I've done it a few times, but never where anyone could see.
Even in this era of instant mortification by YouTube, I find that when you're walking through woodland the urge to hug a tree can be irresistible. Oddly, it's not the skinny birches and willows that cry out to be embraced, but the larger species, the ones so old and broad you can't even begin to reach around them. Call me peculiar – and you won't be the first – but there's a primitive pleasure in pressing your face to bark, smelling moss and lichen, and walking away with green mould and cobwebs in your hair.
For my taste, no tree has a more endearing personality than the Scots pine, the granddaddy of our native species, whose shape is so distinctive even those raised in concrete jungles can recognise it a mile away. A A Milne did his best to claim it for England, immortalising its comforting presence in the Hundred Acre Wood in Winnie the Pooh, but as everyone this side of the Border knows, this is our conifer. The face of the north, it stands sentinel on countless empty, windswept hilltops, and spreads its protective branches over some of our finest woodlands.
Though its original heartland, the Old Caledonian Forest, has been whittled down to matchsticks, the Scots pine has for long been popularly acclaimed as our most distinctive tree. Tomorrow, however, a committee at the Scottish Parliament will consider a petition asking that Pinus sylvestris be officially designated Scotland's National Tree. This may sound like a gimmick, simply adding another badge to the plethora that already adorn Scotland's bunnet, but its intention is profoundly serious. As the main petitioner Alex Hamilton states in his submission, bestowing this status on the pine would symbolise the Government's commitment to our woodlands and natural heritage. In the face of ever-encroaching threats on wildlife and countryside, such a move would be welcome affirmation that the environment is given the place it deserves on the political agenda.
Not surprisingly, this petition has been endorsed by various wildlife bodies, including the RSPB and the John Muir Trust. And no-one, surely, could argue with the intention behind the request. Almost every country has its official national tree – the maple in Canada, cherry in Japan, royal oak in England. Critics may argue, though, that other native trees have a claim to the title: the holly, for instance, is one of our few evergreens, thus for some symbolising the diehard Scottish spirit (and notoriously prickly personality). Or there's the rowan, one of the most heart-warming trees on the planet, its autumn berries bringing a blaze of colour to the landscape as winter approaches and thus representing good cheer, plenty and hope in the face of hard times.
One could go on; after all, there are over 30 contenders, such as the alder, the birch, the aspen, the juniper, the yew, and many more. But as the candidates roll past, only one conclusion is possible. By every measure, from historical role, economic impact, and environmental significance, the Scots pine soars physically and metaphorically head and shoulders above its peers. This towering tree is Scotland's giant redwood, our sequoia, a magnificent and unforgettable symbol of indomitable strength and endurance. With its spindly, gnarled beauty it stands as a motif of much that is Scottish: distinctive, original, and at times even a little forbidding.
But it has yet another claim on being Scotland's foremost tree. As eminent forestry academics Professor H M Steven and Dr A Carlisle wrote of the Scots pine half a century ago: "Even to walk through the larger [pinewoods] gives a better idea of what a primeval forest was like than can be got from any other woodland scene in Britain. The trees range in age up to 300 years in some instances, and there are thus not very many generations between their earliest predecessors about 9000 years ago and those growing today; to stand in them is to feel the past."
So, even as it reaches for the skies, the Scots pine is not only an emblem of vigour and power, but also a tangible reminder – indeed, a direct link in the chain – to our deepest, most ancient roots.
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