In the popular literature, loss of woodland to the Highlands has
often been attributed to human activity such as felling, burning,
sheep grazing and encouragement of deer on sporting estates.
However, examination of the military maps produced by
General Roy and his team in the period 1747-52 (National
Library of Scotland 2019) exhibits the then rarity of woodland in
the Highland landscape, with an example shown here in Figure
11. In addition to woodland, the Roy maps also illustrate areas
of settlement and show that in many instances there were
woods and settlements in the same locality, whereas the
uninhabited areas were unwooded: this could either be because
both humans and trees have selected the optimum sites, or that
humans prevented complete woodland loss owing to the value
of the trees. It would be interesting to undertake a full analysis
of the Roy maps to assess the distribution of woodland in
relation to settlements.
These maps illustrate the fact that woodland loss in the
Highlands from its postglacial maximum must have taken place
in previous eras when large tracts of the Highlands, particularly
away from the coast and main valleys were largely wild and
unpopulated. To quote the historian Devine (2018):
“Settlement in the western Highlands and Islands was mainly
confined to very limited areas because of the challenging
constraints of geology, climate and geography. Therefore, when
modern visitors contemplate hills and glens which are empty of
people, they should not assume they were inhabited in the past.”
In the centuries preceding 1750 large tracts of the Highlands
were unused, apart from the localities of transhumance, i.e. the
areas used for the summer grazings of cattle (shielings) – Figure
12; and such summer use is generally seen as beneficial to tree
regeneration. Haldane (1952) states:
“Not until sheep farming on a large scale became common in the
Highlands [post 1750] were these upland areas put to fuller use
than for the grazing of cattle from the shielings in summer and
Domestic stock before the eighteenth century probably would
have consisted of the small, black Highland cattle, small breeds
of sheep, goats and a few horses, although ‘such records as
there are indicate that the numbers are not large’ (Steven &
Carlisle 1959). Haldane states that the cattle were taken off the
shielings (summer pastures) by end of September and sheep
were wintered indoors. Large-scale sheep farming only came in
after the wolf became extinct around 1700 and the social
structure changed from a clan-based system to landowner-
based which was accelerated following the Battle of Culloden in
1746 (Devine 2018) – by which time woodland cover was about
It should be noted that there were no roads through most of the
Highlands before 1750, so away from settlements access to
timber and its extraction was impossible except in Strathspey
where logs could be floated down the River Spey to the sea.
Indeed, the Earl of Mar in 1618 bemoaned the fact that the
indigenous pine woods on his land in the eastern Cairngorms
were of no economic value to him because the timber could not
be extracted (Taylor 1618).
Industrial exploitation of timber largely started after 1750 when
woodland was already rare in the landscape but there is little
evidence that this exploitation resulted in significant woodland
loss. To quote Lindsay (1975):
“The largest and longest-lived of the [ironworks], the Bonawe
Furnace in Argyll, needed 10,000 acres of oak coppice to keep
going, and left the woods in at least as extensive condition when
it closed in 1876 as when it opened in 1753.”
Smout (2000) adds that
“The same could be said of the much more widespread users of
oak coppice, the tanbarkers, who operated throughout Argyll,
Perthshire, Dunbartonshire, and Stirlingshire.”
Sometimes anthropogenic woodland loss is pushed back in time
to the earliest inhabitants of Scotland, but this itself raises a
host of ecological questions:
1) Which particular areas are we talking about as is
improbable that much of the mid to high altitude ground
was ever inhabited? What percentage of the landscape
would have been involved? It is extremely improbable that
large tracts were ever farmed. Why did the trees not
regenerate after felling? Why would a relatively small
human population have needed so much wood?
2) Early peoples were unlikely to cut down or burn all the
trees at once in a given locality, allowing plenty of time for
cut/burnt woodland to regenerate, so why did it not
regenerate? We know today that clearfell sites provide
optimum regeneration conditions.
3) The presence of wolves would have prevented early
populations having large free-ranging populations of
grazing animals. Is it not possible also that early colonisers
killed and ate deer, hence reducing their numbers and
encouraging trees? Indeed, it is possible that the hunting of
deer over the millennia has resulted in less deer than
would occur naturally, thus encouraging woodland rather
than destroying it.
4) People came and went, with a loss of population in periods
of climate deterioration, allowing plenty of time for
woodland to recover. So why did it not?
5) It has been suggested that early felling caused an
ecological tipping point from woodland to moorland,
human activity pushing the ecosystem to a new non-
woodland dynamic. But to be the case, it would have to
have been over the whole landscape, and the fact that the
landscape also opened-up in interglacials without humans
(Birks and Birks 2004) suggests that the transitions would
have happened in any case.
The sheer abundance of open moorland across all of Scotland
(Figure 1) indicates that successional trends are pointing in this
direction because it is more resilient than woodland: to persist
in the landscape, woodland always has a sensitive period when
young trees have to out-compete the other vegetation without
being browsed. It may well be the case, that in some localities,
human activity did accelerate a natural decline, but the endpoint
would be the same. It is also worth pointing out that most
woodland must have taken place when wolves were present in
Devine TM. 2018. The Scottish clearances: a history of the
dispossessed. UK: Penguin Random House (Allen Lane).
Haldane ARB. 1952. The Drove Roads of Scotland.
Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson & Sons.
Lindsay J. 1975. Charcoal iron smelting and its fuel supply:
the example of Lorn Furnace, Argyllshire 1753-1876.
Journal of Historical Geography 1, 283-298.
National Library of Scotland. 2019. The Roy Maps of the
Scottish Highlands 1747-1752. [accessed 2019 June 21].
Smout TC. 2000. Nature Contested. Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press.
Steven HM & Carlisle A. 1959. The Native Pinewoods of
Scotland. Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd.
Taylor. 1618. Quoted in Early Travellers in Scotland, ed.
Hume Brown. Edinburgh: James Thin 1973 (facsimile
edition of 1891 edition).
WOODLAND OR OPEN GROUND? Scenarios for the persistence of woodland in the presence of grazing
Figure 11. An extract from the Roy maps 1747-52 of the Loch Monar area
of the Highlands.
Green arrows indicate woodland locations.
Red arrow shows settlement location.
The map demonstrates that the area was largely unpopulated and
unwooded. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of
Figure 12.The rearing of cattle was the main land use of the Highlands until
ca. 1800. Oil painting by Douglas Cameron ca. 1900.