British trees,  Wildlife & Nature

The Scots pine: keeper of the forest

Continuing my series on British trees, we’re heading up into the Highlands to stand beneath a beautiful Scots pine…

With a range that stretches from western Scotland to eastern Siberia, the Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) is the most widely distributed conifer in the world.   In Britain – and in particular Scotland – there is a strong sense of affection towards this long-lived and majestic tree, which has had much to suffer over the centuries from the spread of human civilisation.

Scots Pine 8

Scots Pine 26Much of our conifer forest consists of Douglas fir, Norway fir and Sitka spruce, but these species are all recent introductions.  The Scots pine is one of only three conifers native to the UK:  the others are yew and juniper.   (It surprised me that the larch, a deciduous conifer native to central Europe, was only introduced to Britain in the 17th century.)

For thousands of years, the Scots pine has played a unique role in the make-up of the Caledonian forest.   As the forest’s largest and longest-lived tree, it is an important ‘keystone species’ on which an entire eco-system of wildlife depends.

Scots Pine 9Scots Pine 79If we could see the landscape of Scotland as it was 6,000 years ago, we probably wouldn’t recognise it.  The Caledonian forest covered over 3.7 million acres, and among the Scots pines were species such as alder, hazel, rowan, birch and juniper.   Around 4,500 years ago the extent of the forest started to decline, possibly as a result of a change in climate, and this was hastened by the arrival of the first farmers.  Today, the Caledonian forest covers only 1% of its former range.

Young Scots pines in Perthshire
Young Scots pines in Perthshire

Young Scots pines have a simple conical shape, but their pattern of growth depends on lots of different circumstances.  For instance, if a deer nibbles the main shoot, the tree may develop a double-headed profile;  if a seedling takes root in boggy ground or an exposed, windy site, it can become stunted and wizened like a bonsai.  Added to this, the species has 11 recognised variations in shape within Scotland.   The website Trees for Life explains:  “The Scots pine is unusual amongst conifers in having a number of different mature growth forms, ranging from tall and straight-trunked with few side branches, to broad, spreading trees with multiple trunks.”

Scots Pine 7Scots Pine 6A mature Scots pine that has been able to grow and spread to its full potential is a truly majestic sight.   The tallest specimens in Scotland rise to over 65 feet in height, with a girth of up to 12 feet.   The ground beneath them is deeply littered with many years’ worth of fallen cones.

Scots Pine 2

Scots Pine 1

On young trees the orange-red bark is paper-thin, but as it matures it becomes thick and hard, with deep ridges and fissures;   this protective layer once served to withstand natural forest fires.  The fissures provide ideal crevices for mosses and lichens to get a hold, and excellent homes for insects.   The insects, in turn, attract a wealth of birds including woodpeckers, treecreepers, and the dainty little speciality of the Scottish highlands – crested tit.

Scotland’s oldest recorded Scots pine is in Glen Loyne, Inverness-shire.   It is thought to be about 560 years old, and it is growing in a group of old pines that have an average age of 440.  But, as scientists point out, there may be older examples out there, growing in blissful obscurity!

In May, male and female flowers appear, both on the same tree;  the flowers are pollinated by the wind.  In a ‘mast year’, a full-grown tree can produce over 3,000 cones, which take two years to mature.   For this reason, there are always two sets of cones on a tree:  the green cones which are ripening, and the mature cones which have turned brown.  In warm weather, the mature cones open up and release their seeds;  each seed has a tiny ‘wing’ to assist its journey on the wind.

Red squirrels love Scots pine cones;   in autumn, they can be seen busily collecting and storing them ready for the long winter ahead.   It’s amazing when you consider how long this seasonal pattern has been going on:   peat deposits have revealed pine cones that are thousands of years old, still bearing the teeth marks of red squirrels!

Cowberry, growing on a dead pine
Cowberry, growing on a fallen pine

Plants associated with the Caledonian pine forest include twinflower, one-flowered wintergreen, blaeberry and cowberry, as well as the orchid known as creeping ladies’ tresses.   These plants will happily colonise fallen trees, creating living hummocks of vegetation.

