Homage to trees

Gnarled old beech at eastern end of the home farm fields, 28 January 2015.

In Torphins we had tea early on the Friday 26 November because the lights had been flickering, the wind was rising and a gale was forecast. We had just finished eating when the power went completely. Along the east side of Scotland and down into England thousands of trees were blown over, many of them bringing down electricity lines. In Torphins, landline phones, mobile phones and Wifi all stopped working. It was three days before our power was restored, but some unfortunate people had to wait over a week often without water as well. Wildlife suffered with reports of over 800 grey seal pups killed by the storm at St Abbs Head and hundreds of starfish washed up on the Culbin Sands. Storm Arwen was followed by Storm Barra, which although not so generally destructive did cause significant damage at Crathes.

Six years ago Storm Frank devastated Deeside because of flooding, but Arwen has seen the worst winds the North-East of Scotland has experienced since 1953 when Crathes suffered terribly, not only by the dramatic change to its landscape but also by losing valuable income.* The 1987 gale was also destructive when, as in 1953 and 2021, the wind came from the north-east. The prevailing wind from the south-west strengthens the tree roots on that side, but leaves the other side more vulnerable. Torphins, despite its abundance of tall trees, got off lightly in Storm Arwen compared to many places. Haddo House was devastated, with maybe as many as 100,000 trees lost and even more in the adjacent Country Park, as was the John Muir Country Park by Dunbar over a hundred miles to the south. Crathes has not escaped the carnage, but it is not as badly hit as in the 1953 gale.

Clearing the debris is a massive job. Judy (volunteer) and Emily working in the Woodland Garden, 3 December 2021. Joanna Shaw.

All over the North-East there has been a lot of tree felling in recent years precisely because all the trees planted after the 1953 gale are reaching maturity. A lot of estates, including Crathes, will be glad that they beat the storm to some degree.

Logging to the north of the home farm fields, 2 December 2014.

But we mourn our recent losses. We know the worth of trees and woodlands: they provide homes for countless animals and plants; they act as a carbon sink; they help to reduce flooding; they provide food and shade; they are good for climbing; they are beautiful. And we are beginning to understand more about their place in nurturing our mental health – a newly published report by Forest Research (4 December 2021) suggests that ‘visits to woodlands for recreation could save around £26 million a year in treating mental health in Scotland’.** Even urban trees apparently reduce the use of antidepressants. For me the scent released by the sun on the Scots pine is a sensory high.

Laburnum in the Woodland Garden, 28 May 2014.

With the estate closed, it was over a week after the gale before I managed to see the damage at Crathes. James tells me they had power loss over four days, with intermittent relief and some water problems. I had heard from Joanna that the glasshouses were not damaged and that the standby generator behaved well. That the arbutus tree, Arbutus menziesii, had fallen surprised no-one; it was due to be removed in the near future. Fortunately its daughter, a few yards away is thriving and so the fieldfares, blackbirds and bullfinches will not have to forgo all the fruity feasts. I wrote about the history of this tree early last year (What’s in a name – 30 January 2020).

The debris has been removed from the arbutus, 30 November 2021. Joanna Shaw.
The main trunk of the arbutus was surprisingly solid, 6 December 2021.
The wall appears to be undamaged, 13 December 2021.
The trellis and an enkianthus were damaged as the arbutus fell, 6 December 2021.

The other big tree to fall was the conifer in the Golden Garden. Luckily neither it nor the arbutus had damaged the walls as they fell. There is relief that the central Portugal laurel has survived; it is so much a part of the garden design. A few trees were blown over in the Woodland Garden, but all the big oaks and sycamores pulled through. I was sad to see that the ancient Chinese rowan, Sorbus hupehensis, beside the gate had gone; I remembered the waxwings that flew in one year to gorge on its bounty.

Looking south in the Golden Garden with the tall conifer on the right, 22 October 2014.
The huge amount of debris has all been cleared, 6 December 2021.
Coniferous roots tend to be quite shallow, 6 December 2021.
The Chamaecyparis lawsoniana alumii in the Woodland Garden lost it’s top, 3 December 2021. Joanna Shaw.

