Since residing in Orkney I miss many things, feeling as it does sometimes as if it is at the edge of the known world, trees – and woodland in particular – are one of the things that I especially miss. Hampshire, where I used to live, apparently has more trees per square mile than any other county in England.
I miss trees! I miss walking in dappled shade and the comforting scent of fern and leafmould. I even miss hedgerows (they favour dry-stone walling in Orkney to divide the fields).
This is largely whimsical on my part: I was often unable to walk on my own in Hampshire for fear of my personal safety and there would rarely be the solitude I craved, there would always be other people in the woods and they would often be noisy types.
There are very few trees in Orkney. The likelihood is that about 8000 years ago, back in the Mesolithic, Orkney was covered in native wildwood like the rest of the United Kingdom, after the last ice sheets withdrew. Some of this wildwood is meant to survive at Berriedale Wood on the island of Hoy. If this is indeed a survival of native woodland then it is fairly unique to the UK (with all due respect to Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood) as my understanding is that the nearest surviving examples in Europe are in Poland.
The trees in Berriedale Wood, like most trees in Orkney, are stunted, buffeted and dwarfed as they are by the constant winds, they cannot grow too high. They grow in a narrow defile, through which a stream runs (burn). In the south, this would be an excuse for a wood, but in Orkney it counts as substantial woodland, but what is special is the density of time here in this alleged relic of ecology.
As stated, few patches, if any, of this indigenous wildwood survives in the United Kingdom. Woodland is actually a heavily managed agricultural resource, no more natural than a field of wheat and destined to be harvested in a similar way. Most ancient woodland in the UK dates predominantly from no later than the middle ages.
Why, then, are there so few trees in Orkney? It is probably due to the earliest farmers in the Neolithic about 6000 years ago who would have needed to clear land to plant cereal crops. They would have practiced slash and burn techniques, that are still used by traditional horticulturalists today, in which trees are cut down (slashed) and then burnt, with the ask acting as an immediate boost to the stability of the soil. Every ten years or so, the soil will become exhausted and a new patch of land is deforested. Elsewhere, trees will re-colonise the abandoned land but in Orkney this did not happen because of that constant buffering that we get from the wind – after all Orkney’s motto is “Boreas domus mare amicus” (“home to the winds, friend of the sea”).
The wind is something we can rely on in Orkney, when it isn’t windy it’s weird, too quiet, eerily so. It’s why we’re putting up so many wind turbines and why we’re leading the way in renewable energy production in general.
Trees will grow in Orkney if they are sheltered. Trees on the edges of copses and woodlands tend to have deeper roots than those that are sheltered, it takes time for deeper roots to grow, so any trees planted in Orkney have to be in sheltered positions or else supported until they are strong enough to support themselves. Even then, the wind is so strong that trees will not grow as tall as they would elsewhere.
Folk do occasionally plant small stands of trees and there are encouragements to do so in the form of advice from “Jenny The Tree Lady” and grants, but such copses take a while to establish and patience is needed before results can be truly appreciated. Most indigenous Orcadians don’t seem to like trees as they are considered to be obstructions to views, particularly views of what your neighbour is doing!
There are a number of established trees in Orkney. Kirkwall has, of course, its famous “Big Tree” in the centre of Broad Street, it clings on to life despite being hemmed in by concrete, being almost hollow, and having been struck by lightning and Ba’ players more than once. When I was looking for oak leaves for a midsummer solstice ritual, I found a sheltered oak tree in the courtyard behind The Long Ship opposite the Cathedral. There are some magnificent Orkney sycamores too amongst the ruins of the Earl’s Palace.
The best established woodland is probably at Binscarth Wood on the outskirts of Finstown. The loch at Wasdale trickles south firstly just by creating boggy land then becoming a stream by the point the contours change and the valley heads east and finally emptying into the Bay of Firth, all the while wearing a route through the valley at Binscarth. This dent in the landscape is possibly one of the most naturally sheltered places in Orkney and it was planted in the Victorian period with pines and some of the ubiquitous Orkney sycamores. Towards the eastern end are some newer plantations of trees.
This is a delightful walk, although short compared to southern equivalents, and nearly always muddy even after several weeks of no rain (which has been known in an Orcadian summer). The stream meanders and cascades, becoming frothy in places due to the peaty soil. The pine wood means that the ground beneath the trees is void of undergrowth but some of those trees are substantial and it is one of the few places in Orkney where a human can experience being dwarfed by the magnificence that is a mature tree; to really feel as if one is in the presence of deep and ancient knowledge and a wise being. These woods provide habitat for a number of bird species and woodland plats, particularly towards the eastern end where there is less pine and more sycamore.
