I have a soft spot for any TV or radio programmes covering geology or natural history. That’s how I found myself sitting in the audience at this year’s Edinburgh Science Festival listening to TV geologist Dr Iain Stewart expound on how Scotsman (James Hutton) was a big influence on our understanding of how the entire world’s ecosystem works. But Iain also flagged up his plans for a new TV programme focusing specifically on the evolution of the Scottish landscape.
I managed to catch up on the programme, ‘Making Scotland’s Landscape‘ last night (thanks once again to the BBC’s iPlayer) and learnt some rather interesting facts about the distinct lack of trees we see, not just on Mull, but all over many parts of Scotland.
According to Iain there was a cooling event some 4,000 years ago which added more rain. This caused many parts of Scotland’s forests to die back, leaving us with about 25% forest coverage at the start of man’s change from hunter-gatherer to farmer. Pre-farming there may have been as few as 10,000 people covering the whole of what we consider modern Scotland, but some speculate that by the start of the modern age that could have risen as high as 500,000…certainly enough people to put huge pressure on the land and resources, including the indigenous trees and the firewood they provided.
By the 1500s, stocks of indigenous forest were so depleted that wood was being imported from mainland Europe. It all paints a fairly grim picture of how our forebears didn’t so much care for and maintain the land, as exhaust it totally.
By the start of the 20th century and the onset of the first great war, it became clear to many that the country had to be proactive in protecting wood stocks. But it got off to an inauspicious start with most of the land being populated with fast-growing Sitka Spruce, so closely planted that virtually nothing lives beneath its canopy.
Fortunately, by the 1980s there were more enlightened souls in the Forestry Commission who recognised that creating a forest mono-culture of foreign trees is hardly a long-term solution, and they began to introduce a wider variety of indigenous varieties into tree plantations across the country.
In terms of the Isle of Mull, as you holliday there you can’t fail to notice the large tree covered estates. There’s still a lot of monoculture going on that won’t be superceded for many years to come. But the hope must be that for future generations of holiday visitors, the landscape that will meet people visiting the island will be one which more accurately represents the type of forest that would have once been abundant all over the country just a few thousand years ago…. minus the wild boar, bears, wolves and beavers, not to mention dragons, unicorns and centaurs of course!
You might also like to listen to Dr Iain Stewart’s radio programme for BBC Scotland. Called ‘Walking Through Landscape‘ the 39 minute show is also being podcast, which, usefully, means that you can save the audio and, should the opportunity arise, use his programme as a sort of walking guide.
In the first show Iain visits Ariundle oakwoods, in Sunart, which is fairly easy to get to from Mull using the CalMac Lochaline to Fishnish ferry crossing. Ariundle is a lush green space, full of plant and animal life. But they’re also incredibly rich in archaeology. Iain seeks out the stories of human and natural history the old oak trees have lived through, and, perhaps ironically, learns that if it wasn’t for 18th century industry, the woods wouldn’t be around today.
You can download the audio here but, as of posting you’ve only got three more days to do so.
Beach House Self Catering, Isle of Mull