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The Lochiel Estate - New Plantations - Achnacarry:
The Beech Walk - Remarkable Plane and Other Trees -
Ancient Oaks - Best Pine Forest in Scotland
by David Nairn

When the forfeited estates reverted to Lochiel, over a hundred years ago, it was reported that there were 10,000 acres of natural wood on the property, or a fourteenth part of its whole extent, notwithstanding that while the estates were in the hands of the Crown their management was entrusted to a commissioner, named Butter, whose policy seems to have been highly unpopular in Lochaber, and not conducive to its tree growing interests.  A Gaelic song, composed about the time the estates were restored to the family, laments that the pine wood, one of the glories of the estate, had, under his management, become a tangled desert.  There is no doubt a magnificent quantity of pine and other timber had been cut down by the commissioner, for what purpose is not precisely known.  The song alluded to contains the following verse.  It bewails the disappearance of the pine wood and the scattering of the clan, but hopes that the old order of things, at least as regards the Cameron people, will be resumed when the long-lost chief returns to his paternal home: -
"Dh' fhalbh do Ghuiseach na duslach fhasaich,
'S tha do dhaoin' air sgaoil 's gach aite,
Aig a Bhutrach ga 'n cuir o aiteach:
Nuair thig thu dhachaigh gu 'n cuir thu aird orr."

During the century which has elapsed since Lochiel's advent, a considerable amount of mature timber has also been cut down, but the planting accomplished will, in a great measure, counter-balance this loss.  The hillsides, from the march with Invergarry to Clunes, grow some fine hazel and other trees.  From Clunes, along Loch Arkaig by the public road, to a distance of nearly thirteen miles, birch, ash, alder, and oak give river and loch a deep silvan fringe, with the exception of a short interval between Auchnasoul and Ardachie.  On the south side of the loch, from the shored of Loch Lochy to the tops of Glen Meallie and Loch Arkaig, a stretch of about sixteen miles, there arc deep belts of pine and other trees.  Again, on the north side of Loch Eil, from the farm of Annat, the wood - principally oak, birch, and alder, with a few Scots fir and spruce - extends for upwards of ten miles, each of the numerous glens having a considerable quantity of timber lining their sides.  Turning towards the march at Ballachulish, we find excellent ash, oak, birch, and alder growing nearly all the way to Fort-William.

Achnacarry Castle is situate close by the outlet of Loch Arkaig, in a valley which, for picturesque beauty, is not easily matched in the Highlands.  The front windows command a glimpse of Loch Lochy and a panorama of mountains beyond; north and south it is hemmed in by densely-wooded hills and pine-grown ridges; and westwards, Loch Arkaig extends in a silvery stretch of fifteen miles, environed by forest and mountain.  Within a hundred yards of the building, the Arkaig, fresh from the loch, and its torrent swollen by the flow of the Kaig, rushes impetuously on its short career to Loch Lochy.  In the immediate vicinity of the Castle there is a variety of old and remarkable trees, which must have been planted some time before the destruction of the ancestral residence in 1746.  The story of the beech walk is beautifully told in Lady Middleton's "Ballad of the Beeches," which we take the liberty of quoting: -
Oh! I have stood by the river side
When the spate came rolling down;
And marked the rush of the rolling tide,
In volume frothed and brown.

Oh! I have wandered beneath the shade
Of the stately avenue, -
Ere the summer green begins to fade
To its gold autumnal hue;

And mingling with the waters' roar,
And sough of wind-stirred leaves,
A waft of old ancestral lore
My listless sense receives.

Commands the Chief: "My woodmen all
Attend me in the vale,
"And bring me saplings straight and tall
To brave the wintry gale.

"I would erect upon the plain
A stately avenue:
Shall pass each Cameron chief and train
In after-time there-through.

"To lead in sport of wood or field,
To meet his clan for war;
Or home be borne upon his shield
With coronach before!"

They marked the standing for the trees
On spots apart and wide,
That each might vaunt him to the breeze
In isolated pride.

