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The Scottish Gael
Chapter III
Appearance of the country extent and productions of the Aboriginal forests.



THE Western side of Britain is mountainous, the east and south parts
are champaign. These different characters are striking, and have long
marked the territories of the ancient inhabitants and those who are min-
gled with later colonists. The same, in some degree, is the case with

It will not be here attempted to account for the alluvial discoveries
made throughout these islands, or hazard an explanation of various re-
markable appearances. Whether the flood of Noah, or any other deluge
or convulsion, has produced the difference between the former and pres-
ent face of the earth, is not easy to be ascertained, but a singular change
has certainly taken place.* Traditions, indeed, do exist, that the Scil-
lies, and many other islands, were formerly connected with the mainland;
but the fact appears as unsusceptible of positive proof, as the shock that
is presumed to have rent Britain from the continent.

Throughout the Western Isles, the Orkneys, and even in Shetland,
the discovery of large trees that are dug from the mosses or bogs, has
led to an opinion, that the woods must have existed at a time when these
islands were dissevered from Britain, either by the workings of the ocean,
or a sudden disruption; and without some such hypothesis, "it is not
easy to comprehend, how trees could grow on these spots, of which the
extent is so small, and under circumstances in which heath will scarcely
now attain its full growth. "t Remains of woods have often been per-

See Brogniart's Works, &c.

t M'Culloch's Description of the Western Islands, ii. p. 268.


ceived at a distance from me snores. Tins ....u-rwfiments of the ocean
were very remarkably proved, by the discovery of a thick forest in the
bay of Pulvash, in Man, where the trees were exposed after a violent
storrn. Those dug up on land, show that the woods of that island have
been at a subsequent period overthrown by a north-east wind. At Ni-
wegal, near St. David's, in Wales, Gir. Carnbrensis says, a furious tem-
pest which blew away the sands on the beach, opened to view a forest,
and on the trunks of many of the trees the mark of the axe was visible.
If the Triads can be received as authority, they attest the formation of
Anglesea, and many other islands on the western coast, by the bursting
of the lake Llion, and allude to a period when the Orkneys were but few
in number.

At the period of the Roman invasion, from which we must date all
certain information respecting Britain, the face of the country was very
different from what it has since appeared. The small tracts which had
been cleared of wood, in the vicinity of the towns or strongholds, and
the very limited patches of ground appropriated to raise a portion of
corn, were insufficient to materially affect the general appearance of
nature throughout the island.

We do not possess so satisfactory data respecting the country, or in-
habitants of Scotland, as illustrate the ancient state of South Britain;
for the partial knowledge which the Romans and others obtained, re-
specting the regions of Caledonia, did not enable them to transmit much
information concerning this distant boundary of the empire.

A better climate, a less rugged country, and some commercial advan-
tages, produced a certain territorial improvement, and consequent me-
lioration in the state of the Southern tribes. A greater attention to
agriculture, in a latitude more favorable to the operations of husbandry,
constituted the chief difference between the maritime nations of South
Britain, and the aborigines of the interior, who retained their primitive
rudeness, and occupied districts where the face of nature was less
changed by the labors of human industry.

Where the dense forests spread in natural wildness, and undisturbed
luxuriance; where lakes and morasses are undrained, the land unculti-
vated, and surrounded by vast seas; a clouded sky and a moist climate
are the natural effects, and are very unpleasantly felt by those who have
lived under the azure sky, and genial climate of Italy. The frequent
and heavy showers that fall on the Western coasts are most remarkable,
and occasioned a facetious gentleman who had resided several weeks in
the country, during which he never experienced a dry day, to ask a
person whom he met some years afterwards on the continent, " whether
it had yet ceased to rain in Scotland?" These sudden showers bring
down the mountain floods with a velocity that often occasions the loss of
flocks, and sometimes of human life.

