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Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland
On the Old and Remarkable Beeches in Scotland


(Fagus sylvatica)
By Robert Hutchison of Carlowrie.
[PremiumThe Gold Medal.]

It is somewhat remarkable that there should be so few recorded instances amongst old writers of large beech trees in Scotland, considering the wide distribution which this tree has attained, and that it is so general over the country at the present day.

Dr Walker, who wrote his Catalogue, "after forty years' observation," in 1798, mentions only four examples, and one of these he gives as a remarkable tree, though it only girthed 8 feet in 1780! And in the list compiled in 1812, and published in the "Edinburgh Antiquarian Magazine " (vol. i. pp. 20-23), in 1848, only seven are stated, three of them being also identical trees with those given by Walker. From the many large specimens whose dimensions and localities are appended to the present report, we might surely have had a longer list handed down to us by those earlier observers, for many of these now given must have been in existence, and been trees of no mean circumference, when Walker wrote, unless it be that many or most of the first planted beeches in Scotland having attained timber dimensions, and their wood being found of little value for constructive or domestic purposes, had, in the absence of the mining industry of the present day, which has rendered the fuel supply independent of wood, been felled and consumed as fuel, so that probably only a few very notable examples, whose position in ornamental grounds had saved them, remained to testify how admirably suited for extensive development of trunk and bole the beech tree is, in almost every soil and situation in Scotland. Loudon, in his great work, throws very little light on the cause of this apparent paucity of very notable beeches in Scotland. He does not mention individually any fresh examples beyond those given by Walker, excepting one (since blown over) at Prestonhall, Midlothian. He incidentally, however, mentions that " a number of other fine beech trees existed in Scotland in Walker's time," and that "Mr Sang and Sir T. Dick-Lauder have added several other remarkable examples." From these statements it would appear that about the beginning of the present century, few of the old and originally planted beeches survived in Scotland, but that a copiously planted crop, introduced extensively about the time of the Revolution, was then forming considerable timber, and is now to be traced out in such tracts as those we find in such woods, of which beech trees form a main feature, as may be seen at Inveraray, Ormiston, Hopetoun, Craigiehall, Hawthornden, Binning Wood, Dunglass, Blairdrummond, and many other districts of Scotland, where large and fine specimens exist in quantity, and in luxuriant foliage, at the present day. We must accordingly look upon the examples of Walker and other early writers as very likely to be contemporaries pointing to a more remote period of introduction, dating probably back to the years from 1540 to 1560.

These remarkable beeches mentioned by the earlier writers referred to, are all single or standard specimens, and appear to have been selected for their several sites solely with a view to ornamental or picturesque effect.

Indeed, the adaptation of the beech for such purposes seems to have been very prevalent with its planters about the beginning of the 18th century, to which date are to be ascribed most, if not all, of the stately and imposing avenues and "walks" or "rides" of beeches, which are the glory and beauty of many sylvan retreats at the present day. Many of the dimensions of the most notable of these grand objects of landscape gardening are given in the appendix to this report, and a comparison of their girths and lengths of bole are deeply interesting, and a brief reference to some of these particulars may here be made. At Logie-Almond, Perthshire, the old main approach to the mansion-house runs through a fine old avenue of beech, lime, and elm trees, and is perhaps one of the finest old avenues in Scotland. Through the kindness of Mr William M'Corquodale of Scone Woods we have been able to give the particulars of two of the best beeches in this avenue in the appendix, and it will be seen that they girth respectively, at 5 feet from the ground, 15 feet 3 inches and 11 feet 9 inches, with massive boles of nearly 30 feet in length. These noble specimens have been hitherto unrecorded. While Morayshire generally abounds in fine examples of beech, the trees at Brodie Castle are worthy of special note. The principal approach leading to the castle is lined on each side with a row of beeches, forming an avenue of rare grandeur in summer, when in full foliage. There are also many fine lawn specimens of large size. These trees were planted between the years 1650 and 1680, and are growing in a black sandy loam, on a subsoil of white sand and clay. Two of the largest and finest of the Brodie trees girth respectively 14 feet 8 inches and 18 feet at 1 foot, and 11 feet 9 inches and 15 feet 3 inches at 3 feet above ground. Another beech at Earlsmill, on the same estate, and mentioned by Sir T. Dick-Lauder as girthing, in 1812, 15 feet at 3 feet from the ground, now measures (1879) 17 feet 10 inches at 1 foot, 16 feet 3 inches at 3 feet, and 15 feet 11 inches at 5 feet from the base. Sir T. Dick-Lauder, in a MS. note on a volume of Walker's "Essays," which had been in his possession, states that "another beech at Elgin, in a garden, is but a few inches less." This tree, however, notwithstanding diligent inquiry last year, we have been unable to identify.