But lo! arose a mighty cry
Across the lovely land -
"Our rightful king doth straightly hie
To claim each loyal brand!

"From foreign shores to seek his own:
Now up and follow me"
For never was a Cameron known
Could fail in loyalty!"

So spake Lochiel in high command -
"Leave all, for ill or weal!
The king may claim each heart and hand
That vassal to Lochiel.

"Then dig a trench upon the bank
Where Arkaig rolls along,
And set my beechen babes in rank,
To listen to her song.

"And set them close to keep them warm
All through the lengthy days,
Till back I come, in fitting form,
Mine avenue to raise!"

They dug a trench upon the bank
Where Arkaig rolls along,
And set the saplings all in rank
To listen to her song.

But o'er them time and seasons passed,
And by them sang the stream;
Nor might that chief return at last
His purpose to redeem:

For drear the coronach did sound
O'er all the west countree,
And a nobler plant was laid in ground
Than a sapling beechen tree.

Ochone it is! for the great and brave,
For the hapless Stuart race,
For the cause such followers might not save,
And the rule they deemed disgrace.

Surely no grander monument,
Can rise, Lochiel, to thee,
Than the beechen bower of branches-bent
In homage proud and free?

For closely grew the trees in rank,
As close as they could grow,
Within their trench upon the bank
Beside the river's flow.

Their clasping boughs in clanship twine,
Like souls of the 'parted brave,
That ever whisper in words divine
Through the music of wind and wave.

Fair bides the light on a golden throne
Of their autumn leaves at even;
And that golden warrior soul is gone
To shine with the leal in heaven.

The "beechen babes" form a belt ten yards broad, and extending along the river side for nearly 400 yards.  There are three breaks in the line, in two of which the original trees probably failed to grow.  Their places were supplied with other beech saplings, which are growing well, but are considerably less in height and girth.  While six of the largest of the original "babes" girth respectively 9 ft., 8 ft. 6 in., 8 ft., 7 ft. 10 in., 7 ft. 6 in., and 7 ft. 4 in., the younger trees measure from 2 ft. 6 in. to 4 ft. 3 in.  The third gap was caused by seven splendid trees coming to grief during the memorable gale which caused the Tay Bridge calamity.  The trees have attained a height of about 70 feet, and they give shelter to a beautiful avenue running along Arkaig's banks.  In summer the foliage is so dense that protection is afforded from the heaviest rain shower.  We scarcely think there is another instance of so much valuable timber being produced on so small an extent of ground.  The stems of the trees, in consequence of the closeness with which they grow, are tall and bare to an unusual height, and they swing to the gale with an ease which ensures their existence as vigorous trees for many years.  When Cumberland's soldiers visited Achnacarry, the beeches would be too insignificant to attract their notice, but it is said they gratified their destructiveness by blowing to pieces with powder many of the large trees about the place.  We trust that the Beech Walk may long escape every destructive influence - flourishing to preserve the memory of a chivalrous and a good man.

The avenue itself stands in the Park in front of the Castle, to which it has never been used as an approach.  Nearest the house the beeches were cut down some years ago in order to open up the view, but the avenue still contains a considerable number of magnificent trees.  They grow in double rows, and their massive stems and spreading branches form a conspicuous ornament in the surroundings of the Castle.  Having reached their full growth, which the fagas sylvatica attains in about 158 years, several of the trees have been damaged by the gales which sweep down the valley of the Arkaig.  One of the beeches measures 17 feet in circumference at five feet from the ground, but it has a deformed appearance in consequence of the loss of one of its principal branches.  The best specimen for girth and spread of branches stands at the eastern extremity of the north row.  Near the roots it girths 18 ft. 6 in., and three feet up it is 14 feet.  The trunk, which is not more than 5 feet in length, splits itself into eight or nine great limbs, which ramify in the most wonderful way.  In height the tree stands about forty feet, and the spread of its branches covers a radius of 230 feet.  Close by this fine beech there is a clump of three beeches growing close to each other as if the order of their planting had been disturbed.  The largest of the three measures 13 feet, but a big branch has been wrenched off by the wind, and the trunk is split almost to the roots.