The Roman historians in general speak of Britain as extremely un-


pleasant, "damp with continual showers, ard overcast with clouds,"*
but Caesar describes the climate as milder than that of Gaul. Scotland
is represented as of a most forbidding aspect, deluged with incessant
rains, and clouded with exhalations from unwholesome fens; surrounded
by seas that raged with tremendous fury, and forcing their billows to the
centre of the country, foamed among the inland mountains."]" The
numerous lochs, or arms of the sea, with which the Northern part of
the island is indented, give some propriety to this description; but we
must regard these accounts as given by a people, who had an imperfect
knowledge of a country, in which they never made any permanent
settlement, and who exaggerated the details to magnify their military
exploits; yet the scenery of Caledonia was too romantic and singular
to escape observation. Its grandeur struck the ancients with won-
der, and has always been the admiration of the lovers of the romantic

The Grampians, that appear an impenetrable barrier, have long been
considered the line of separation between the well known divisions of
Highlands and Lowlands; but there are other remarkable features that
have excited particular notice.

The Muir of Rannach, a district in Perthshire, extending from the
hills of Glen Lyon to Ben Nevis, is a flat desert plain, about twenty
miles square, surrounded by the highest mountains in Scotland. So well
secured by nature is this district, that it was wholly inaccessible to the
civil power, until after the events of 1745.

Part of Assynt, and Edderachyllis in Sutherland, forming a tract of
about twenty-four miles by eight or ten, is no less remarkable. Although
in a very mountainous country, it is comparatively plain, but rugged and
broken in a most extraordinary manner, and may be described, as if
hundreds of great mountains had been split and scattered about by some
violent convulsion of nature. J In certain parts of the Highlands the
mountains have the singular appearance of being composed of loose
blocks of stone, resembling an immense cairn. Some of the woods also
are not unworthy of observation, where the fir is seen growing on the
side of precipices, where no soil can apparently exist. In the fissures
of the rock, this hardy tree fixes its roots, where it seems impossible
either to take hold, or derive the requisite nourishment; yet the remains
of ancient forests are seen in these situations, and owe their preservation
to the inaccessible heights on which they are placed. The mountain of
Ben Lair, in Ross, affords a remarkable example, and the rugged hills
of Mar, in Aberdeenshire, display many similar appearances.

Britain is described by the ancients, as " horrida sylvis." The name
of Caledonia, if a plausible etymology before stated is deemed con-
clusive, proves the former wooded state of the country, which is more
-strongly attested by the remains dug from numerous mosses, and various

* Vita Agricolse, c. xiii. t Ibid.

$ Roy's Mil. Ant. p. 59. Page 46



local names derived from woods that have now disappeared. Scotland
has so long been denuded of its ancient forests, that their existence has
been doubted, when a thousand proofs from vestigia met with in almost
every district evince the fallacy of such a supposition. It is true the
Sylva Caledonia has disappeared, except the remains that are seen in
Rannach, in Mar, in Abernethy, and Laggan, in which last place it still
retains the appropriate name of Coilmore, or the great wood, and in part
of Ross; but although some of these tracts are still more than thirty
miles in length, they are but a small proportion of a wood, which once
covered the whole central highlands.

Many forests that no longer remain, or are reduced to a stunted copse
wood, are mentioned in ancient records. From these we ascertain the
existence of woods that formerly . covered heaths, which beyond all
memory of man have presented the most bleak and barren aspect.* The
forests that were around Stirling, Forfar, Inverness, Elgin, Banff, Ab-
erdeen, and Kintore, that overspread Buchan, Crimond, Cabrach, &c.
&c., are often noticed in ancient deeds. The great wood of Drumselch
was in the vicinity of Edinburgh, and Etterick forest has long given
name to a SherifTdom. Nor was South Britain much less encumbered
with woods; from Kent to Somerset, was one continued forest, and a
dense wood extended over the present counties of Lincoln, Nottingham,
Derby, Leicester, Rutland, and part of Northampton.! Ireland was
overrun with woods; and the first employment of the colonists is said to
have been clearing the land, and making room for themselves; and those
who were distinguished by their activity in so laudable a work are cele-
brated in the national histories.^ In that country three distinct growths
of timber, under three distinct strata of moss, are discovered.^ In the
time of Carnbrensis, it appears to have been still full of thick woods,
some of which, at a later period, exceeded twenty miles in length. |j

The British woods appear to have contained nearly all the varieties
of trees to be found in Gaul. Tacitus says that the island did not pro-
duce the vine and the olive, 11 but Cresar excepts the fir and beech also,
** and his authority, that these were not to be found in Britain, would
almost repress scepticism.

