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16 Dec 2021

Crathes Garden blog #8: homage to trees

Written by Susan Bennett, garden guide at Crathes Castle, Garden & Estate
A close-up view of a wreath hanging on a white door with glass panes. The wreath is made mostly from evergreen foliage, as well as some cones and berries.
Joanna’s Christmas wreath, December 2021 | Image: Joanna Shaw
Our expert garden guide has been sharing a blog offering a behind-the-scenes look at what the team are working on in the garden at Crathes. Here is Susan’s entry from December, where she talks about the impact that the recent storms have had on the garden.

In Torphins we had tea early on 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 Wi-Fi 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 badly suffered as well, with reports of over 800 grey seal pups killed by the storm at St Abb’s 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 brought the worst winds the north-east of Scotland has experienced since 1953. Crathes suffered terribly then, not only by the dramatic change to its landscape but also by losing valuable income. [1] The 1987 gale was also destructive when, as in 1953 and 2021, the wind came from the north-east. The prevailing wind at Crathes comes from the south-west, which 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 Country Park was devastated, with maybe as many as 100,000 trees lost, as was the John Muir Country Park by Dunbar over 100 miles to the south. Crathes has not escaped the carnage, but it has not been as badly hit as it was in the 1953 gale.

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.

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 simply beautiful. And we are beginning to understand more about their role 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’. [2] Even urban trees apparently reduce the use of antidepressants. For me, the scent released by the sun on a Scots pine is a sensory high.

A laburnum tree, with bright yellow catkins, grows beside a woodland path.
Laburnum in the Woodland Garden, 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, only 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 in my What’s in a name? blog post.

The other big tree to fall was the conifer in the Golden Garden. Luckily, neither it nor the arbutus 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.

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; it maybe dates from the 18th century and has been much depleted over the years. I think it will survive this latest attack. Another tree, a Lawson’s cypress I think, fell across the car park.

The gardeners are all exhausted. The chainsaws 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.

In our 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 to be gleaned from 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 birches will spring up in profusion; I do love a birch tree.

From a global perspective, Storm Arwen may seem insignificant – the latest news of tornadoes in America is appalling, with large loss of life. Trees are part of the answer to mitigate the effects of 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 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 won’t see her ... because she now comes to help as a volunteer. She first started working at Crathes when David Maclean was head gardener. Her children were young and she worked part time during school hours. A small celebration was held by the gardeners to mark her formal retirement.
  • In the glasshouses Joanna has been working in the vinery as the vines were not doing so well. The black grape has been removed and the green one has been cut hard back. The soil has also 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 (a previous feature) will return.
  • The bodnantense viburnums are enjoying the relatively mild weather; they give off a lovely scent.
  • 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 (The mysteries of time). This award for outstanding achievement for nature conservation is one of the positive stories of 2021.

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

A happy and safe Christmas to you all.

[1] See Susan Bennett’s The Gardens and Landscape of Crathes Castle (Spey Books, 2019) for more information about the 1953 gale at Crathes.

[2] Forest Research is part of the Scottish government agency responsible for forestry policy, support and regulations.

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