On the south side of the castle there are several fine avenues of the classical plane tree.  The Lochiel of the' 45, by whom these trees must have been planted, appears to have had a partiality for this tree, in the embowering shade of which Plato delighted to discourse to his pupils, and which was much associated with the intellect of Athens.  One of the avenues forms the approach to the castle.  The trees in the avenue measure 6, 7, and 8 feet in circumference, and exhibit all the gracefulness of stem and leafy canopy for which the plane tree is noted.  A short avenue of this tree, standing at right angles to the castle approach, is distinguished by the name of the Cumberland planes.  The story goes that the Duke of Cumberland's soldiers, at the burning of the old castle in 1746, hung their cooking utensils on these trees.   Their appearance favours the tradition.  Some of the trees are very distinctly marked by a deep hollow strip, to a height of between three and four feet, as if the parts had been injured by fire.  Not withstanding the injury done these planes when young, they have grown into immense trees of beautiful shape.  They measure from 7 to 10 feet in circumference, the average girth being nearly 9 feet.  In the vicinity of this avenue there are a few planes of even bigger growth, the largest measuring 12 feet in circumference.  These specimens of the plane tree probably rank among the best to be found in Scotland.

On the bank of the Arkaig, close to the site of the old castle - the only trace of which is a small piece of blackened ivy-grown wall - there still stands a portion of what formerly was a fishing tower.  Tradition has it that there was a cruive at this part of the river, and when the salmon got in, it, by some ingenious mechanical contrivance, the secret of which has evidently been lost, caused a bell to ring in the tower, by which the attendant was summoned to secure the fish.  The arch and walls of the tower are still there, but the upper and principal portion of the building and the roof are gone.  In the centre of what was the tower there grows a splendid ash tree.  It must have been self-sown.  In the memory of an old man not long dead, its dimension were those of an ordinary walking stick, and its circumference is now 8 ft. 9 in. at 3 ft. from the ground.  It has a clear bole of about 30 ft., beautifully proportioned, and a bark of the finest texture we ever remember seeing on an ash tree.  Its favourable situation - close by a running stream, and under the shelter of the old tower - has favoured its rapid and graceful development.

Pursuing the walk along the bank of the river, we enter a chestnut grove, in which there are a group of Spanish chestnuts, and a horse chestnut known by the name of "the hanging tree."  The latter is an inferior specimen of the common species, and accords in appearance and shape with the melancholy purpose to which it is said to have been devoted, viz., for hanging caterans and others in the olden time.  From the root there springs four dejected stems, one of which stretches itself in bow shape to a length of about 40 feet, and with sufficient height to serve the mournful purpose of a gibbet.  It is now propped up.  Three of the Spanish chestnuts, at 3 ft. from the ground, measure 12 ft. 4 in., 9 ft., and 8 ft. 4 in. respectively.  Being thriving trees, they will attain a much greater thickness, if their close relationship is not against their development.  The largest chestnut we have heard of in Scotland stands on the lawn at Castle Leod, Strathpeffer.  At the height of 3 ft. it girths over 20 ft. in circumference; but Gregor describes a Spanish chestnut on the property of Lord Ducie, in Gloucestershire, which some years ago measured 45 ft. in girth.

Among the other noteworthy trees near the Castle is a splendid larch about 100 feet in height, and measuring at follows - at the base, 13 ft. 8 in.; 3 ft. up, 9 ft. In the park, not far from the beech walk, there is a birch of remarkable dimensions - perhaps the largest tree of the birch kind in Scotland.  The stem is 6 ft. high, and at the centre it; has a circumference of 13 ft., and still higher of 14 ft. 6 in.  Three enormous branches spring from the trunk, one measuring 7 ft., and another 6 ft. in girth.  It is a veritable "Silvan Queen," with charming display of branch; and it does not seem at all out of place in the policies near the chaste plane tree, though arborists have sentimentally relegated it to the rugged scenes of nature.

