More than any other tree, the Scots pine gives some of Scotland’s oldest Highland woods their distinctive appearance. The dark green of its canopy and the orange-brown of the trunks are part of that beauty. So, too, is the way that individual trees, given space, develop unique shapes.
The common name of our finest native conifer is, as it turns out, rather misleading: it’s actually the world’s most widely distributed cone-bearing tree. The world range of Scots pine stretches from above the Arctic Circle to southern Spain from north to south, and from Scotland to the Pacific coast of Siberia from west to east. In Scotland it’s as happy growing on sandy, well-drained soils as it is on damp, acidic slopes, so you might find it growing pretty much anywhere away from the Western and Northern Isles – although a few have been planted in these areas.
Scots pine is the only native conifer in Britain that’s grown commercially for timber. But the extensive plantations now found around the Moray Firth are just the latest aspect of man’s exploitation of this tree. As far back as the 17th century the extensive native pinewoods of the Highlands started to be logged; in the 18th century the felling picked up speed, largely to support a burgeoning ship-building industry near the mouth of the Spey. To get the trunks to the shipyard, teams of men from Strathspey – the ‘Spey Floaters’ – would guide rafts of large logs down the river, in a tricky journey of around 80 km.
Native pinewoods now cover around 17,000 hectares of Scotland – perhaps just 1% of the area they originally occupied. Despite their limited extent, these remaining old-growth stands of ‘Caledonian Forest’ form some of our most cherished landscapes, as well as being hotspots for biodiversity. Today, you can explore these ancient woodlands around the Cairngorms National Park, at Beinn Eighe, in Glen Affric, and in the Black Wood of Rannoch.
Individual Scots pine trees can vary tremendously in size and shape, largely depending on their age and whether they are growing in a plantation or in a more natural woodland setting with wider-spaced trunks. From a distance in a native woodland, look for a tree with a flat or dome-shaped crown of bottle-green needles. The crown shape varies a great deal, depending on how much storm damage the tree has withstood over the years. Ones with quite irregular, but fairly flat, tops can be popular as nesting places for ospreys. Close up, look for bark that appears to be made up from small, jigsaw-like pieces. Needles are long and thin and grow in pairs, while cones are egg-shaped, ending in a point.
As the ‘flagship’ tree of the Caledonian forest, Scots pine has been the focus of much conservation work over many decades. The locations and extent of surviving ancient pinewoods have been mapped and described, plans have been put in place to help them and action has been taken to benefit both old and new pinewoods. For instance, in Glenmore and Glen Affric, national bodies have removed large areas of non-native trees to provide new ground for Scots pines and other native trees to colonise. The work of conservation groups, including extensive planting in areas enclosed by fences around Glen Affric, has also boosted pine cover. And elsewhere, reductions in the number of red deer (whose grazing can kill tree seedlings and saplings, especially in winter) has benefited old woodland areas.