The beech is believed to have been unknown before the Romans had
established themselves; but from its British or Celtic names, Faighe or
Faghe, the latin Fagus, is apparently derived.

That the fir must have grown plentifully in the aboriginal woods, there
is abundant proof: fir cones are dug up from great depths, as well as the

* See the Chartularies. Rymer's Foedera. Chalmer's Caledonia, &c.

t See Whittaker's Hist, of Manchester, and authorities.

J Leabhar Gabhala. Keating'a MSS. Ogygia, &c. &c.

Report of the Commissioners on the Bogs of Ireland.

|| Derrick's Image of Ireland, 1581.

H Vit. Agric. c. xii.

** " Praeter Fagum atque Abietem," not Ficum, as some read.


''-rr-ks of the trees on which they grew; and the bogs m wnich
dre found, being- in some cases traversed by Roman roads, were
certainly formed before the arrival of that people. The remains of this
hardy tree are found in great quantity on each side of these roads; to
make which, they were cut down, and have even been employed in their
construction.* But Caesar has been vindicated by a very intelligent
writer, in the Transactions of the Highland Society of Scotland, who
maintains that it was the pitch tree, the pinus abies of Linnceus, which
Caesar speaks of, and by no means the Scots fir, which is really a pine.f

The Celtic names of this tree bear no analogy to the Latin word, from
which they could not therefore be derived, affording a proof that the fir
was indigenous. In the Gaelic, the fir and the pine are called Gius, or
Giumhus, and in the Irish idiom the terra Finniduydh is also used. The
fir was the natural production of this country, and formerly grew spon-
taneously in Scotland, and the Northern parts of England. The ancient
forests of JSorth Britain appear to have consisted chiefly of this tree, and
it has been but recently lost in some parts. It is now generally repre-
sented by the Highland or planted fir, in the opinion of the late Mr,
Farquharson, a good authority on this subject, his estate of Invercauld
comprising many thousand acres covered with this tree, the remains of
the Caledonian forest. It is a ^curious fact, that the native fir is much
deteriorated by transplantation, and that, to preserve its quality, nature
should be followed, and the seed sown where the tree is to grow. Some
of this natural wood formed the roof of Kilchurn castle, in Argyleshire;
and when taken down, after it had stood above three hundred years, it
was found as fresh and full of sap, as newly imported/Memel.J The
great woods of Glenrnore and Abernethy, the property of the Duke of
Gordon and the Laird of Grant, are reckoned the oldest and best in
quality of any in Scotland.

The yew, in Gaelic, lubhar, or luthar, grew in the woods of Britain,
where the names of many places are presumptive proof that it is indi-

The oak, called Darach by the Highlanders, has been held in almost
universal estimation, and besides its importance in religion, it must have
been valued as affording a coarse food to the primitive barbarians. The
respect with which the Druids regarded it, is well known; even the Ro-
mans retained that veneration, which they derived from their remote an-
cestors. Pliny attests that mast trees were always held in the highest
repute by that people.

It is said that the oak was confined to the south of Perthshire, the fir
being the tree which prevailed northwards of that division; but oaks must
have formerly grown plentifully all over Scotland, and even in the Hebrides,

* Whittaker, ut sup.

t Dr. Walker on Peat, Trans, ii. p. 7. The picea, or pitch tree, the Gauls termed
nades. Pliny, xvi. 40.
t Smith's View of the Agriculture of Argyle, p. 156. Lib. xvi. c. 3 .