But, returning to notice the planting of the beech in formal lines for picturesque effect, we need only refer to many beautiful avenues in other counties of Scotland, for illustrations of them are familiar to every lover of trees and the picturesque. The beauty and stately grandeur of the beech avenue at Freelands, Perthshire, is well known. The trees in this avenue girth from 12 feet to 17 feet 6 inches at breast high, and are in healthy vigour. A very good representation of formal planting in line is found in a row of beeches of large and imposing dimensions near Stanley, Perthshire. One. tree in this group, conspicuous by its massive trunk covered with smooth silvery bark, is 83 feet in height, with a bole of 45 feet of measurable timber, and girths 15 feet 8 inches at 1 foot, and 14 feet 7 inches at 5 feet above ground. The practice of utilizing the beech, from its hardihood and power of resisting the blast and affording shelter along exposed roadsides, was very common, and its use as a screen was frequently resorted to. In high situations, or in wide un-timbered tracts, its use as a hedge for such purposes is also not uncommon. Its adaptation to shelter, and as forming a roadside avenue to protect from the fury of the winter's blast, or to shade from the sultry heat of summer, is well illustrated by the well known beeches on the road between Dunkeld and Pitlochry, Perthshire. Another beautiful and highly picturesque beech avenue exists at Moncrieffe, Perthshire. It is about 700 yards in length, and the trees average 10 feet 6 inches at breast high, many being above that circumference. This avenue, it is supposed, was originally a hedge planted about the time of the building of the present mansion-house at Moncrieffe,in 1679, and gradually thinned out as the plants required more space. In the centre of this avenue there are the interesting remains of a group of standing stones, commonly called "Druidical Circles," so frequently met with in several districts of Scotland. At a high altitude in the Ochils, at Glendevon, in light gravelly loam on gravel subsoil, close to the banks of the Devon, there is another fine old beech avenue about 300 yards in length. The trees stand in too close proximity to each other to admit of their free development, but they girth from 7 feet to 9 feet 6 inches at 3 feet above ground, and form a good test of the ability of the beech to thrive and grow into timber dimensions at so high an altitude, being 800 feet above sea-level. Other single beeches are found at equally if not higher altitudes, as at Cleish Castle, 580 feet, where it will be observed from the returns in the appendix, that it girths in many cases 17 feet and 17 feet 6 inches at 1 foot, and from 10 feet to 13 feet 6 inches at 5 feet above ground, with tall handsome boles;—and at Dolphinton, Lanarkshire, at 834 feet altitude, it girths 10 feet 7½ inches at 5 feet from the base. The fine beech avenue at Inveraray Castle is too well known to require more than a passing reference. As a single tree in the park at Inveraray Castle, the beech girths in some cases 14 feet 3 inches at 5 feet from the ground. The soil is a brown loam over a sandy gravel subsoil. Another picturesque beech avenue existed formerly at Braid, near Edinburgh, but has unfortunately been suffered to pass away unrecorded, having been cut down several years ago. Handsome lines of beeches also may be noticed at Blairdrummond, Perthshire, where one beech measures 90 feet in height, 20 feet of bole, and girths 16 feet 10 inches at 1 foot, and 15 feet 9 inches at 3 feet above ground. Also, at Ardkinglas, Argyllshire, where a beech girths 16 feet 8 inches at 3 feet from the base. Many other fine specimens are to be found at Ardkinglas; some of the finest of these are given in the appended returns. This splendid tree is 92 feet in height, and girths at 3 feet from its base 18 feet 10 inches, and 18 feet 9½ inches at 5 feet. It grows in black loam upon a gravelly till subsoil, and has a diameter of spread of branches of 108 feet. It is locally known by the name of "Prince Charlie's Beech." Why it has been so called, there are no reliable data to show,—but, although there is no historical record of the young Chevalier having ever resided in the neighbourhood, or even having passed through it in his wanderings, the tree may have probably been so christened by a Highland chieftain and follower of Prince Charlie, who is said to have sheltered a number of the Prince's adherents under its umbrageous foliage, accommodation for them being otherwise unobtainable. Such, at all events, is the legend of this truly majestic specimen. In Bute, one of the most attractive objects to arboriculturists, is the "Beech Walk." It is situated at Mountstuart, in the parish of Kingarth; and, from the account of the district and its trees, kindly furnished by Mr Kay, the estate forester, we learn that it lies at the bottom of the ancient sea-cliff, and extends to 570 yards in length, with a width of 12 yards. The average space between the trees is 11 yards, and their extreme height is 120 feet. These trees, in their formal habit of growth and planting, resemble a majestic colonnade of architectural pillars, which, with their interlacing branches overhead, present the appearance of a vast Gothic arch when viewed from one end. Many of the trees are upwards of 10 feet in circumference at 5 feet from the ground. The largest is 11 feet 9 inches at 5 feet up, and is 60 feet in length of bole to the first branch, and will contain 450 cubic feet of timber. The soil is sandy and subsoil sand, being an ancient sea-beach ; altitude of the site 20 feet, and the exposure is to the east, but is somewhat sheltered. This interesting "Beech Walk," shows the suitability of this tree for planting in similar sites along sea-margins, and Sorn abounds. It is related of her ladyship that, when she heard of Dr Johnson's cynical remarks on the nakedness of Scotland in regard to trees, she exclaimed "Deil tak' the man, whaur was his e'en, when he didna' see my Elms" !!! These beech trees grow at various altitudes from 350 to 430 feet above the sea-level, and girth from 9 to 10 feet at 5 feet from the ground, with lofty boles, in some cases reaching 30 feet in length.

