Sawing for Scotland

Loch Ard Forest, Trossachs
Sawing for Scotland
Sitka spruce unloaded from the Red Princess and stacked on the quayside at Troon
Sawing for Scotland
Robin, the Captain, briefing members of the RSFS before embarking on the Red Princess
Ruth watching logs speeding through the sawlines in the Troon mill.

Between 1960 and 2000, many hardworking,  poorly-paid people planted millions of trees across rural Scotland. In that short time, they increased the growing woodlands and forests in Scotland from 6% to 17%  of the land area – a phenomenal achievement considering the wet and windy weather, difficult peaty or rocky soils and the steep slopes usually involved.

We are reaping the rewards of this work in the form of large Forest Parks used by hundreds of thousands of people for outdoor recreation each year; new and changing habitats for plants and animals which these varied forests provide; development of new skills, industries, and employment in processing the harvested trees; and the products which we all use daily. A few examples are: paper, packaging and particle board; electricity and heating; construction; fencing.

With members of the Royal Scottish Forestry Society I recently visited the Glennon Bros. timber mill at Troon, Ayrshire, which takes in more than 120 timber lorry-loads of harvested Sitka spruce daily. And more is brought in from Scottish island and  coastal forests on two barges adapted for loading timber directly off a beach.

Out of the Troon mill come ready-made roof trusses and foundations for Scottish houses, planks, chips, bark, sawdust.


Wonderful Words


I was thumbing through my worn Roget’s ‘Thesaurus’ book, looking for a better word than ‘group’ to describe multiples of ecologists or nature conservationists. I could not find a satisfactorily evocative word, even in the small-printed paragraph of ‘Some Less Common Group Nouns’.

Despite the minute print size, this paragraph took my attention away from the task of writing, with its expressive words like ‘muster‘ and ‘sounder‘.

I understand ‘murmuration‘, which describes an enormous flock of starlings swirling in fast, ever-moving patterns in the sky as the birds gather before roosting. Murmurations have been in the natural history news recently because so many people have observed, wondered at and  photographed these amazing phenomena in Britain.

In pre-intensive farming days I remember how disturbance would cause a  large ‘covey‘ of a dozen or more grey partridges to rise from a cereal field or its headland and clatter away in a close group. On warm southern days at a woodland apiary I was probably stroking off a ‘grist‘ of bees which had meandered out of a hive and landed on my arm. But a ‘swarm‘ of bees was much more interesting: collecting swarms could be precarious. I  might have to climb into a damson tree or up to the roofless summit of a house being demolished on an old airfield.

As a primary pupil in Caernarfonshire, I spent a frightening hour one cold afternoon trying to find my way, without being stung, through a ‘smack‘ of stranded jellyfish seemingly spread all over the soft mud of Bangor beach. Smack was a word I knew  as punishment from angry parents, although  the jellyfish have remained a more potent memory.

The aged, spinster teachers in my next primary school on the edge of Bristol, probably delighted to hear an ‘exaltation‘ of larks in spring but were unlikely ever to have had a ‘fesnying‘ of ferrets running up their sleeves or a ‘walk‘ of snipe dashing up from under their feet! They hopefully enjoyed a ‘kindle‘ of kittens cuddling on their laps during tough lives where women considerably outnumbered men after the battle losses of the First World War.

My young dog unfortunately still chases a ‘gaggle‘ of my friend’s geese across their pasture! Thankfully – she cannot reach a ‘skein‘ of geese when they fly in formation across the sky.

After thinking back to my experiences with jellyfish and bees, I was still at a loss to name a group of ecologists or conservationists. However, my word for a large area of closely-packed, newly-built, houses is a ‘plonk‘. They seem to be ‘plonked’ down on ground where the living soil has been translocated, the soil residents made homeless, and food production on that site denied. In Scotland these housing clones are usually built of both home-grown and imported timber, cut at high speed from conifer trunks by sophisticated, computer-operated sawmills – to the exact sizes and shapes required to assemble into exactly the same floor cassettes, walls and roof trusses for every house in a plonk. Efficiency and speed of production should delight governments as well as potential buyers.

How about an ‘enliven‘ of ecologists and a ‘confirmation ‘ of conservationists?


The Great Storm, October 16th 1987

In the darkness, windiness and noise of the night, we moved the big bed well away from the window and the whole family climbed into it, hoping that the windows would not blow in or the roof lift off. We had not experienced weather like this ever before, even during foreign travels; but the weather forecast had mentioned a hurricane across northern France a short distance away to the south.