there being scarcely a district where the remains of the trees are not to
be found. The extensive moss of Flanders, in Stirlingshire, was once
the site of a considerable forest of this wood, over which the soil has ac-
cumulated to a depth of twenty feet. A rivulet that bounds this tract
on the north east, has exposed on its banks, trees of very large dimen-
sions.* Its usefulness for strength and durability preserved the esti-
mation which this tree acquired from its sacred character. The Tri-
ads inform us, the birch, the oak, and the buckthorn, were not to be cut
down without permission of the lord of the country. The oak most fre-
quently appears in Scotish grants, for the erection or repair of buildings,
the wooden work of all public and private edifices of consequence, being
composed of it. In the reign of Edward the First are many donations of
oak trees, which, in his assumed character of lord paramount of Scotland,
he bestowed to repair the damage occasioned by his cruel wars. Long-
morgan, now a barren heath near Elgin, was then covered with "the
monarch of the wood," and at the head of Loch Etive are still to be seen
some of these trees, whose trunks measure from twenty to twenty-five
feet in circumference, although growing in a thin, arid, rocky soil. The
elm is said, by the historian of Manchester, to have been introduced by
the Romans, but it rather appears to have been indigenous; and from its
Celtic name Leamhan, the Latin Ulmus is probably derived. In the
form of Ailm, so closely resembling its English name, it is the first let-
ter of the Gaelic alphabet. The broad-leaved sort is a native of Scot-
land; but from a belief that the bark is a useful application for burns, it
is now seldom seen of a large size."]"

The birch, Beithe, in Gaelic, is reckoned a native, and its name is
given to the letter B. The Romans are said to have introduced the
poplar, the plane, the box, &c. Malcolm Laing, in his attempt to refute
the poems of Ossian, asserts that the first was not anciently known in
Scotland. It is certainly found all over the Highlands, and grows in
places inaccessible to human footsteps, and from its name, Crithean, de-
rived from Crith, a shaking or trembling, so unlike the latin Populus, it
may be reasonably considered as a native production. The same may
be said of the ash, Uinseann having no resemblance to Fraxinus, and
so of others, as the holly, Cuileann, 8tc.

In the lower parts of Caithness, a county that does not seem ever to have
contained much wood, the vegetable remains usually dug up, are willow,
hazel, and alder, or aller. The first was, most likely, a natural product
The Celtic willow was small and tender, J and both Gauls and Britons
were celebrated for the manufacture of wicker or basket work. Its name
in the Highlands, Seileach, is not very different from the Latin Salix,
or the French Saule. The second was also, there is no doubt, a native
of Britain; from its Gaelic name Caltuin, little resembling the Roman

* Stat. Account of Doune, vol. xx. p. 19.
t Smith's View of the Agric. of Argyle, &c.
t Pliny, xvi. 37.


Corylus, Buchannan thought the term Caledonia arose. From the third.
Fearn, the names of many places in Scotland are certainly derived. The
juniper, found in almost all countries, could not have anciently been un-
known in this. In the Celtic tongue it is called Aitin.

Apple trees, if not indigenous in Britain, were very early imported
by the colonies from Gaul, where they bore excellent fruit.* The Hsedui
of Somerset are supposed to have been particularly attentive to their cul-
ture; and Avalonia, the ancient name of Glastonbury, called Awlallach,
or .the Orchard, m Welch, f is derived from the British Aval, an apple,
which is likewise the origin of Avalana, the name of a place in the north
of England, and Avalon in France.

It would appear from a passage in Ossian, that this fruit was well
known to the Caledonians, but it is not credible that Thule should abound
in apple trees, as Solinus writes, in the third century, if by the appella-
tion is to be understood the Orkney or Shetland Islands. This term is,
however, applied by many to the north east part of Scotland, and the
county of Moray has long been celebrated for its mild climate and fruit-
ful soil. Buchannan says it surpassed all the other counties of Scotland
in its excellent fruit trees, and although not now so famous on this ac-
count, it still retains much of its ancient celebrity. It may be reasona-
bly presumed, that those trees which the natural woods of Britain did
not contain, were brought from the continent by the early colonists. L.
Lucullus was the first who brought cherries from Pontus, about seventy-
two years before Christ; and twenty -six years afterwards they were car-
ried to Britain. J Geen trees abound in some parts of Banffshire, where
they are said to be of natural growth.

