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If you go down to the woods (Part 3)

Seeing is Believing

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(L to R) Geraint Richards, Kevin Davies, David FrewOn 2nd October 2013 the second 'Seeing is Believing' event took place at Mar Lodge Estate following on from the first at Brikhall in April 2013.  I was among a group of about 30 people - including representatives from JMT (John Muir Trust), FCS (Forestry Commission Scotland), SW (Scottish Woodlands), SLE (Scottish Land and Estates) - who gathered at the Linn of Dee car park slightly before 10am.  These events are being promoted by Prince Charles to demonstrate low-impact timber extraction using hand-held chainsaws and horse-power.

I recognised a few faces among the gathered crowd, including Adam Watson, Dick Balharry, David Frew (Property Manager of Mar Lodge Estate), Geraint Richards (Head Forester, Duchy of Cornwall), Mike Daniels (Ecologist, John Muir Trust), Shaila Rao (Ecologist, Mar Lodge Estate) and guessed that the bearded man between Geraint Richards and David Frew was Kevin Davies (Estates Manager, Mar Lodge Estate).

(L to R) Simon Lenihan, Simon (jnr), IanAt this event we were to see Simon Lenihan and his sons Simon (jnr) and Ian at work in the plantation north of Linn of Dee.  The trees in the plantation are about forty-five years old and the aims of this four-week thinning operation are (1) to improve the quality of the woodland (2) to improve the quality of the habitat within the plantation (3) to naturalise the plantation (make it more like a natural woodland) (4) to remove non-native species (5) to give the Mar Lodge Estate team an operational 'baseline' for horse-powered timber-extraction to enable them to compare with machine-powered timber-extraction.

About 10am David Frew called on us to gather around and introduced Kevin Davies and Geraint Richards, before all three took turns briefing us about their plans for the day before leading us west towards where the Lenihans were working.  Kevin quickly got us out of the way before we saw Ian with Rosco (horse) and Simon (jnr) with Sultan (horse) dragging newly trimmed trunks from the plantation. 


In preparation for the day's demonstration Adam Watson and Simon Lenihan (jnr) had dug a soil-pit on the north-side of the log-pile.  As we returned to the estate-road we were guided to the soil-pit where Adam Watson told us (1) about the chemical composition of the obvious layers (2) that the soil-layers had taken something like 8,000 years to form (3) how machines, too-heavy for the soil conditions, would permanently change the soil-ecology by churning up the soil-layers.

Returning to the south-side of the log-pile we saw Simon delivering logs to the roadside with the horse-drawn forwarder and adding logs to the log-pile from it.

A combined question and answer / photographic opportunity followed before we returned to our cars for the drive to Mar Lodge for a presentation delivered by David over coffee and cake.

Presentation at Mar Lodge

The presentation revealed much about the thinking behind the operation of Mar Lodge Estate and I didn't feel that David (nor Kevin when he spoke) were holding anything back.  David made the point, and returned to it several times, that if landowners only consider timber-extraction as a simple cost-benefit equation (ignoring less-tangible costs) that the 'economics' of horse-powered timber-extraction will never compete with machine-powered timber-extraction.  But, if landowners took into account less-tangible costs (actual-damage to the woodland floor, the associated reputational damage, and reinstatement costs) then the benefits of horse-powered timber-extraction could outweigh the difference (in money-cost terms) between horse-powered timber-extraction and machine-powered timber-extraction.  It was also evident that the estate team believed that it was an over-simplification of the timber-extraction equation for landowners to only balance the money-cost of extracting a certain weight of timber against the money-income got for it.

Mistakes of the Past

Gleann Eidh Gate - 29th March 2012Early in 2012, DWP Harvesting of Aboyne were contracted to carry out a conservational thinning of the plantation beside the gate to Gleann Eidh.  I was horrified when I discovered the aftermath of this thinning in March 2012.

During the presentation, David evidenced the estate team's openness, and surprised me, by referring to this disastrous (my word choice) example of machine-powered timber-extraction.  David surprised me again when he listed the lessons learned by the estate team as a result - including (1) the estate would have to spend money attempting to reinstate the woodland floor (in spite of the fact that full-reinstatement is impossible) (2) operating too-heavy machines on a wet woodland floor was bound to cause irreparable damage (3) in future (as they were doing at Linn of Dee plantation) the estate team would be more-active in supervising contractors engaged in thinning plantations.