Many of Scotland’s most iconic wildlife species live in and around the pine forests:  black grouse and capercaillie feed on the buds and shoots, while the Scottish crossbill – Britain’s only endemic bird species – uses its parrot-like beak to prise open the cones and eat the seeds.  The woods are a haven for pine marten, badger, red deer and the elusive wild cat;   in the past, they also supported wild boar, lynx, moose, brown bear and wolf.

Even when it dies, a Scots pine tree is a magnet for wildlife of all kinds.  Its timber is rich in resins, which slow down the rate of decomposition;  and while this is happening, a dead tree can provide a home for lichens, fungi and insects, nest holes for owls and woodpeckers, and a safe daytime roost for bats.Scots Pine 11Scots Pine 12

Saplings of mountain ash can sometimes take root on a Scots pine, the berries having been deposited there in the droppings of birds.  Stunted birch trees may also be found growing in little footholds between the branches.

Scots Pine, Loch LevenHistorically, the Scots pine’s tall, upright stance has led to its downfall, because its trunks were ideal for railway sleepers, telegraph poles, fence posts and ships’ timbers.  The added benefit for boat-building was, of course, that the timber was slow to decay.

In centuries gone by, a superstition warned against felling pine trees under a waning moon, because the planet’s gravitational pull affected the flow of sap and thus the resin content;   only now are scientists beginning to acknowledge that trees, like most other living organisms, really are influenced by the moon’s phases.

Scots Pine 18The resin and needles of the Scots pine have traditionally been used to treat respiratory problems, and they also have antiseptic properties.  There’s something invigorating about these trees:  as you walk through a pine forest, just inhaling the scent is an uplifting sensation!

In Gaelic, the word for Scots pine is ‘guibhas’, roughly pronounced ‘goo-ass’;   in place names, it is found in Allt na Ghuibhas in Wester Ross, and historians believe it’s also the origin of ‘Kingussie’.

Scots pines at Loch Leven
Scots pines at Loch Leven

In ancient folklore, pine cones were recognised as symbols of fertility, and the evergreen nature of the pine tree represented immortality.   At the winter solstice, the druids would light bonfires of Scots pine branches, with the aim of drawing back the sun into the cycle of seasons.

In Britain, Scots pines are not confined solely to Scotland, although this is their stronghold.   You can see them dotted around the countryside of England and Wales, a small group of them often standing guard over old farmhouses or marking the summit of otherwise bare hilltops.   In North Wales, I’ve often noticed Scots pines poking at all angles out of ancient-looking mounds in fields where generations of farmers have been ploughing around them for centuries.

Scots Pine 16This brings me to two of my favourite books, which contain some fascinating references to Scots pines…

“In the open country, a farmer who wanted to let the [cattle] drovers know that he was able to provide food, accommodation and grazing planted three Scots pines.  These were visible at a great distance, and the drovers used them as way marks.   These trees remain when all traces of the old inns or farms have disappeared, the stones having been used for other buildings.”

Fay Godwin and Shirley Toulson, ‘The Drovers’ Roads of Wales’

“It is not a theory, but an observation slowly built up that Scotch firs… are almost certain signs either of the line of an ancient track, or more particularly its sighting points.  They are to be seen in twos and threes about the very ancient homesteads, or a thin line of them running along a hill ridge or flank…  The strange thing is that where so found, no others can usually be seen in the country round, except perhaps a solitary one in a field which also marks the same ley track.”

Alfred Watkins, ‘The Old Straight Track

Scots Pine 15
Crannog on Loch Tay, with Scots pine and beech

Scotland’s national tree…

In January, Forestry Commission Scotland announced the result of a public poll to find a national tree for Scotland.  The Scots pine rose head and shoulders above the competition, winning 52% of all votes cast.   The Forestry Commission is now developing a funding package to increase people’s awareness about the Scots pine, and to promote it as a symbol of the Scottish landscape.