The vine was cultivated by the Gauls, who possessed several peculiar
sorts, || at a very early period; but before the arrival of the Romans, it
seems to have been unknown in Britain. Although there were numerous
tineyards in England, even until lately, the early inhabitants do not ap-
pear to have valued this fruit, and the Scots were precluded by their
climate from rearing it. The eleventh letter, M, is called Muin, a word
that is indeed translated, a vine, but is, properly, a bramble, or thorn. H

The Northern latitude of Scotland does not allow the production of
many fruits, to be found in more favored countries, yet the climate is
not inimical to their cultivation. The remains of aged woods are found
in various places much nearer the sea, and on more arid and exposed
situations, than where they can now be reared, but the difficulty seems to
arise, at present, from the want of shelter for the young plantations; the
Highland valleys are represented as peculiarly congenial to the raising
and perfection of fruit trees. Mr. Leitch, a gardener, who writes in
1793, from Richmond, in Surrey, declares that wood strawberries, black-

* Ibid. xv. 20. Whittaker. t Roberts, Whittaker, &c.

t PHny, xv. 25. Agricultural Report.

J! Pliny, lib. xiv. 23 IT Armstrong's Gaelic Dictionary


berries,* &c. &c. ripen more early in these valleys, than in the mildest
parts of the Low Country, and assures the nobility and gentry, that
"there are vast numbers of tracts in the West Highlands, that would
ripen apples and pears better than any in the Low Countries of the
kingdom." " These Highland glens," he maintains, " are the very
places adapted by nature to raise orchards in."f At Dunrobin, in Suth-
erland, apricot, peach, and other fruit trees thrive well. Walnuts have
ripened at Skibo; and at Morvich, in the same county, are many very
old pear trees, that still bear good crops, of excellent quality. J We
learn that David the First, about 1140, used to employ his leisure time
in cultivating a garden, and in grafting and training trees.

The monks, who always paid particular attention to the good things
of this life, while preparing themselves for the enjoyment of the next,
had usually a good garden stocked with fruit trees attached to their
monasteries, and their peaceful life enabled them to cultivate their
grounds with much success. So early as the ninth century, the clergy
of lona had prosperous orchards, which were destroyed by the barbarous
Norwegian invaders. |j

Ireland presents many instances of the horticultural spirit of these
societies; but in that country their labors were assisted by a fine climate
and fruitful land. Caledonia never enjoyed the advantages of a fertile
soil; but as the late much respected Sir Alexander MacDonald, Chief
Baron of the Exchequer, said on a public occasion, "its harvest is
inferior to none in the rich produce of a manly race, and the fruits of
talents, genius, and heroic virtue. "IT

The British forests have disappeared from various causes. In the
progressive advance of civilisation, and perhaps from the increase of
population, considerable tracts must have been from time to time clear-
ed for the purposes of pasturage, and for the raising of corn, which the
country produced abundantly.** Sir H. Davy's opinion is, that the trees
on the outside of the woods, which, from a free exposure to the sun and
air, were much stronger than those in the interior, being first cut down,
the rest from exposure to the wind were overthrown, and hence occa-
sioned the formation of the bogs; but to the Roman operations in this
island may be attributed the destruction of great part of its woods. It
was a settled maxim with that people to construct roads, and thereby
lay open all countries which they attempted to conquer, or that had
been brought under their subjection; and in eradicating the British
woods they had an additional and weighty argument for its expediency
the shelter which they afforded to the natives, and the facilities they

* The blackberries in the Highlands are much superior to those found in the hedge*
of England.

t Smith's View of the Agric. of Argyle. | Agric. Report for Sutherland.

Fordun's Scotichronicon, lib. v c. 59. || Smith, in Stat. Account, x, p. 543.

fl Observations on the Highlands. 1814. ** Vit. Agri. xii


gave for the exercise of that desultory and destructive mode of attack,
for which the people were so celebrated. The trunks of the trees
which they felled, were found useful in the construction of their Iters,
where they were carried across soft and boggy ground, and they are
often found to have formed the ground work of these ways, by the sides
of which the logs they did not require are often discovered.