We must now, however, hasten to notice a few of the most important single specimen beeches in various parts of the country. Foremost amongst these, and facile princeps, the most magnificent beech, and at the same time the largest tree in Scotland, is the Newbattle Abbey beech, Midlothian. This splendid monarch grows in a deep light sandy loam, upon an open gravelly subsoil. It is 95 feet in height, and at 1 foot above ground girths 37 feet 3 inches,—at 2 feet it is 25 feet 3 inches, and at 5 feet its trunk girths 21 feet 2 inches, and it is still growing and making more wood annually. Measured carefully in 1879, it girthed at 2½ feet above ground 27 feet 10 inches; at 7 feet, 19 feet 1¾ inch; and at 34 feet from the ground, after giving off many immense limbs, its trunk still girthed 17 feet 10 inches. The circumference of the spread of its branches is 350 feet. At about 15 feet from the base the large overhanging limbs begin to spring from its colossal bole, and these have long ago reached the ground, into which several of them are firmly rooted and are growing upwards and outwards with redoubled vigour, while at the same time they form so many natural buttresses to the support of the mighty trunk. The tree has been frequently measured, and appears to have made an inch in girth on an average annually for the last fifteen years. Dr Walker notices this tree, as one of the four in his Catalogue to which we have referred. He says: "The large beech at Newbottle Abbey, standing on the lawn behind the house, on 6th July 1789 measured 17 feet." His measurements were taken apparently at 3 feet from the ground, although in this instance he does not mention the particular point. It was then, he states, a vigorous and healthy tree, with an immense head. The span of its branches was 89 feet. He records also that a beech, at Taymouth, of a like size, and seemingly coeval with this, was overturned by a storm some years previously, when it had arrived at above 16 feet in girth. Would that the worthy Divine had seen the New-battle beech at the present day! Probably the next beech in Scotland in point of size and magnitude is at Eccles, Dumfriesshire, which measures now upwards of 20 feet in girth at 5 feet above ground. In 1863, its dimensions were,—girth, 26 feet at 2 feet above the ground; 20 feet at 4 feet; 25 feet at 7 feet; and 17 feet at 16 feet from its base. The height of this tree was then 65 feet, and the spread of branches was 300 feet in circumference. The altitude of the site is 430 feet, and exposure to the south-east. Another beech little inferior to this one stood near it, but was unfortunately destroyed by a gale some years ago. Neither of these trees is mentioned by Dr Walker. Next in point of magnitude, so far as our researches show, is the beech tree at Belton, East Lothian. This tree is 63 feet high, with a bole of 31 feet, and girths at 1 foot above ground 32 feet 3 inches, and 20 feet 4 inches at 5 feet. In 1863, this tree is recorded to have been 19 feet 4 inches at 6 feet from the ground and 17 feet 8 inches, at 9½ feet. Its age is stated to be about 150 years, but this seems much too short a space of time for it to have attained these dimensions. About sixty years ago, almost one-half of its trunk on the west side of the tree was carried away by the falling of a large branch, and twenty years afterwards the cavity caused by this accident in the centre of the trunk was large enough to contain three men. It is, however, now very much closed up, and fresh wood is being rapidly formed from a shoot of healthy bark, which must before long quite enclose and hide the cavity. On the east side of its base is a curiosity in the projecting corner of a large stone trough, which in former times had stood at the root of the tree for watering cattle, but over and around which the conoidal base of the trunk has now grown, so that the trough is quite imbedded in the heart of the bole, and only a small portion of the brim of it is visible! The next recorded beech probably, in point of importance at the present day, is the Balmerino Abbey tree, Fife. There are two large and venerable specimens there, and they measure as follows:—

