Our regular contributor, Richard Clubley, is in the midst of preparing for his move to Orkney - he's been sharing his latest thoughts with us.
‘Can you see trees from your new house plot in Orkney?’ a friend asked the other day.
I thought for a moment, picturing the low, rolling hills to the north and the green, sheep-flecked fields sloping down to the sea in the south.
‘Yes, there are a few, planted for shelter round a biggish house by the shore.’
I was relieved to have remembered a few but I suspected not enough to deflect the reservation I knew was coming. I was right.
‘You see, I wouldn’t like that, I like trees around me.’ Iain said.
I went away and pondered this. It’s true, of course, Orkney doesn’t have many trees. I love trees but I have never missed them in Orkney. The islands have been described as ‘sleeping whales’, low, smooth hills lying at rest in the water. This has been seen as An Attractive Thing, a mark of beauty. Sleeping whales are not bristly, so trees would spoil this particular picture.
Then I got to thinking about why there are so few trees. The answer is not a simple one. After the last Ice Age, 11,000 years ago, the land was colonised by plants which, eventually, led to a climax vegetation of woodland. They were not towering oaks or pines, more likely a covering of scrubby alder, hazel, birch, rowan, ash and others.
The location of the islands, exposed to Atlantic gales, probably limited further succession but Orkney had its woods. It still has a few. Berriedale Wood in Hoy is officially Britain’s most northerly, natural woodland. A few of the above mentioned species huddle in a gully between huge hills in Orkney’s ‘high island’. Berriedale has been there for centuries but does not appear to be expanding out of the gully.
The reasons for the decline of Orkney’s trees are complicated. Experts talk of paludification (look it up) and other technical things, but wind and humans with stone axes get the most column inches.
The Stone Age, or Neolithic, is celebrated in Orkney like nowhere else in Britain. When the first farmers came here, around 5000 years ago, they built the most wonderful houses, villages, burial chambers and mysterious stone circles. A modern visitor can, in a comfortable day, see the houses at Skara Brae, the burial mound at Maeshowe, the Ring of Brodgar, and still have time for tea in Kirkwall, a look round the Cathedral and a bit of souvenir shopping.
The men with axes lived at Skara Brae and similar villages. We know this for certain because we have found some of the axes that chopped down Orkney’s trees. They are treasures now, with many in the museums. People come from all over the world to marvel at them.
It may be that the trees were in decline before the Neolithic. It could be that the intensive use of stone (rather than wood) for building during Orkney’s Stone Age was precisely because of the timber shortage. That the fabulous structures have survived may be down to the relative lack of disturbance and intensive agriculture found elsewhere in Britain. Whatever, we have super stone structures, but not so many trees. Orkney is wonderful, but not like the mythical Sherwood. One of the things I love about the UK is we have Orkney and woods.
That said, there is nothing to stop us planting a few trees now. Some people are experimenting with coppiced willow crops as a renewable fuel - perhaps not everyone’s idea of a woodland glade but better than nothing surely. I think what few woodlands there are in Orkney are being better cared for and people think a lot more about the opportunities for planting.
I was once birdwatching on Fair Isle when someone said ‘There’s a scarlet rosefinch resting in the bushes outside the shop. Give the bushes a shake and it might show itself.’ That was 20 years ago and I have always remembered it as a most unsympathetic thing to do. That tired and hungry bird had found a landfall and shelter after who knows how many hundreds of miles of open sea, and someone was happy to disturb it for another tick in his book.
But I also remember how tiny the clump of mini-trees was, yet still useful to the bird. It was actually in a planticrub. When Mrs Clubley and I get to planning our Orkney garden next year there will be as many shrubs and bushes as we can manage, commensurate with retaining a view of the sea, plus thistles and all manner of seedy bird food plants. I’m hoping a scarlet rosefinch will come and stay a few days.
Richard contributes regularly to Scottish Islands Explorer magazine and his first book: 'Scotland’s Islands – A Special Kind of Freedom' was published in 2014. He is working on the sequel: 'Orkney – A Special Place' which he hopes will be out in 2017.