There are public footpaths through these woods, one direct and several which thread along by the stream, but best not to attempt any of them without waterproof footwear.
Above the woodland sits Binscarth House, and in the private grounds is the most serene grove. When the stone to build Binscarth House was quarried out in the 1800s, the area that had been quarried was turned into a secret, almost sunken garden. The flat centre is lawned and all around are mature deciduous trees. I have been privileged to perform a wedding in this grove and it is an absolute delight to be in and a thoroughly sacred place. On a warm, bright and sunny day I could easily imagine myself back home in Hampshire.
Although there is “Right to Roam” in Orkney (as throughout Scotland) this is a private garden and I feel strongly that responsibilities come with rights. This grove is not visible from the footpath and you will not be able to stumble upon it – if you wish to visit, please be courteous and enquire in advance of your visit for permissions from Binscarth House.
Happy Valley in Stenness is also off the tourist trail but well known to locals. Happy Valley is another sheltered valley where Edwin Harrold created a garden from a bare hillside between 1948 and the 1990s. The trees here are not as mature as at Binscarth Wood but there is less foliage cover so on a bright and sunny day, the sunlight creates the most mesmerising effects in the peaty stream which runs through the site.
Edwin Harrold lived here with very little, his small stone cottage is still standing but it is falling into ruin. There are bits of equipment hinting at how he generated his own minimal supply of electricity for his own meagre needs from the stream but it is a site that is under the care of local enthusiasts and volunteers so there are all sorts of tree planting, labelling and caring programmes taking place throughout the year.
The garden design here is eccentric, clearly having been implemented on a scant budget, if any, and with an emphasis on reusing and recycling architecture gleaned from elsewhere. Happy Valley is not a large area of land; the walk along the stream is probably no more than 50 metres in length but the created paths and vistas and pausing areas force you to walk slowly so that it seems a much longer walk than it is in actuality.
There are a number of species of trees here, the like of which biodiversity is not really known elsewhere in Orkney and this is my favourite place when I need a tree “fix”. A visit to Happy Valley cures my itch for a woodland walk, at least for a while.
However, the real delight of Happy Valley is the effect of Orkney sunlight through the foliage and onto the peaty stream. In places, the stream (or burn) has been manipulated to form still, pool areas. In other places, there are waterfalls and stretches that race around curves, foaming up the peaty water to form scummy froth. The peaty water is red-brown and looks dirty, but shine sunlight on it and it is like amber – like the light effect in MaesHowe.
The water shimmers and reflects the most stunning and delightful dancing colours of yellow, orange, gold, red and light brown, all dancing on the surface and through to the depths of the water. It is something no laser light show could compete with and is worth using as a meditation focus.
We have our own tree – a rescued rowan – which stands proud, guarding our garden from the north. Rowans are legendary for providing protection and this one is like a sentinel. It was saved from a garden in Firth where it wasn’t wanted, but where it had been protected by other trees growing closely around it so its roots were shallow. This meant that we were able to uproot and transport it, but our land is very exposed and it has had to be securely staked. It is about three metres high and, for those not involved in its transplantation, it seemed to suddenly appear – causing a few comments from curious neighbours. The rowan has now survived its second winter and several vicious gales and produced a good crop of berries in its first summer here. It will need to be staked for several years, probably the rest of its life, as it is unlikely we will be able to plant any other shelter around it. We’ll probably always need to keep a watch over it as it has suddenly been exposed to the elements where it had previously been so protected. Its adaptation to its new position will take time and patience. By its base, we have placed an upright slab of sandstone and this is a perfect place for us to leave offerings for the genus loci, the spirits of this place that protect us, our home and land. They get the first slice of honey cake as an offering.
I realise that this rowan tree is like me, in so many ways. Uprooted from the crowded yet supportive environment of southern England, I was transported to a harsh new environment in which I was left quite raw and exposed. No longer having to compete for space, I had to be supported whilst I grew deeper roots. Now, like the rowan, I have the opportunity to be seen, to stand tall, and to grow into the best I can be, something that could not have happened whilst being crowded in. This transformation of the tree and myself will take time and patience and will need continuing support and encouragement before we become fully established.