcriber listens to the recordings and types them out so that they can also be stored on paper and read like any other document. Listening to the recordings is a fascinating and enjoyable way of learning history as described by those who lived it, and hearing their thoughts and feelings. Contributors receive a copy of their recording and transcript, and sign a form to say that they are happy for these to be heard or read by others now and in future.
The collection of personal memories of an event, time or industry, together make up a themed, previously-unknown history. Oral memories are usually given by people whose part in history has been ignored because they carried out the practical work ‘at the factory floor’ rather than the policy making and management on which official histories concentrate.
Most of the 80 Contributors to the Whitelee project had never before had anyone show any interest in their lives and work . . . Yet their knowledge was invaluable in deciphering the effects of government forestry policies on farms and farming families, employment and skills, local shops and schools, ecology, landscape and infrastructure. Without it, our knowledge of the greatest change in the Scottish landscape since the Clearances would be partial and poorer.
Whitelee Plateau now supports a huge wind farm. But a century ago it was a remote landscape of heather moorland, peat, rocky ravines, isolated farms, sheep and grouse at the meeting point of Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire. Farming life was tough, but strong social bonds existed. Blue-grey and Ayrshire cattle, Blackface sheep, and crops from the inbye land were produced.
During the First World War, Britain was faced with a disastrous timber shortage and afterwards had the lowest woodland cover in Europe apart from Ireland. In 1919, the state Forestry Commission was started, to ‘Plant, Plant, Plant’ trees so that never again would there be such a calamity. Timber was of strategic importance, particularly for pit props, which supported the country’s coal mine tunnels. Industry (such as steel production) and warships needed coal for fuel; coal also produced electricity and heated homes and workplaces.
Tree-planting was arduous – and trees grow slowly. The young plantations were not mature enough to be used in the Second World War. So the country was faced with the same disaster as 25 years earlier. Post-War, it was urgent to get on with tree planting much faster. In 1960 a huge tree-planting programme started in Scotland, which wanted a big forest industry to help maintain and employ the rural population.
Only the worst land could be used for trees, because better land was reserved for food production. And the Whitelee Plateau was the very worst that could be found! Deep, wet peat, very high rainfall (c. 80 inches a year), steep slopes and no infrastructure.
In 1961, the first tree was planted at Whitelee. During the next 30 years, 10 million trees were planted, growing over farmland into the 15,000 acre Whitelee Forest.
This landscape change was mirrored across the whole of Scotland, where forest workers increased the woodland cover from 6% in 1960 to 17% in 2000!
Without oral history projects, this period of the countryside’s history would gradually recede from living memory.
The Whitelee Project was carried out with due regard to law, ethics, copyright and people’s feelings, so that everyone involved was satisfied with their contribution.
So you are welcome to listen and immerse yourself in any of the recordings available here.