Potential for a Virtuous Loop

David also evidenced the joined-up-thinking of the estate team when referring to their 'biomass plan'.  It will see thinnings from the estate plantations used to heat Mar Lodge.  The enormity and necessity of such a huge-leap-forward became clear when David told us about the annual £120,000, gas fuelled, heating-cost.  Heating Mar Lodge with a biomass heating system, fuelled by thinnings from estate plantations, harvested in low-impact timber-extraction operations, would be a remarkably virtuous loop.  Environmentally, the estate would be able to reduce their transportation footprint by bringing in less heating gas while using the thinnings on the estate.

Many parts of the 'biomass plan' are still up in the air - neither the biomass boiler nor the wood-chipper have been ordered and Mar Lodge Estate have not yet committed themselves to continue low-impact timber-extraction.  But, if the estate can deliver the 'biomass plan' using low-impact timber-extraction - the significance of that can't be overstated.  Not only will they have stopped aspiring to achieve 'best practice', but they will have started defining it.


If you go down to the woods (Part 2)

Seeing is Believing

Dinnet - 13th September 2013

I am instinctively horrified by the use of monster machines to extract timber in the Scottish upland areas.  Although the damage they do to the woodland floor is self-evident, I felt sure the damage was more significant - went deeper and was much longer lasting - than 'merely superficial temporary scars that would soon recover' as some people would characterise them.

I was invited by Adam Watson to join him, Sandy Walker (soil scientist) and Derek Pyper on the 13th of September 2013 for a field-trip to investigate soil-profiles at two sites at Dinnet (where mechanical timber-extraction operations had been carried out) and Linn of Dee on Mar Lodge Estate (where horse timber-extraction operations were being carried out).  I was surprised to learn from Sandy how spot-on my instinct was - that soil-science already understood how the monster machines damaged the woodland floor and could explain how the damage they caused would kick-off a process that would change the woodland floor forever.

I won't pretend that I understood everything that Adam and Sandy told me - it's a much more complex story than I would have guessed - but the jist of what I learned from them is that :

  • all three sites are characteristically woodland - that is, the woodland-floor is mossy and heathery
  • the existing soil-profile has developed over the thousands of years since the last ice-age
  • the existing soil-profile shows several well-defined layers within a very few inches and certainly within spade-depth
  • metals such as iron and aluminium have and are moving down through the layers
  • the acidity of the upper-layers is higher than in the lower-layers


Dinnet - 13th September 2013At Dinnet, the damage was obvious - deep and wide ruts running off into the woodland.  What was less obvious, until Adam pointed it out to me, was how the vegetation of the woodland-floor had been changed.  Everywhere the monster machines had gone, over what had once been moss and heather, colonies of grass and bracken were already established.

The monster machines had churned up the layers of the soil-profile, changing the chemistry of the woodland-floor, making the colonisation by grass and bracken inevitable and changing the woodland-floor forever.  Like elsewhere, I saw that care-less operators of the monster machines had skinned pieces of bark off the standing trees and had done nothing to protect the wounds from infection.

Linn of Dee

Linn of Dee - 13th September 2013At Linn of Dee, I saw no damage deeper than the scuffing of the top-layer of the soil-profile.  This scuffing of the top-layer, as I was told, is actually beneficial to the woodland-floor as it will help the process of natural regeneration and thereby help with the naturalisation of the un-natural plantation. 

As I've written elsewhere, horse-logging has the potential to allow timber extraction without damaging the soil-profile or reducing the value of the woodland because of bark-skinning.  Unlike elsewhere (where mechanical timber-extraction operations had been carried out) I saw no signs that the horse-loggers had damaged the soil-profile or done any bark-skinning. 

Gleann Eidh Gate

Gleann Eidh Gate - 18th September 2013On 18th September 2013 I conducted a follow-up visit to the Gleann Eidh Gate plantation to see if what I'd learned about grass and bracken colonisation was happening there. 

I had discovered this timber extraction operation on the 29th of March 2012 so the woodland floor had been churned up at least a year and a half before this follow-up visit.  The colonisation by grass was evident from the gate and the ruts were already well grassed, but I saw no bracken until I reached the level of the old boundary wall.  Here I found a few small brackens between about one and two inches tall - clearly the colonisation process that I had learned about from Adam and Sandy was in operation.


Credit where credit is due (Part 2)

Mar Lodge Estate Grampian (1995)

In the first posting in this series Credit where credit is due (Part 1) I drew your attention to the similarities between an information poster published by the National Trust for Scotland and the earlier Lowdown on the upland of Mar.  In this posting I'll draw your attention to the similarities between a booklet published by the National Trust for Scotland and an earlier booklet published by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.