Height.

Bole.

Girth at 5 ft.

Girth in 1863.

Girth in 1793.

No. 1
No. 2

95 ft.
92 ft.

35 ft.
30 ft.

13 ft. 9 in.
14 ft. 11 in.

13 ft. 0 in.
14 ft. 7 in.

...
12 ft 7 in.

The trunk of No. 1 divides into limbs at 35 feet, and its bole, is much finer than that of No. 2, as it presents its thickness almost uniformly up to the spread of its branches, and contains a greater amount of timber than No. 2, which tapers a good deal. Both trees are still perfectly sound and healthy, and are magnificent objects when in leaf. These trees are not noticed in Walker's Catalogue, but No. 2 is recorded in the list of trees dated 1812, and which appears in the "Edinburgh Antiquarian Magazine," vol. i. pp. 20 and 23, published in 1848.

A beech at Leslie House, Fife, which in March 1812 girthed 11 feet at 3 feet from the ground, with a lofty bole of 56 feet, now measures 16 feet 8 inches at the same point, and is probably the next in point of size of the old recorded trees. The beech at Kellie Castle, growing in the garden, and in inquiring after which we supposed we were tracing out at the present day, the condition of a beech stated to be growing there in the 1812 list, and to be then 16 feet in girth at 3 feet from the ground,—we find to be now 18 feet in circumference at that point. It appears to be still in a pretty good state of preservation, although the main branches of it were broken off by a gale many years ago, and the tree is thus much shorn of its symmetry. As, however, the bole of the tree given in the record of 1812 is stated to be 30 feet in length, and the actual measurement now of the tree we refer to is only about half that length, there may be some mistake in the identity of this tree with that catalogued in 1812, as having girthed, in 1793, 16 feet. It was also ascertained in the course of inquiry regarding this tree, that the remains of several old beeches had recently been removed, and, in particular, of one of a large girth between the castle and the turnpike road. Further there are now no other very large or venerable beeches at Kellie Castle, excepting the one in the garden above referred to. The celebrated beech tree at Ormiston Hall, East-Lothian, which, according to Walker, measured, on 10th May 1762, 18 feet 10 inches at 3 feet from the ground; and the large beech at Oxenford, Midlothian, which he states on 6th June 1763 girthed 19 feet 6 inches at 3 feet from the ground, have both long since disappeared; but the most careful inquiry regarding these two veterans fails to throw any light on either the date or the manner of their destruction.