The next morning there was, of course, no electricity, there were big tree trunks across the village streets, branches, twigs and leaves covered our garden. The car radio told us that, indeed, during the night, the hurricane had moved north, to cross central southern and eastern England. As in the whole region, we could only get through the village, or anywhere else, on foot. People actually talked to each other, instead of racing past in cars! The weather forecasters were berated publicly.

I  cooked on a camping-gaz stove, as I had done many times before at home when the electricity went off, even on Christmas Day one year. Luckily I always stocked the pantry ready for winter, so I was not worried about lack of food. Electricity was off for up to a fortnight in our village; electricians from Scotland were needed for several months to bring the network back into working order.

We were pleased not to have more than minor damage. Others suffered their boats being blown onto the land from the sea, their caravans and cars disappearing somewhere else, or having trees falling on their houses. Properties along the coast at Selsey Bill (‘Shipping Forecast’) had their roofs blown away. There seemed to be water everywhere. Salt-marsh and low-lying coastal farms  had been inundated at high-tide – bad news for the soil on such high-quality farmland.

Apart from deaths and damage to property, what upset many people in this very wooded area was the enormous loss to trees. Famous woodlands of majestic beech  were toppled; a lime-tree avenue was thinned; an estate lost 40% of its forests overnight. Piles of leaning and broken trees made clearing-up costly and time-consuming. Huge root-plates perched on road verges. What had been woodlands and forests were now open land with distant views. Where was the wildlife? How would landowners cope with the extra finances needed to hire felling crews long-term and with low returns from a surfeit of timber of reduced value on the market?

Tree-people and councils explained to the public that extreme weather is a natural part of the life of a woodland; that trees of many kinds would regenerate or be re-planted, but that it would take time. Yet the public was still upset that its local environments would look ‘a mess’ for so long. However, 30 years on, it is difficult to remember places as they were before the storm. They are now enjoyed as beautiful, but different, woodlands. People again rush by each other in their cars, although some stop and walk with their dogs in beautiful places.



Lammas – 1st August

“It happened on a Lammas nicht,
As I gaed oot for a stroll,
I hadnae gaun sae very faur,
Tae I daunered doon by the toll”

Robert Burns

Lammas originated in Medieval England as a religious harvest festival, usually held on August 1st or soon after. The hay harvest would have finished, and the early Lammas Wheat (winter wheat) harvest – had started. The loaves of bread from this first ripe corn were consecrated in church. It was a time of rejoicing. Tenants gave the minister his share or tithe, a sample of the first corn or bread.

In Scotland, Lammas became one of the four Term Days, which divided each year into four equal periods. Scottish Term Days are: Candlemas (February) , Whitsunday (May), Lammas (August) and Martinmas (November). England, Ireland and Wales had and have a similar system but call them Quarter Days. These are associated with the two equinoxes and two solstices: Lady Day (March), Midsummer Day (June), Michaelmas (September) and Christmas (December).

Quarter Days and Term Days marked the first day of each quarter of the year and were the dates for paying due debts and the cut-off time for settling disputes. Servants and farm workers could be fired or give in their notice and then make themselves available at Hiring Fairs for work elsewhere. A friend of mine in the agriculture industry remembered a hiring fair in Sussex even in the first half of the twentieth century.

Lammas did not become a Quarter Day in England, Ireland and Wales, but remained a religious and seasonal harvest festival. Early grain harvests were unlikely to be ready by August 1st in Scotland, but the name and date was kept as one of the Term Days.

An elderly Scotsman of my acquaintance talks of Lammas Floods, sometimes called the Lammas Spate, when heavy rains caused rivers to rise, race down to the sea and overflow on the way. Fish (and fishermen!) awaited the Lammas Floods because they were a time when large numbers of oceanic salmon and trout, waiting near river mouths, started their journeys up-river. Even nowadays we are not immune from Lammas Floods. For instance, in 2007 and 2008, roads and homes in the small town of Newmilns in the Irvine Valley were flooded. In the 19th century, the Lammas Floods at Newmilns flooded factories and homes and washed away bridges over the River Irvine too.