Mar Lodge Estate Grampian : An Archaeological Survey - is a 36-page booklet by Piers Dixon and S. Green, and published by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland in 1995, which I reference as Dixon & Green (1995).

Mar Lodge Woods and People - is a 32-page booklet by Fiona Watson and Mairi Stewart, and published by the National Trust for Scotland (apparently) in 2004, which I reference as Watson & Stewart (2004)

Curiously, Watson & Stewart (2004) neither references nor acknowledges Dixon & Green (1995).

When I read Watson & Stewart (2004) it gave me a strong feeling of déjà vu, it seemed so familiar, that I was suspicious that it contained information that I had researched and published in Lowdown on the upland of Mar.  However, those suspicions were unfounded as it appears that the publication of Watson & Stewart (2004) pre-dates the publication of Lowdown on the upland of Mar.  Recently, while re-reading Dixon & Green (1995) I had that feeling of déjà vu again.  Comparing Dixon & Green (1995) with the later Watson & Stewart (2004) I was surprised (shall we say) at how similar they both were :

Reference to pre-medieval settlement :

  • Dixon & Green (1995) (Page 6) - “evidence for pre-medieval settlement along the Dee has not yet been located west of Braemar”
  • Watson & Stewart (2004) (Page 5) - “If people lived on the banks of the River Dee west of the village of Braemar in the centuries before the formation of the kingdom of Scotland, there is no evidence for it now”

Reference to James II :

  • Dixon & Green (1995) (Page 8) - “James II used Mar Forest as a run for wild horses”
  • Watson & Stewart (2004) (Page 6) - “James II (1437-60), for example, used the forest as a run for wild horses”

Reference to 'Corryvron' shieling :

  • Dixon & Green (1995) (Page 9) - “an unexecuted deed of 1696, agreeing the right to pasture 100 cattle and 8 mares on the Dee and Geldie within the forest of Corryvron (i.e. south of the Dee, east of the Geldie and Bynack Burns), and to build a shieling in the said forest”
  • Watson & Stewart (2004) (Page 7) - “A deed of 1696 that wasn't actually put into operation would have given the tenant the right to pasture a hundred cattle and eight mares in the forest of Corryvron and to build a shieling there”

Reference to improving 2nd Earl Fife :

  • Dixon & Green (1995) (Page 9) - “The 2nd Earl of Fife was a keen improver and initiated many changes on his estates”
  • Watson & Stewart (2004) (Page 21) - “The 2nd Earl of Fife was a keen 'improver' and initiated many changes on his estates”

Reference to Kenneth McKenzie's sub-tenants at 'Dalmore' :

  • Dixon & Green (1995) (Page 10) - “at Dalmore, besides Kenneth Mckenzie and his family, there were nine sub-tenants, two weavers, a miller, three tradesmen and a cottar”
  • Watson & Stewart (2004) (Page 8) - “At Dalmore, Kenneth Mackenzie presided over his own family, nine tenants and their families, two weavers, a miller, three tradesmen and a cottar”

Reference to building of Mar Lodge :

  • Dixon & Green (1995) (Page 30) - “Lord Braco built the first lodge, a modest three-bayed, two-storyed house with attendant wings”
  • Watson & Stewart (2004) (Page 12) - “His first hunting lodge Dalmore House, was a modest affair - only two stories high with three bays and attendant wings”

Now we know why Watson & Stewart (2004) gave me that strong feeling of déjà vu.


What future : Derry Lodge

Derry Lodge - 28th July 2010

Derry Lodge is the (boarded up) 19th century shooting lodge in lower Gleann Doire on Mar Lodge Estate, Aberdeenshire.  It stands on the ‘peninsula’ between Uisge an Doire and the Laoigh.

I am confident the historically significant parts of Derry Lodge are no older than the early 1850s and no newer than the late 1890s - as a building Derry Lodge just isn't that old.

By the late 1850s access to Derry Lodge was by a hand-built carriage-road, following more-or-less the same route as the existing estate road, and people arrived at Derry Lodge on foot or in horse-drawn vehicles.

At that time the main residence on the estate was Corriemulzie Cottage, more than 5-miles away, and there is no reason to suspect that Derry Lodge was built for any reason than the obvious one - that is - to provide a forward base for the recreational killing of red deer and to make the daily 10-mile round-trip to Corriemulzie Cottage unnecessary.  Derry Lodge is a product of the horse-and-cart era ; it became more-or-less redundant in the motor car era.  Following the death of the Duke of Fife in 1912 its use became more-and-more ad-hoc - used because it was there rather than because it was needed - and by the late 1920s it wasn't even occupied year-round by a care-taking keeper.

Arguably, by the 1920s Derry Lodge had outlived its usefulness - if it hadn't already existed it wouldn't have been built.  Derry Lodge served its purpose for about 70-years - since then its only use has been occasional and ad-hoc 'because it was there'.  Derry Lodge has no use - succeeding owners of Mar Lodge Estate had no use for it and the National Trust for Scotland, who inherited it in 1995, have no use for it.

There are two, obvious potential uses for Derry Lodge (a) to provide accommodation for estate workers, and (b) to provide accommodation for hill-goers - both are bad ideas.  If Derry Lodge was at all useful as accommodation for estate workers it would be used as that already.  The only viable use for Derry Lodge is as accommodation for hill-goers, but the implications of that would be disastrous for the wildness of Mar Lodge Estate and compromise the National Trust for Scotland's undertaking to maintain the principle of "the long walk in".  Superficially, using Derry Lodge as accommodation for hill-goers looks like a solution, but it's not.  If one thinks about the implications of Derry Lodge being used as accommodation for hill-goers, one will realise that this 'solution' would only change the problem from a building management problem to a people management problem.  Once Derry Lodge was habitable there would be an almost immediate and never-ending call for further development.  How long do you think it would be before people started asking for an internet connection or a bus service to Braemar?

If we've learned anything from the Cairn Gorm Funicular fiasco it is this : that the real problem isn't just that the development of Derry Lodge is bad for wildness (which it is) it is that any development of Derry Lodge would only be the first-phase.  The initial development of the Cairn Gorm Funicular was conditional on a set of wildness protecting rules - there was little doubt those conditional rules would be relaxed (as they have been) increasing the threat to the wildness of the surrounding area.  The initial development of Derry Lodge would probably be conditional on a set of wildness protecting rules too - and there's little doubt those conditional rules would be relaxed in the future, increasing the threat to the wildness of Mar Lodge Estate.

Developing Derry Lodge as accommodation for hill-goers would be a popular decision - and - by permitting the Mountain Bothies Association to develop Corrour Bothy and Coire Etchachan Shelter, the National Trust for Scotland have shown an inclination to popularity.  I'd be happy if they proved me wrong, but actions speak louder than words.  It is self-evident that developing Derry Lodge would diminish the wildness of the surrounding area.  If the National Trust for Scotland value the wildness of Mar Lodge Estate above money and popularity - Derry Lodge has no future.  If the National Trust for Scotland value money and popularity above the wildness of Mar Lodge Estate - Derry Lodge will be developed into accommodation for hill-goers.  If the National Trust for Scotland does develop Derry Lodge into accommodation for hill-goers - once again - their actions will have spoken louder than words.  They will have blown a hole in the principle of "the long walk in", and fatally undermined their credibility on conservation and wildness issues.

If Derry Lodge did not already exist it would not be built - it has outlived the purpose for which it was built.  I understand the urge to put Derry Lodge to some use, but any use will diminish the wildness of Mar Lodge Estate.  As a wildness advocate and historian - I believe the best future for Derry Lodge is for the National Trust for Scotland to seek the necessary permission to dismantle it under the direction of an architectural historian, and either rebuild it in the strath near Mar Lodge - or - recycle the materials off the estate.


Mar Lodge Woods and People

Mar Lodge Woods and People (2004)Mar Lodge Woods and People - is a 32-page booklet by Fiona Watson and Mairi Stewart, commissioned by the National Trust for Scotland and paid for by the Bank of Scotland.  The booklet is undated and without copyright notice, but a brief online search suggests 2004 as the year of publication. 

The booklet is aimed at the average visitor to the estate with the intention of passing on knowledge and understanding about history, plants, and animals of Mar Lodge Estate in the context of the ancient remnants of the Caledonian pinewoods.

As a professional writer, I hold myself to a high standard of truth and accuracy and am very critical of other writers who fail to do the same.  When writing about history - whether the audience is academic or not - it is critically important that references to supporting material are handled correctly to enable readers to examine the supporting material themselves.