One week later I saw some of the damage caused by Storm Barra. Particularly upsetting was the big ash tree that fell across the fire yard breaking the fence, knocking the top off the ancient sweet chestnut and making a big hole in the laurel hedge. This sweet chestnut is one of my favourite trees; maybe dating from the eighteenth century and much depleted over the years. I think it will survive this latest attack on its person. Another tree, Lawson’s cypress I think, fell across the carpark.

The sweet chestnut in flower, 13 July 2018.
The sweet chestnut after Storm Barra, 13 December 2021.
The ash that caused the damage lies across the fence, 13 December 2021.
The stump of the conifer can be seen in the centre of the photograph, 13 December 2021.

The gardeners are all exhausted. The chain saws have been going all the time and everyone had to join in with pulling all the debris away to the bonfire. There was an urgency to get the garden safe and reasonably tidy so that the Christmas light show could go ahead, if not quite as early as planned. Fortunately a team from Brodie Castle came down to help out at Crathes and Drum for a while.

Dangerous hanging branches have been removed from the main drive and the policies immediate to the castle, but the trails remain closed. Various contractors will be helping with work on the trails, but they have many demands to meet across the North-East just now and the commercial forestry damage will have to wait.

With the climate crisis, replanting programmes are crucial. We are now always told to consider the right tree in the right place and so there is opportunity behind the storm. It was years before the 1953 replanting was completed, partly because much of the clearing was done with saws and axes. With time at a premium I take heart at the thought of the way nature fills the gaps created by storms. Maybe the pioneering birch will spring up in profusion; I do love a birch tree.

The ornamental birch, Betula utilis ‘Jacquemontii’ in the winter sun on the Doocot Border, 10 November 2017.

From a global perspective Storm Arwen may seem insignificant. The latest news of tornados in America is appalling with large loss of life. Trees are part of the answer to climate change, but across the world they are disappearing through illegal logging, through forest fires, through rampant diseases, and through extreme weather events. It’s time to plant a tree – the right tree; an apple tree as a Christmas present might be appropriate just now.


For the meantime the estate remains closed except for those who have tickets for the light show. Visitors to the light show will be able to enter safely through the regular garden gate, but the Welcome Building is not nearly finished; Storm Arwen has put many plans astray.

After working in the garden for 29 years Cecilia has retired. Happily that does not mean we don’t see her because she now comes to help as a volunteer. She first came when David Maclean was head gardener. Her children were young and she was allowed to work part time during school hours, even getting school holidays. A small celebration was held by the gardeners to mark her formal retirement.

Cecilia looking after the pots, 14 June 2017.

In the glasshouses Joanna has been working in the vinery. The vines were not doing well. The black grape has been removed and the green one has been cut hard back. The soil has been removed; the house has been cleaned and is now being painted. New soil will be brought in and a new vine will be planted in the centre of the bed. The pelargoniums that were a previous feature will be returned.

The vinery. The large lights are to do with the light show, the small machine is for power washing, 13 December 2021.

The bodnantense viburnums are enjoying the relatively mild weather; they give off a lovely scent.

Viburnum bodnantense ‘Charles Lamont’ in the Trough Garden, 6 December 2021.

The Dee catchment Partnership has won the Nature and Climate Action award, at the RSPB Nature of Scotland Awards, for the Easter Beltie restoration project that I wrote about in July (Who knows where the time goes?). This award for outstanding achievement for nature conservation is one of the positive stories of 2021.

The restored meandering Beltie Burn has attracted new biodiversity, 7 October 2021.

The Crathes garden and estate may have had some sets back over the last year, but it too is a positive story. Resoundingly, it is a tale of optimism and progress. Here’s to the gardeners and a good 2022!

Joanna’s Christmas wreath, 5 December 2021. Joanna Shaw.

A happy and safe Christmas to you all. 

*Bennett, Susan, The Gardens and Landscape of Crathes Castle (2019) for more information about the 1953 gale at Crathes.

**Forest Research is part of Scottish Forestry which is the Scottish Government agency responsible for forestry policy, support and regulations.

4 thoughts on “Homage to trees

  1. I love your “Homage to trees”. You really do write so well Susan. When out walking in any woodland, my father always used to quote “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”…..thanks again for sharing your thoughts with us.

    Liked by 1 person

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