In Medieval times, when there were fewer built-up areas to suffer, Lammas Floods were experienced more positively. They watered both the ripening corn and the Lammas Fields or Lammas Lands, which were usually riparian grassland, in private ownership until Lammas, after which they became ‘common land’ when tenants could graze their stock until spring. For 1000 years, the grass of the Lammas Lands at Godalming in Surrey, was cut for hay before the Lammas Floods. They still flood regularly and the town now manages them for nature conservation.

In the same vein, if a high spring tide was due around Lammas, it was called the Lammas Stream.
In Fife, the Lammas Drave was the peak time of the summer herring season, when fishing boats put out from harbours to bring in big catches. Alas, with herring almost gone from the coastal North Sea, the Lammas Drave is no more.

Lammas in the forests is a time when trees, after a lull in growth after the spring rush, suddenly produce late green shoots, often straight out of the trunk, called Lammas Shoots.

There are many other associations with Lammas. For instance, two ancient and very successful Lammas Fairs continue at Tavistock in Devon and Ballycastle in Co. Antrim.

And finally, the origin of the word Lammas: it originated as Old English ‘hlȧf mӕsse’
which means ‘loaf mass’. Old English was spoken from the 5th to 12th centuries so Lammas is an ancient festival and word.



We had no fridge, let alone a freezer, washing machine or phone. Nor a car. Meat was kept in a gauze-covered cupboard and milk had to be boiled in the summer. Drinking water was provided at meals, except when friends came round in summer when you might get diluted juice. At school there was free mid-morning milk (you HAD to drink it). In winter you put the small bottles on the radiators to unfreeze the milk, making it taste awful.
There were no meals out, no Chinese, Indian or Italian restaurants; fish and chips were occasional luxuries. Many families grew their own vegetables. Winter weeding was cold and hateful but I learned to identify all the weed species as tiny seedlings! We helped our Mum pick and bottle summer fruits from the garden and in the wild. Shelves of fruit-filled bottles made weekend pies. The art of jam- and marmalade-making was imbibed while still knee high to a duck. Although food was not so varied as today, there were yummy home-made puddings with every dinner (which was in the middle of the day at home and school). There was never any choice for school dinner: you ate it. My grandfather’s favourite proverb was ‘Enough is as good as a feast’. Which reminds me: we had chicken once a year on Christmas Day.
In winter, most houses were ‘warmed’ by one coal fire, so bedroom windows were often frozen-over, inside and out. Always feeling cold meant you had chilblains on feet and hands, which hurt . There were no tights to wear: girls wore long socks or stockings when older. Boys wore ‘short shorts’, winter and summer, until they reached sixteen.
For a family day out, our Mum made sandwiches, then we all walked to the bus stop and took two buses to reach Weston-super-Mare, the Wildfowl Trust or Clifton Suspension Bridge. We loved those trips. Going out with friends for the day or evening also required walking and buses. To reach school, we walked or cycled, whatever the weather.
It did not feel like ‘Austerity’ of course, but like normal life: friends all lived in the same way.
Austerity left me with the ability to eat whatever is put in front of me whether I like it or not. I learned to find something to do if bored, like baking or reading my parents’ ‘grown-up’ books. A book given as a birthday present was read voraciously and passed on. Without knowing it, dark winter hours spent with stamps and stamp albums filled our heads with the names and whereabouts of strange-sounding countries like St Pierre and Michelon, Cochinchina and Tanganyika.
I learned to find my way to new addresses, to music exams in strange buildings, to athletics matches and later, to interviews; I had to work out which buses or trains I should get, to reach my destination on time. Austerity made me and my friends resourceful.
In the summer we had fun with balls, skipping ropes, tennis or French cricket in our’s or friends’ gardens. After the age of eleven, we went out cycling, exploring up to fifteen miles away in a day. We mended and cleaned our own bikes. In winter we played board and card games, painted and loved Children’s Hour on the ‘wireless’. We sometimes moaned that we were bored!
To our Mum this was not austerity. She and her parents lived through two world wars, so what is now looked back on as ‘Austerity’ was for them better times after severe shortages and rationed food. She told us,
“I remember Dad going off to the War. I stood at the gate and waved him goodbye until he disappeared down the hill at the end of the road. Although I was less than four years old, I knew I would not see him for a long time. . . The thing I remember about my time at St Leonard’s Road School [Poplar] was having a tin mug of milk every morning, which I took sixpence [6d] a week on Mondays to pay for it. Only two of us in that class had parents with enough money to pay this sixpence a week. This was when I first became aware of extreme poverty as many of the children, including some of my cousins, wore ragged clothes, and often went bare-foot, even in winter. This upset me very much. . . The only traffic in our road was the daily horse-drawn milk float and the occasional coal-cart, also horse-drawn. Rent collectors and suchlike all came on foot. There was also the weekly muffin-man who walked along the road with a large tray of muffins on his head and ringing a hand-bell. People who could afford came rushing out with sheets of newspaper or plates to buy muffins – – – 7 for sixpence”.

[Muffins in England are made of batter and eaten with butter, similar to crumpets . They are NOT sweet cakes!]

Soundboard Surprises

BrentColeRemovingRoundofSitkaSpruce ForGuitars.Alaska 2012-2


I had never connected guitars, pianos, harps or violins with any particular tree or trees until I started on my book about Sitka spruce, a conifer tree which grows naturally for 3600 km along a narrow coastal corridor from California to Alaska.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, when it journeyed as seeds from North America to Britain, Sitka spruce has had a second home in Atlantic Europe: mainly Ireland, Britain, Norway, France and Iceland. It’s just as well that it suits its new homeland because its native forests have been dwindling from heavy use ever since World War 1 when it was used to construct war planes. Nowadays Sitka spruce is used for your toilet paper, newspaper, computer paper, kitchen units and roof spars. However, it has a very special use in crafting ‘Soundboards’ for stringed instruments.

A soundboard is a shaped piece of wood against which the strings resonate via a bridge to increase the volume; the clarity of sound and overtones produced vary according to the species of timber tree – and even where that tree grew.

Three academics sharing their experiences and findings
If you own a modern guitar, its soundboard is probably made of spruce wood. Sitka spruce is currently the most sought-after timber for guitar and piano soundboards and so is used, for instance, in all North American Steinway pianos and quality guitars.
For soundboards, Sitka spruce has to grow so slowly that when it is felled you see very narrow growth rings. The coast of Alaska, with its cool, wet climate provides ideal conditions for growing soundboard Sitka spruce; 300 to 600 years old, 30 inches or more in diameter, with 20 to 25 rings per inch are best. Slow growth means stiff wood with clarity of sound.

Sitka spruce is the most abundant plantation tree in Scotland where grows so fast that it puts on 3 or 4 rings per inch, is harvested at 40 to 50 years old when less than a foot in diameter! The soft wood and small size unfortunately makes it unsuitable for soundboards – and nobody has waited 300 years!

Of course, other tree species produce good soundboards. Red-coloured Western red cedar is popular; Engelmann spruce and ‘Adirondack’ or Red spruce are highly prized but as there are few large-enough trees left in North American forests, are expensive. Lutz spruce (a hybrid between Sitka and White spruce) is an excellent wood for guitar soundboards, but is very rare. European luthiers choose mainly Common (Norway) spruce, which grows across eastern Europe and Siberia. Experiments with metal soundboards are underway so as to save ancient forests and trees, but timbers are preferred by most players for their feel, beauty and quality of sound.

There is more on trees and soundboards in my recent book on Sitka spruce which you can buy here. Or read a luthier’s experience at

Your Letters and Diaries are just as Valuable as Michael Palin’s Notebooks


Family history research is popular and enjoyable once you have got started and found your first ancestors. From historic records some people work out the age and history of their house or village, while others enthuse over old diaries or ships’ logs. Your children may use soldiers’ letters for a project on the First World War; old photos to study a famous explorer such as Ernest Shackleton; archive maps to work out how local roads have changed.

It is because all sorts of people in the past have deliberately left their personal papers, letters and records for posterity, that we, the public, are lucky enough to be able to look at and use any records we wish.

Field diaries, drawings, paintings, maps and reports written by observant naturalists during the past three centuries are of immense value and interest. They are used by today’s naturalists, conservationists, landscape architects, writers, the National Trusts, probably even lawyers. I visited the Natural History Museum to see Daniel Solander’s beautiful paintings of unknown plants found during Captain Cook’s first circumnavigation between 1768 and 1771.

Please do not throw away any records among your own or your family’s belongings because you do not think them important enough to keep.

Very often such papers and photos will be real treasures.

Ask your local county records office before you decide. Universities, libraries, solicitors and other businesses all store and look after hand-written and printed papers donated in the past. Cumbria Archive Service provides encouraging information: “Cumbria Archive Service is pleased to accept documents relating to all aspects of life in Cumbria into the safe-keeping of one of its four Archive Centres and to give advice to owners of documents about the preservation of material within their care”.

Folks in future (just like us today) may wish to hear politicians’ personal memoirs on DVD, analyse estate accounts and maps or read celebrities’ family letters. But they will also want to know where their own ancestors lived and worked, how much they were paid, what did they wear? Or what ordinary people cooked and ate, what their great-great-grandmother was given for her birthday when a girl and where she went on holiday.

Someone’s great-great-grandmother will be you! So please gift your postcards, diaries, photos, recordings, cuttings and even letters to posterity. Cumbria’s helpful advice is at:-

The UK country records offices are accessible online:-

And here is a link to the Scottish Life Archive of the National Museum of Scotland, where I deposited recordings of contributors to the Whitelee Forest Oral History project:-

And you can buy the book of their story here.

Gowans, summer flowers of the roadside.

My friend is in his 80s and extolls the floriferous days of his youth in the 1940s and 1950s. Gowan flowers are a memory he holds fondly. ‘Gowan’ is the Scots and northern dialect name for what the rest of us call ‘Moon Daisy’, ‘Dog Daisy’ or ‘Ox-eye Daisy’: like gigantic daisies on one-to-two foot stems. The composite flowers can be 2 inches in diameter with large yellow middles and white ‘petals’ forming a ring around.

In past times, gowans were common, my friend remembers, wild in farmers’ hay and pasture fields along with plants like pignut, sorrel and sweet vernal grass. In particular, a couple of acres on a south-facing slope, called Gowanbank, was thick with waving gowans every summer. He remembers vividly the town’s summer gala days, when a line of dressed floats paraded through the streets, when games and sports were held in the town field, when beer and tea flowed endlessly down people’s throats. Every year, one of the gala floats and its lassies was completely decked out in gowan flowers. That’s how common they were in the countryside before and soon after World War 2. My 1950s flower identification book states “Widespread and often abundant in grassy places.”

But when more food was needed to feed the increasing post-war population, farming intensified, flowery hay and pasture fields were ploughed up and reseeded with just one or two species of high-yielding grass, such as Perennial rye grass. Pignuts, gowans, orchids and other flowers became confined to unploughed gullies, field corners and a few farms which stubbornly remained old-fashioned. Then, from the 1970s and 1980s, when wild flower seeds became commercially available, councils added them to their sowing mix for verges of new roads. Today, you are most likely to notice gowans blooming on summer road verges as you rush by.
Gowan Bank is now a green, mown lawn, bereft of its waving, outsize daisies and there are no flower-decked floats on gala days; its gowans remain as a memory-painting in a countryman’s head.


‘Escape To The Country’ – Here’s What You Might Find








You imagine a house surrounded by woodlands and fields, a garden full of birdsong, hens in one corner and fresh eggs for breakfast, friendly neighbours and lovely places to walk the dogs without traffic. It sounds wonderful in comparison with city life. It is, but country life throws up some funny and unexpected incidents.

Driving to collect the kids from school, you can still find yourself held up for 15 or 20 minutes while 100 large cows plod by from field to milking parlour. You might need to drive rather slowly along narrow country lanes: sheep and cattle easily get through unkempt fences and find the grass is definitely tastier on the roadside verges. A moving light along a hedgerow at night is probably operated by a ‘lamper’ out to shoot foxes, a perfectly legal operation of fox control. But lampers can ‘mistake’ their quarry and end up with a venison carcase in their land rover.

Yes, dog-walking is more fun but choose a woodland or forest trail unless your dogs have been trained NOT to chase sheep, cattle, pheasants and hens. Are you good at removing ticks? The dogs need to be checked for ticks after every walk – and so do you: Lyme’s Disease is on the increase and ticks are nowadays prolific in grassy places.

The neighbours are probably friendly – but Oh! are they curious about you! They will know exactly what you are doing just by watching the direction you are walking or driving. They notice if your dog is lame, that you look ill or struggle to mend the fence or hen house after a storm and they offer to help.

Soon after you arrive, the bank and library close, buses are reduced and the baker shuts down . . . Then one day a you notice a ‘mobile’ bakery van parked and hoping for your custom; a fruit and veg. man knocks at the door, a ‘fresh-fishmonger’ goes around the village. They make, catch or grow most of their goods and they all become good friends.

There’s lots more to experience, like mud, snow and ice, smells, night-harvesting, picnics, swimming in the river, and local shows with funny traditions and marvellous home-made cakes.

Go For It!