Founded in 1989, Trees for Life is a conservation charity devoted to restoring 1,000 square miles of Scotland’s Caledonian forest.   They’re working with the Forestry Commission, the National Trust for Scotland and wildlife charities to protect Scotland’s native tree species through extensive planting schemes.   You can find out more about their work here.

Unfortunately, in this winter’s gales, many old Scots pines have been lost, including 200-year-old specimens near Loch Ness and others in Glen Affric.   The work undertaken by farmers, estate managers, conservation workers and volunteers is therefore vital in helping to ensure that the Scots pine will be a feature of the Scottish landscape for generations to come.

Scots Pine 4Sources:

‘The Drovers’ Roads of Wales’ by Shirley Toulson and Fay Godwin is an exploration of the tracks used since medieval times until the 1800s to drive cattle – not just cows, but pigs, sheep, even geese – from the Welsh hills right through to the Midland counties and south to the markets of London.

‘The Old Straight Track’ by Alfred Watkins is a truly unique book that opened my eyes to the landscape like no other.   Born in 1855, Alfred Watkins was a true visionary, and he knew his native Herefordshire countryside like the back of his hand.  You can read a review of ‘The Old Straight Track‘ here on The Hazel Tree.

Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf except where indicated

Scots Pine 79

If you enjoyed this, you might like to read the other features in my British trees series:  

Or take a look at my new feature on the wildlife of the Caledonian forest.


  • blosslyn

    As we have these whipping about the garden at the moment, it has been interesting to read about them, lovely photos, ours are like the ones in your 15th photo. They are beautiful to look at and all the wildlife that use them, we have little owls in one of them, but not sure which one, because you only hear them at night 🙂

    • Jo Woolf

      Those must be beautiful tall trees – I really hope that they stand up to the wind! Little owls are gorgeous – I remember seeing them in Shropshire, but we don’t get them this far north. I bet they had a bit of a noisy night!

      • blosslyn

        Very noisy, sometimes we might get a barn owl flying across, but I have never seen the little owls. Later on I am going to start a blog about the garden, as we are going to try and get the better of it this year and I think it might motivate us into trying to come to grips with it. Its a bit like the Forth Bridge at the moment, never ending, but never getting anywhere 🙂

  • Anny

    You’re right about the scent – the wood where I walk the dog has a lot of various pines (I think they were once grown commercially) and the smell some days is wonderful. PS If I’ve done it right- always a big ‘if’ – there’s a photo on my Twitter account @AnnPawley , that might make you laugh…

  • tearoomdelights

    Wonderful, Jo, and especially delightful to me since you’ve featured my favourite tree. What a smashing bunch of photographs and informative text. I didn’t know that about the planting of Scots pine near farmhouses, most interesting. One of the things I love about Scots pines is the gloriously warm colour of the bark when the sun hits it. The smell of them, too, brings back happy memories of my childhood. Thank you for such a lovely post. 🙂

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you very much, Lorna, that’s very kind! I love Scots pines, too – they have such a wonderful feel about them, especially the really old ones. And the bark is so beautiful, as you say. When I read that about the planting of Scots pines near farmhouses, I was seeing them everywhere (we were in Wales at the time) – such an eye-opener! Just going through our photos of the Perthshire trees has made me want to get out for a walk in the hills. Spring can’t come soon enough!

  • Rachel

    What a fantastic post 🙂 Full of so much information! And on really old trees with deeply cracked bark, there is potential for bats to find a little crevice and tuck away!

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you so much! 🙂 That’s lovely of you to say so. Yes, I’m sure bats can find some very cosy crevices in an old Scots pine! When you think of how much wildlife these trees support, you realise how precious they are.

  • Hank.

    Wonderful! I had no idea Scots pines were so widely distributed, rather like the Scots themselves. How fascinating, too, that the pines are indicators of now absent farmhouses and tracks…wow! This is great stuff! I really love Scots pines, and Hank completely agrees. He’s more interested in the bases of old trees, but to each his own.

    • Jo Woolf

      That’s very true! And yes, I love the association with old tracks and farmhouses. There are so many signs left in the landscape, when you realise this. Hank would love these old trees – pine-scented heaven! 🙂 Thank you – glad you liked this!