In the considerable portions of ancient pine and oak, forests surviving in the neighbourhood of Achnacarry, there are a number of extremely old oak trees.  They are to be discovered here and there - time-whittled and storm-shattered remnants of their former selves - interesting memorials of the departed glory of the ancient forest that has been all wede away.  The freshest of the three we visited stands within a few hundred yards of the public road as it approaches the policies of the Castle, in the part of the old forest occupying the shoulder of the hill overlooking Loch Lochy.  Before it lost its top, which appears to have succumbed to the recurring gale a considerable time ago, it must have been a magnificent tree.  The trunk as thus divested stands about 30 feet high, and from its upper part spring two main limbs, each of which at their junction with the parent stem girth 6 feet or more.  These branches have still a thriving appearance, and evidence an amount of vitality in the tree which the aged trunk somewhat belies.
Life still lingers in thee, and puts forth
Proof not contemptible of what she can.

The circumference of the tree at 3 feet from the ground is 21 ft., and at 6 ft. it measures 23 ft., which is nearly its thickest part.  Around there is some fine oak and fir timber, but, in comparison with this antiquity, they are of tender growth.  The two other venerable trees, or rather relics, for they are much decayed, are found in the old wood of Craigunish, on the north side of Loch Arkaig, and within a short distance of the Castle.  They are the remains of what, in some remote time, were evidently stately trees.  A series of large, knotty growths disfigure the almost bare trunks, the circumference of which is greater at 5 feet high than immediately above the roots.  There is no visible spreading basis of roots, a thick, boggy accumulation of centuries concealing every vestige of the foundations.  The largest of the stumps measures 24 feet round.  Internally the tree is rotten, but the rind betokens the presence of lingering life by sending out a few branches and offshoots.  The remarkable thing about these trunks is, that young birch and oak trees spring from their lifeless hearts.  In the one we have more particularly described, a thriving birch tree of at least 18 inches in circumference shoots healthily from the top of the decayed trunk, and appears at a first glimpse to have become identified with the upper part of the old tree.  But a rift in the side of the trunk enables the birch to be traced as a distinct tree until it buries itself in the roots of the oak.  The young oak is of a smaller growth than the birch, and like the other, it derives its whole sustenance from the roots of the old trunk.  These curiosities are frequently to be met with in old forests.

An interesting question is the probable age of these ancient relics of former silvan grandeur.  We are disposed to give them an antiquity of about a thousand years.  Nor do we think this an exaggeration; in fact, on consideration, it is more likely to be under the mark.  Some of the most remarkable oaks in England - and there the tree finds a far more congenial home than in these northern latitudes - which girth but a few feet more, are reported to be a thousand years old.  The king oak at Windsor forest is said to have been a favourite tree of William the Conqueror; it measures 26 feet in circumference at three feet from the ground (our best specimen girths 23 feet at six feet above the ground), and has stood upwards of 1000 years.  The "Capon Tree," one of the most celebrated oaks in Scotland, and growing in a sheltered valley close to the old abbey of Jedburgh, in Roxburghshire, girths 26 feet, and is said to have been a large tree and a favourite one with the monks of the abbey in the thirteenth century.  It would seem a moderate computation, therefore, to credit the Achnacarry oaks with an existence of ten centuries.  Their decayed condition must also be taken into account; and the fact that
To time
Was left the task to whittle them away.

The old forest of Glenmeallie proper covers the southern slope of the glen for a distance of about four miles, but, in reality, the forest begins at Loch-Lochy, and is, therefore, fully six miles long.  In the glen it ascends the mountain sides to an altitude of close upon 1000 feet, and presents to the eye a wide and dense expanse of dark green that contrasted dismally, on the occasion of our visit, with the snow-clad mountains towering above.
"This is the primaeval forest; the murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of old, with voices sad and prophetic;
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest in their bosoms."

