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29 October: the Trees of Scotland

The Eildon Hills in the countryside between Edinburgh .and England

1775, and Boswell has finally brought Dr Johnson North of the Border. Here they are, very close to Dryburgh where yesterday’s image was found. The Doctor is struck by the lack of trees, felled without the least thought of future supply; he gives is thoughts on this lack of stewardship.

The Lowlands of Scotland had once undoubtedly an equal portion of woods with other countries.  Forests are every where gradually diminished, as architecture and cultivation prevail by the increase of people and the introduction of arts.  But I believe few regions have been denuded like this, where many centuries must have passed in waste without the least thought of future supply. 

Davies observes in his account of Ireland, that no Irishman had ever planted an orchard.  For that negligence some excuse might be drawn from an unsettled state of life, and the instability of property; but in Scotland possession has long been secure, and inheritance regular, yet it may be doubted whether before the Union any man between Edinburgh and England had ever set a tree. Of this improvidence no other account can be given than that it probably began in times of tumult, and continued because it had begun. 

Established custom is not easily broken, till some great event shakes the whole system of things, and life seems to recommence upon new principles.  That before the Union the Scots had little trade and little money, is no valid apology; for plantation is the least expensive of all methods of improvement.  To drop a seed into the ground can cost nothing, and the trouble is not great of protecting the young plant, till it is out of danger; though it must be allowed to have some difficulty in places like these, where they have neither wood for palisades, nor thorns for hedges.

from “Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland” by Samuel Johnson) 1775

Some 50 years later, Sir Walter Scott was assiduously planting trees around his estate of Abbotsford, near this stretch of the now-wooded Tweed valley. Change for the better is possible.

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