10.5.5 Forestry

Alongside peat, areas of the Highlands have long been rich in timber, providing fuel resources for local subsistence, burial pyres and small scale industrial activity, as well as building materials. Woodland cover varied in the Highlands, but pollen analysis and charcoal identification at sites combined with maps and documentary resources can provide evidence of woodland cover, and also episodes of cutting (see 10.2).

Various research projects have focussed in part on Highland forestry, including the Touchwood history project (University of the Highlands and Islands Centre for History; see Stewart 2008; 2010); the Woodland Trust’s Ledmore and Migdale wood project (Bangor-Jones 2014a; Kruse 2014); a local community project investigating Boblainy Forest, Inverness-shire (Kruse and MacLean 2015); and the Sunart Oakwoods Research Group on the Ardnamurchan peninsula in Lochaber (Kirby 2001). The Forest Memories Website www.forestry-memories.org.uk/ (accessed October 2020) grew out of the success of the Touchwood history project and provides a number of pictures and oral history transcripts relating to forestry in the Highlands. George Dixon has assembled documentary evidence for Strathspey (Dixon 1976). Eighteenth century timber exploitation on the Cromartie Coigach estates was investigated by Clough (1994, 235ff). Maps and documentary sources can provide detailed information; for example, see Bangor-Jones (2013) for the Sutherland estates.

Forests were managed on a commercial scale for a number of reasons. The wood could be used locally and exported, though in Scotland cheaper or better quality imports had already been making inroads in the late Medieval period (Mills et al 2017). In the Post-Medieval period, the Scottish trend is for increasing imports of first oak and then pine. However, the situation in the Highlands may well be different. Documentary sources note timber resources in a number of areas, and more detailed local investigation of these sources would be useful. Further dendrochronological work on timber, especially oak, in the Highlands needs to be undertaken to see if native timber use continued longer in this area (Coralie Mills, pers comm).

The majority of pine from the Highlands dated as part of the SCOT2K Native Pine Dendrochronology Project has been shown to be native, however, with only samples from The Doune Rothiemurchus (MHG15393) and Fort George (MHG15618), used in the third quarter of the 18th century, shown to be imported, the samples from Fort George from the eastern Baltic (Mills 2008; Mills et al 2017). A number of other samples from the Highlands were unable to be dated, but await advances in ways to date smaller samples.

Dendrochonology which allows dating and evidence of origin is also beginning to show use of Highland timber in buildings elsewhere in Scotland, for example pine from the Cairngorms felled shortly after 1458 used at St John’s House, St Andrews (Mills et al 2017). Whether this export at such an early date applies to other timbers in Scotland will require further data.  Documentary sources also show some landowners exporting pine in the 17th century (Smout et al 2005, 197). Other types of wood also need to be investigated.

As outlined in previous chapters, charcoal burning platforms can be traced back to the Early Medieval period, so dating is needed at these sites. A site on Loch Sunart, Lochaber, was used from Medieval period and again in the late 18th or 19th century. The Post-Medieval platforms were larger and were recessed into the hillsides, with considerable care in building (Ellis 2016). Whether this is diagnostic for dating platform burning structures or if it is a regional characteristic remain to be tested elsewhere. Certainly other clusters of platforms in the area at Ceann a’ Chreagain, Strontian (MHG36040) also show this technique.

Some landowners actively promoted forestry on their lands, becoming known as ‘planting lairds’ (House and Dingwall 2003). In the Highlands these also included the Commissioners of Forfeited Estates who encouraged planting, for example on the Lovat estate. In the 19th century, Sir John Ramsden (Loch Laggan), Sir John Stirling Maxwell at nearby Courrour and Loch Ossian, the Grants of Rothiemurchus, and Lord Lovat, responsible for the formation of the Forestry Commission after WWI, are among the planting lairds or those who capitalised on their large timber resources. There appears to have been less tree planting in the western Highlands. Species varied, and many landlords experimented with exotics, but Scots pine was favoured as it could be planted on heathland, and later the Sitka spruce which dominated commercial plantations in the 20th century (House and Dingwall 2003, 140ff).

Key to successful undertakings was an ability to transport the wood, and early experiments floating cut trees down rivers in the first half of the 17th century are known (Steward 2003a, 88; 2003b, 113-114; Kruse and Maclean 2015, 33). This practice continued into living memory, even when rail and road transport revolutionised the industry.

Sawmills were introduced in in the 17th century (Shaw 1984), water-powered in some cases and later steam-powered. However, the early use of sawmills in the Highlands remains to be investigated; the potential for research and memories can be seen from the projects mentioned above. In the 19th and 20th centuries there were mobile sawmills which travelled to the wood. The development of the railway, more extensive in the eastern Highlands than currently is the case, provided ways to transport finished logs, while at the same time fuelling need for timber sleepers (Foot 2003). During WWI and WWII forestry workers and their machinery arrived to the Highlands from the US (for example at Ardgay, Sutherland), Newfoundland, Canada and Honduras (Bird and Davies 1919; Wonders 1991; ScARF Case Study Archaeology of the Newfoundland Diaspora). These sawmills and camps have left little trace (see Case Study Skibo A Canadian Forestry Camp). More research into Highland sawmills, and recognition of their traces in the landscape with dating evidence is needed.

A 17th century sawmill

In addition to sawing, large pine trees in Strathspey were bored into pipes at so-called boring mills in the 18th century. These were exported to London, until cheaper English elm pipes undercut the business (eg MHG55515; MHG20107; Dixon 1976; Steward 2003b, 119). Little remains of these enterprises apart from the place-names.

In some areas of the Highlands evidence of woodland management can be seen, particularly coppicing. Documentary evidence is also available in some cases. For example, the Sunart, Lochaber woods were coppiced on a 20-30 year rotation (Kirby 2001). In other areas woodland management for bark can be demonstrated from oakwoods, for example at Skibo, Sutherland woods in the 18th century (Malcolm Bangor-Jones pers comm) and Sunart (Kirby 2001). Information on woodland management needs to be gathered together, with dating, to allow comparisons regionally and chronologically.

The sequence of repeated planting and felling has taken its toll on Highland archaeology, although there is more awareness now of archaeological sites in the forests. Nevertheless the current planting and felling machinery is undeniably destructive. The forestry industry continues to be widespread in the Highlands, with plantations managed by private firms as well as Forestry and Land Scotland. This is likely to increase in the 21st century given current targets for 21% woodland cover by 2032 (with current cover c. 17%) (Nature Scot website)). As such it will fuel continued forest enterprise but also potential threats to widespread archaeology.

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