Speaking of the pines, Gregor says: - "It is an alpine tree, preferring the elevated situation, a northern exposure, and a cool climate."  Glenmeallie forest possesses all these requisites to a degree, and the fine development of the trees, as well us the excellent quality of the timber, attest that the situation accords perfectly with the nature of the pine.  The wood of the Glenmeallie pine is beautifully coloured, finely grained, and extremely durable.  Touching the latter quality, we noticed some pine wood furnishings in one of the offices at Achnacarry, which are as fresh to-day as when newly constructed forty years ago.  We scarcely think there is another pine forest in Scotland to rival Glenmeallie in the size and perfection of its timber.  It contains some giant trees, which could only, one suspects, be equalled by such trees as grew in the famous forest of Glenmore.  The latter forest, in the beginning of the present century, furnished timber to build forty-seven sail of ships, of upwards of 19,000 tons burtheu.  A deal cut from the centre of the largest tree measured 5 feet 5 inches broad, and the layers of wood from its centre to each side indicated an age of 235 years.  The girth of this tree, which was named "The Lady of the Woods," would be about 19 feet.  There are trees of equal magnitude in Glenmeallie forest.  We had only time to take a run through the Invermeallie end of the forest on the occasion of our visit - a tempestuous day - and within a radius of half-a-mile we came across trees of striking grandeur.  The most notable, principally on account of its magnificent ramifications, is named "Miss Cameron's tree," or more poetically, "The Queen of the Old Forest."  It appropriately stands amidst the most rugged beauty of the primaeval forest, guarded by the massive and umbrageous proportions of its juniors.  The girth of this pine, at its narrowest part, 3 feet from the swell of the roots, is 18 feet.  It bifurcates into seven enormous limbs.  About the point where those spring from the parent stem the circumference is fully 24 feet.  Four of the limbs are of themselves, as regards girth, very large trees.  The thickest tapes 13 feet; the next, 12 feet; a third, 10 feet 6 inches; and the fourth was not within reach, but its girth cannot be less than 12 feet.  Taken together, those limbs give a total girth of 47 feet 6 inches, without including the other three branches, which are by no means weaklings.  The spread of the branches or the height of the tree could not be calculated with anything like certainty; its magnitude in these respects can, however, be imagined from the figures given.

An extensive and valuable wood, called Gusach, or the Pinery, was cut down in the early part of this century by the grandfather of the present Lochiel, to whom the estates were restored in 1784.  A few hoary old giants still remain to mark the site of this forest.  The largest representative has a clean trunk of 12 ft. 6 in., and at mid distance it girths 22 ft. 8 in., and has thus a diameter of 7 ft. 8 in.  If felled and cut up, this Gusach giant would yield a center plank of at least 10 by 7, which excels the Glenmore tree considerably.

An ash tree in the churchyard of Kilmallie, the Parish Church of the Lochiel family, burnt down during the troubles in 1746, was long considered as the largest and most remarkable tree in Scotland.  Its remains were measured in 1764, and at the ground its circumference was no less than 58 feet - (" Walker's Essays," page 17).  "This tree stood on a deep rich soil, only about 30 feet above the level of the sea, in Lochiel, with a small rivulet running within a few paces of it."  These particulars are taken from Loudon's "Aboretum Fruticetum," page 226, and it requires such authority to bring anyone in the present day to believe that there existed such a monarch of the woods.  But Loudon's mentioning it proves clearly that he believed in its existence.  The destruction was, it need scarcely be said, the work of Cumberland's soldiers, who committed many acts of barbarity, worse even than this piece of vandalism.  There is not a trace of this majestic tree now to be discovered in the churchyard of Kilmallie or its neighbourhood, nor are we aware of the remains of any other trees on the Lochiel estate fit to stand beside it; but we may mention an interesting fragment of an oak tree standing on the bank of the river Luy, on the farm of Strone, about 1 1/2 miles above the public road.  It is merely the outer shell of one side of it that remains.  It stands 8 or 9 feet in height, and every year clothes a considerable number of short shoots in thick and fresh foliage, but these shoots do not seem to lengthen or shorten.  For many years the old tree has held its own, without gain or loss.  Its circumference is said by competent authority to have been upwards of 24 feet when in its prime.

Editor's NotesAs published in vol. 17 of the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness.