By the early 1600s, much of Scotland was already reliant on imported timber. However, it is likely that the use of native timber continued significantly later in Perth and Kinross. Wider application of dendrochronology, which can reveal both timber source and date if sufficient comparative data is available, could prove transformative for understanding the extent of woodland cover and the evolution of the timber industry in this region (Crone and Mills 2013; Mills et al 2017; Mills 2021).
While the history of Scottish woodlands is often assumed to have been characterised by long-term decline, the reality was probably more complex. Dendro-climatological research on native pine shows that the 1690s were the coldest decade in Scotland in the last 800 years (Rydval et al 2017). This decade, which saw extensive crop failure and famine, may have seen an expansion in woodland (Dawson 2009). The oldest pine trees dated at Rannoch are from the very late 17th century, and it is possible that a reduction in grazing pressure enabled woodland to regenerate at this time (C Mills pers comm).
Wood pastures formed an integral part of the cattle-based pastoral system which was common in upland Perth and Kinross before ‘improvement’ by sheep grazing in the 18th and 19th centuries. Wood pastures provided important sheltered grazing for over-wintering cattle (Mills et al 2013). Where it survives, old wood pasture typically has a high level of biodiversity. Such woodlands provide a living reminder of past patterns of farming, and can preserve other archaeological remains, particularly those associated with traditional pastoral life.
During the 18th century, trends in woodland management altered. Increasingly Scottish aristocrats moved away from the tradition of managing forests for hunting. Instead, more industrial and extractive interests gained ground (Mills et al 2013). The processes by which old woodland was cleared can be reflected in the archaeological record through features like charcoal platforms. Political upheaval sometimes hastened changes in how woodland was exploited. For instance, there is evidence that when the estates of the Robertsons of Struan, on which the Black Wood of Rannoch grows, were forfeited in the 1740s, the Commissioners of Annexed Estates imposed new forms of woodland management. The Commissioners enclosed the Black Wood and stopped tenants from sheltering stock within the woodland.
Dense woodland was traditionally another important resource for the general population, providing firewood and construction materials. The ‘improvement’ era was characterised by the taking into private control of what had previously been common resources, such as access to sources of timber, thatch, turf and clay. This is reflected in construction practices, tenancy rights and the built heritage from the period. Alongside the loss of common land rights and vernacular construction processes, there was a move towards processed construction materials and professional procurement which is discernible in the built heritage. Further interdisciplinary research into these changes would be desirable.
Whilst some 18th-century landowners, particularly in the uplands, destroyed traditional woodland, others established new plantations. During the 18th century, many areas of Perth and Kinross saw the extensive development of plantations, policies and wider designed landscapes. For instance, it was noted in the 1790s that in the countryside around Dunkeld the Duke of Atholl had ‘planted upwards of 4,000 acres’ of larches ‘intermixed’ with a small proportion of Scots firs (Anonymous 1798, 434).
Thus far, there has been no dendrochronological work on the, probably, 18th-century designed landscapes of Perth and Kinross. However, recent work outside the region at Dougalston near Milngavie demonstrates the possibilities when tree-ring data is combined with archaeological, cartographic and written evidence. For instance, the age and location of trees at Dougalston enabled the dating of designed features such as hahas (Bishop et al forthcoming). A degree of historical research has been undertaken into improvement era plantations in Perth and Kinross, which were often planted over earlier farming systems and settlements (Lindsay 1974; Smout et al 2005). In this context it should perhaps be noted that the sources of wealth which funded plantations and improvement is a topic of considerable research interest. Money from European expansion overseas, including involvement in slavery, was sometimes used to develop and adapt the Scottish landscape.
Interdisciplinary approaches have considerable potential to further our understanding of the complex history of woodland in Perth and Kinross. When evidence from tree-rings, tree-forms, archaeological remains, historic maps and written documents are combined, highly detailed chronological information can be obtained. Thus far dendrochronological investigation in Perth and Kinross has been limited. However, there is reason to believe that this region might have had different experiences of woodland management from more studied areas along the east coast, which had mostly experienced significant deforestation before 1600. Examination of historic buildings just outside the borders of Perth and Kinross has revealed the use of native pine, ash and oak into the post-medieval period (Mills and Crone forthcoming; Mills et al 2017; Crone and Mills 2013). Given the more wooded state of present-day Perth and Kinross, a greater focus on this region could prove transformative for our understanding of the evolution of Scottish woodland.