So much for the tale at the present day of those old recorded beeches, which, after much investigation, we are able to give. Time would fail to describe the best specimens of existing and hitherto unrecorded trees, such as those given in the appended returns, to which for all particulars therefore, reference must be made. Before concluding, it may be perhaps proper to notice a peculiar habit of the beech, developed in several localities, of assuming a spiral columnar growth of trunk near the base, where the conoidal swellings assume a most picturesque oblique buttress-like appearance. This is well illustrated in a beech tree growing at Freeland, Perthshire. Another peculiarity of the beech is its tendency to inarch, or naturally graft its limbs one upon another, producing frequently the most fantastic freaks of nature. Thus, at Dunkeld, in the Athole woods, we find a beech which presents the appearance of growing straight upwards till at about 5 feet from the ground, it seems to split into two, and to join again about 4 feet higher up, the two stems becoming incorporated by a process of natural grafting. In that locality there are many fine beech trees, of which we have given records in the appendix.

The principal variety of the Fagus sylvatica or common beech, is the purple or copper-leaved variety, as it is frequently termed. Of this we have given several fine examples in the appended returns, as for example, at Gordon Castle, Morayshire, where it has reached a height of 65 feet, and girths 11 feet 8 inches at 1 foot, and 8 feet 10 inches at 5 feet from the ground; at Dunkeld House, where there is a very handsome specimen, now 53 feet in height, and 10 feet 7 inches in circumference at 3 feet from the base; at Moncreiffe House, Perth, where it is 62 feet in height, and girths 9 feet at 1 foot from the ground, and 7 feet 8 inches at 5 feet up at Dollarfield, where it is 63 feet high, with a bole 40 feet long, and girthing 8 feet 4 inches and 7 feet 4 inches at 1 and 5 feet from ground respectively, and with a spread of branches of 70 feet diameter; at Carlowrie, Linlithgow, where it is now, with a wide flat-spreading head, 65 feet in height, bole 18 feet in length, 8 feet 9 inches in girth at 1 foot, and 7 feet 6 inches at 5 feet from the ground; and at Biel, East Lothian there is a fine specimen 60 feet high, 12 feet of bole, and 9 feet in girth at 1 foot, and 8 feet at 5 feet from the ground. The purple beech is a native of Germany, where it was accidentally discovered in a wood, between the middle and end of last century; and the original parent tree, from which all the purple beeches in the country have been produced, is said to be still standing.

From the foregoing report, and further reference to the appended returns, it will be observed that the beech, which cannot be said to be indigenous to Scotland,—although it is said to be so in some of the midland and southern counties of England, and old authors quote it as one of the four aboriginal hard-wood trees of the country,—thrives best and attains its largest dimensions more rapidly in soils that are thin and light, or in the calcareous loams of the chalk formation. It thrives also, as many of our statistics show, on sandy and clayey loams at great altitudes, and grows indeed more freely in such soils and situations than most other hard-wood trees. In some of the central parts of England, where that great ridge of chalk hills, which occupies a large portion of several midland counties, exists, the beech occurs as a natural forest, to the exclusion of all other varieties of trees, by its far stretching roots, and depth of shade, which effectually kills them off. As shelter on high-lying or bare and exposed fields, whether under crop or in pasture, it is invaluable when planted in strips, or as a hedge, and as a park tree planted for ornament, the references we have endeavoured to give in this report will show that the beech has few equals among forest trees in Scotland, and has been appropriately styled by an eminent writer on arboriculture, "at once the Hercules and Adonis of our Sylva."

Appendix


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