So early as the age of Agricola, the industry of the Romans in clear-
ing the country of its woods was well known, and was bitterly complained
of by the native**, who were themselves compelled to the work.* From
this policy, wise indeed, but almost as inefficient as the erection of their
vast ramparts, the aboriginal woods of Caledonia suffered material en-
croachments The Emperor Severus, in his progress northwards, was
particularly active in demolishing the forests which protected the ene-
mies of Rome, and labored with such diligence in clearing them away,
that it is believed he lost a considerable number of his troops from the
fatigue occasioned thereby. Numerous remains are found, which, as
they lie in his line of march, and as both roots and trunks remain on the
ground, and evince that the trees could not have been cut down for sake
of the land, are clearly referable to this expedition.

In tiie moss of Logan, in the parish of Kippen, a road was discovered
twelve feet wide, and formed by the trunks of trees regularly laid across
each other; and north of the river Forth, in the moss of Kincardine, a
road, apparently a continuation of the same line, has also been discover-
ed, of a similar width and construction."!"

Many extensive bogs in Perthshire are found to have originated from
the labors of the Romans in denuding the country of its primaeval woods.
The clay surface underneath the moss, which bore the ancient forest, is
found to be thickly strewed with the trunks of huge trees lying in all di-
rections, beside their roots, which still remain firmly fixed in their orig-
inal positions, exhibiting visible marks of the axe by which they fell.J

The forests of Caledonia, that escaped destruction from the Romans,
suffered from the English armies in subsequent ages. Partly actuated
by a similar policy, and partly from the spirit of rancor attendant on civil
and predatory warfare, the troops of King Edward were accustomed to
set fire to the woods. In Fife, they were destroyed, to deprive robbers
of the shelter they afforded; and those in the north that belonged to the
Cumins, were burned on the defeat of their faction by King Robert
Bruce. ^

In Dumfries, most of the woods appear from their remains to have been
consumed by fire, and in Caithness they all appear to have shared tho
same fate.|| It is believed, in the Western Islands, that the forests were
set fire to by the Norwegians when leaving these possessions. IF Indeed,
a general tradition prevails throughout the country, that the woods were

* Vit. Agri. xxxi. f Stat. Account, xviii.

J Stat. Account, xxi. 154. Aberdeenshire Agric. Rep.

\| Caithness Agric. Rep. II Buchannan's Western Isles, p. 24.


burnt in an extremely hot summer; and this is recorded in the Welch
Triads, as the third calamity which befel Britain.

In Sutherland, they have also been destroyed by conflagration; and,
according to a tradition, it was occasioned by a witch, or magician, from
Denmark, which may probably allude to some descent of the eastern
marauders, who frequently paid unwelcome visits to that part of the
country. The trunk of a fir tree, dug up in the higher part of Kildonari,
measured seventy-two feet in length, and was of proportional thickness.
The appearance of the root, encrusted with charcoal, proved by what
means it had been levelled with the earth.*

It is probable, that conflagrations occasionally took place in the most
remote times. From the wandering and unsettled life of mankind, the
woods were in danger from the fires of the houseless natives. Ossian
compares the sons of Erin after a defeat, to "a grove through which
the flarne had rushed, hurried on by the winds of the stormy night, &.c."

The preservation of the ancient forests was scarcely considered of na-
tional importance; and the acts of the Scots' parliament that were at
last promulgated for planting trees, seem to have had little effect. So
late as the commencement of last century, an extensive fir wood in Ar-
gyle was considered of so little value, that an Irish company is said to
have purchased it for a sum amounting to no more than a plack, or one-
third of a penny per tree.j"

The increase of sheep is thought to be a chief reason of the decay of
the ancient forests. Trees do not now grow without the protection of
fences, and it is a fact that the pasture has suffered materially where the
woods have been destroyed. From these various causes, in many dis-
tricts the landscape is destitute of this --aluable and pleading ornament.

* Sutherland A.gric. Rep t Smith's View of Agric. of

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