  • Carmen Mandel

    Pines are majestic creatures!. Great article and pictures, I love how fallen trees become new habitats. That little island is magical. We live in a taiga forest of beautiful giants.They bend and dance impressively during the fierce snowstorms.

  • Hank.

    Jo, I’m revisiting this post as I’d just glanced at the Wiki photo of the pine seeds and was struck by how much they in their jackets look like wee female quail…so lovely. In looking again at your own photos of the trees and landscape, I’m transported into the past, remembering high, open spaces and sitting under – or up in – the branches of lovely old Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs (a Scot for a’ that, of course)…

    These images are so very evocative, though they’re thousands of miles from my own memories and about as many years distant! Thanks again for sharing them!

    • Jo Woolf

      Hank you’re so right! I can see it too. How cute!! I am so glad that this post inspired you to do some ‘time travel’. I think Scots pines (and other tall old trees) are a bit like that – they have an energy about them that’s hard to describe, but you certainly feel it when you stand under them.

  • dancingbeastie

    Reblogged this on Dancing Beastie and commented:
    Up to now I have never re-blogged anyone else’s work on Dancing Beastie. This wonderful post about the Scots Pine has persuaded me to break that habit. It comes from the online magazine ‘The Hazel Tree’, and puts my own amateur tree observations to shame. If there is anything you would like to know about Scotland’s newly-elected national tree, I know that you will enjoy Jo’s appreciation of it here. After all, we are all tree-huggers here!

  • Perpetua

    Such an interesting and informative post. I followed the link from Dancing Beast and am so glad I did. 🙂 I had no idea the Scots pine could take so many forms, nor that it was often planted to mark trackways or sighting points. That may be the reason for the presence of a single sentinel Scots pine here in Mid-Wales, which was blown down in the terrible storm a fortnight ago to much local dismay. It’s now hoped the tree may regenerate from the remaining roots.

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you very much! I am so glad you found me via Dancing Beastie – a lovely blog that I always enjoy reading. It was when we were living in North Wales that I first learned about the significance of Scots pines in the landscape, and I have a special fondness for them. That is such an awful shame about the old tree that blew down, and I’m sure you’re right – it would surely have been a marker of some kind. I really hope that they can save it, as suggested in the article. If you hear any more about it, I’d be really interested to know!

  • Norma

    I enjoy your posts. You spoke of the forests of Scots Pines 6,000 years ago. I sometimes think of the way the US must have been 400-500 years ago (only a minute by European standards), virtually trackless forest from coast to mid-continent. To me its is an enchanting and intimidating image. I live in the Appalachian Mountains and from the top of a hill all I see is trees, it’s not so difficult to imagine a never ending forest.

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you! Yes, I often try to imagine what the forests would have looked like thousands of years ago, and what it would have felt like to live there. Possibly not as idyllic as we first think! In some ways we have still retained our instinctive fear of forests, even if the forests themselves have disappeared. Even 500 years ago, Scotland would have been much more wooded. The 1500s were probably the turning point, when so much timber was needed for ship-building.

      It sounds as if you live in a beautiful place! Thank you very much for your comment.

  • Patrick Campbell

    I am writing an e-book novel that will probably disappear without trace (my other works have!).

    It is set in 1948 and examines the social attitudes of forestry workers at that time.

    In order to place the novel on Amazon Kindle, I have to prepare a cover. Not having taken photographs of forests myself, I am at something of a loss unless I use someone else’s.

    Would you have any objection to my using the lovely photo of the bark of a Scots pine on your web page? I would be most grateful.


    Patrick Campbell

    • Jo Woolf

      Dear Patrick, I would be delighted for you to use the pic of the Scots pine bark. I see that the website pic has a copyright watermark on it so I’ll send you another, high-res image for you to use. My email address is jo(at) – drop me a line and I’ll whizz it over. I’m interested to know more about the novel – perhaps I can put a link up or help promote it in some way when it’s finished. Best wishes, Jo.

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