Sadly, Mar Lodge Woods and People is the history writing equivalent of a film, claimed to be 'based on a true story', in which the events in the film are so different from actual events that very little of what actually happened ends up in the film.  Of course the average person won't know that, they'll assume the events shown in the film actually happened - only those who know something about the actual events will know how much the film is different from actual events.  So it is with Mar Lodge Woods and People - the average visitor to Mar Lodge Estate will find it an interesting an informative booklet, but anyone who knows something about the history, plants, and animals will know that it's so fundamentally flawed that it's almost a work of fiction. The flaws of this booklet are so numerous that I could easily write another 32-page booklet to explain and correct them all - for that reason I'll limit myself to highlighting a few of the worst :

Page 3

We read :

With the disappearance of the wolf in the eighteenth century, red deer have no real predators other than humans, and the population has risen significantly since then

Of course wolves didn't disappear - they were killed off by people - a heavy handed intervention.  The obvious implication of their 'disappearance', that red deer numbers increased because there were no wolves to prey on them, is just not true.  The numbers of red deer only increased into the thousands the National Trust for Scotland inherited because subsequent Earls Fife systematically ensured their numbers would increase.

We also read :

the major reduction in deer numbers that has now begun on Mar Lodge Estate should encourage regeneration, allowing the woods to slowly expand and greatly benefit their wildlife, including deer

The 'major reduction' was nothing short of the wholesale slaughter of thousands of red deer.  In 2009, the National Trust for Scotland began their "shoot deer until they cannot be seen" policy in what they call the Regeneration Zone - a 50 square mile area that now contains fewer than 200 red deer.  It is indisputable that red deer numbers had to be reduced significantly in the woodland, but the authors ignore the wholesale slaughter of thousands of red deer.

Page 5

We read :

If people lived on the banks of the River Dee west of Braemar in the centuries before the formation of the kingdom of Scotland, there is no evidence for it now

In fact, there is plenty of evidence of the prehistoric occupation of the area by humans including : anthropogenic (human caused) changes to soils and moorland vegetation, lithic scatters (debris from flint working) that pre-date the "formation of the kingdom of Scotland" by at least 2,500 years.

Page 8

We read :

At Dalmore, Kenneth Mackenzie presided over his own family, nine tenants and their families, two weavers, a miller, three tradesmen and a cottar (who only rented a house with a small amount of land) - that's twenty-seven adults

As is typical, no reference is given for this 'information' and we are left to wonder at what's implied by the figurative "presided over".  As far as I know there is no evidence to suggest the relationship between the McKenzies and their tenants was different from the usual relationship between Laird and Tenant.

Page 12

We read :

it was Dalmore's tenants who had built their shielings in Glen Lui at some point before 1703. In 1726 they were told to remove them

Here the authors appear to be confusing "shielings" with farms.  As I explain in Letter to James Farquharson of Balmoral - I believe that (a) the glen was used as summer hill-grazing until the forfeiture of 1716, and (b) that the McKenzies took advantage of the lack of oversight between 1716 and 1724 to rent the glen to farmers, and (c) that it was these farmers who were removed from the glen in 1726.

Page 13

We read :

If Lord Braco had purchased this ancient estate in order to improve his social standing then clearly it worked, because in 1759 he was created Earl of Fife and Viscount MacDuff

Here the authors allow themselves the bizarre speculation that Lord Braco's creation as Earl Fife was somehow connected to his purchase of Mar Forest.  Nothing could be further from the truth - Lord Braco earned his earlship, the old fashioned way, by demonstrating his loyalty to the House of Hanover during and after the Jacobite Rising of 1745.

Page 22

We read :

the Fifes' former home [Old Mar Lodge] could be rented out to 'nouveau riche' hunters

Here the authors allow themselves the bizarre "nouveau riche" epithet without giving any idea what inspired it - the fact is that Old Mar Lodge along with the Old Forest was rented from the early 1830s to the early 1850s by Francis D'Arcy-Osborne, who became 7th Duke of Leeds on the death of his father in 1838.


Mar Lodge Woods and People has the feel of being written in the marketing department of the National Trust for Scotland rather than an academic department of Stirling University.  The authors appear to have less than full command of the subjects and attempt to hide that with purple prose, cliché, and figurative expressions

Rather than giving the average visitor an informative overview of the history of Mar Lodge Estate in the context of the ancient remnants of the Caledonian pinewoods - Mar Lodge Woods and People - will give the average visitor a misleading, confusing, and false overview of that history.

See also : Credit where credit is due (Part 2).