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31 Aug 2021

My favourite Trust trees

Written by Roddy Hamilton, Ranger in our North East region
A man with a backpack on looks across a sloping grassy field, flanked by a variety of trees in full leaf. At the bottom of the field is House of Dun. The sun is rising over the House and field, and the man is in shadow while the landscape is cast in early golden sunlight.
A view towards House of Dun, flanked by a variety of trees including the towering giant sequoia
From Leith Hall, Garden & Estate in Aberdeenshire to House of Dun, Garden & Estate in Angus, there is no shortage of trees to admire at our places across the North East. Do you have a favourite? And have you ever stopped to ask yourself: why that one?

From the mists of the 80s – it must have been on Channel 4 – I can vaguely remember a series of short documentaries. They were entitled Favourite Trees, or My Favourite Tree. Sadly, I can find no mention of them in search engines, and no old recordings of them on YouTube. The format was simple: each week the programmers interviewed someone about a particular tree they loved. It revealed much about the tree and much about the person.

There is no shortage of trees on National Trust for Scotland estates, but which is your favourite? And have you ever stopped to wonder why?

Two people walk along an avenue flanked by lush green lawns, heading towards Leith Hall. The white walls of the Hall are just visible through two large trees in full leaf, which stand either side of the small stone bridge at the beginning of the avenue.
The trees in full leaf at Leith Hall

Trees, like people, can be labelled. They are variously described as ancient, veteran and notable. Ancient trees are in the latter stages of the tree’s life, while a veteran tree is an old tree, perhaps decaying but prevailing. A notable tree may be tomorrow’s veteran or ancient tree, usually one of stature and height.

But these labels fail to capture what, for many of us, is a very personal connection. The fact that the duration of these documentaries was a mere fifteen minutes reflects the difficulty in rhapsodising about trees for too long. The connection is personal, sometimes impossible to express in words. Sometimes silence expresses it best.

Quite often the favourites are the tallest, the oldest, the quirkiest. And this is understandable. Trees, like people, influence their surroundings: the tallest dominate our landscapes, the oldest inspire our awe with what they might have seen, and the quirkiest? Well, everyone loves the quirky character at the party.

However, it’s often the undiscovered, or lesser known, that are the real finds. At Leith Hall, the aged sycamore known as the Dule Tree draws attention, a sign below it reporting how its limbs were gallows for thieves in days gone by. Interesting, no doubt. Yet, travel to a quiet corner of the walled garden and experience blissful solitude beside the paperbark maple, its cinnamon bark peeling, diffusing the sunlight like letters that will never be written.

A close-up of the branches sprouting from the trunk of a paperbark maple in Leith Hall garden. Its bright copper bark is peeling away in curls and ribbons.
The paperbark maple at Leith Hall

At House of Dun, the battalion of giant sequoias make impressive sentinels, and that spongy bark is irresistibly tactile. But then take a walk into the woodland to the Den of Dun, where you'll discover – cloaked in laurel – a Monterey pine, whose cones are a beautiful fusion of art and geometry.

The Old Wood of Drum is a forest of characters, the best of these right by a path near the end. An oak: wizened, gnarled, stooped and squat, its bark fissured for the 2,600 species that may use it. Brush against its woodpecker holes and it’s almost possible to feel the tree’s fortitude. This 270-year-old tree bears scars like humans do. We relate to trees in a way that is human, even if they can’t relate to us.

A view of an ancient oak woodland on a sunny day, with light dappling through the branches. The trunks are thick and gnarled, and some have large moss-covered clumps at the base. Some fallen branches lie on the grassy woodland floor.
The Old Wood of Drum

There is reassurance in special trees, living sculptures that we get to know and walk past every day. They underline for us the passing of time, the changing of the seasons, the difficulties of hard times, and the joy of sunlight and warmth. The wind makes their leaves whisper; their needles cleanse air for our lungs.

And our favourites remain ours, found in the most unexpected places. At Crathes, we have many notable trees. The two-centuries-old Portuguese laurel in the garden and the hornbeam in the courtyard, for instance, enchant many visitors.

Recently we had a plea from an artist, whose special tree was a sapling. This sapling grew from a mighty stump (a story in itself) in a forest clearing. It had been damaged, she told us, and could we do something?

A watercolour painting of a sapling tree, growing from a large, moss-covered old stump in the middle of a clearing in Crathes wood. The floor is painted in tones of brown and orange, while soft brush strokes in shades of green create a canopy of leaves above.
Crathes wood 'oriental' tree: painting by Trina Stark

It is not usual to fix a tree which has been damaged, let alone one this age. ‘Which tree?’ we asked. ‘This one,’ she said, and she showed us the painting she had made of it. Moved, we made remedial work on the tree’s broken limb. Trees assuage our pain, so when we have a chance, we often seek to assuage theirs.

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