The Great Wood

Jim Crumley

(Birlinn, £9.99)

An acclaimed nature writer and wildlife expert with some 30 or so books to his credit, there’s little about Scotland’s natural environment that Dundonian Jim Crumley hasn’t written about or have an opinion on. But there’s more to his writings than just a deep knowledge and a taste for well-aimed barbs at those who would overly-commercialise or mistreat the rural landscape. His prose style is exquisite and his approach to his subject matter is pleasingly literary.

In 2011’s The Great Wood he tackles the legend of the so-called Great Wood of Caledon, the Caledonian forest said to have once stretched from coast to coast and to have covered much of the Scottish uplands and Highlands. True or false? A bit of both, is the answer. That all-consuming forest was certainly long gone by the time the Romans arrived though that didn’t stop Tacitus and Ptolemy turning the stories told them by returning legionaries into hard fact. And so began the legend of, as Crumley puts it, “a huge tree ghetto of innumerable terrors which lay in wait to prey on terrified travellers”, one whose reputation “evolved and grew bloated even before the Victorians got their hands on it”. But that’s not to say that Scotland’s extensive forests weren’t places of majesty and profound mystery, and in an arboreal journey that takes in Glen Orchy, Rothiemurchas, Glen Strathfarrar, Strath Fillan and beyond, Crumley dips into what remains of them.

He starts – where else? – at the Fortingall Yew, which is located in the churchyard of the Perthshire village of Fortingall and whose age is unknowable. Conservative estimates put it at between 2000 and 3000 years, so it was around at the time of Christ and the Romans, though Crumley places its birth in deeper time, reckoning it to be “upwards of 5000 years old and very possibly nearer 10,000 than 5000”. It may well be the oldest living thing on the planet, he muses.

Nature On TV

The Hidden Wilds Of The Motorway

BBC Four, Tuesday, 9pm

“Is this motorway just a blot on the landscape or a whole new world for our surprisingly resilient British wildlife?” That’s the question asked at the beginning of this fascinating documentary by naturalist Helen Macdonald, author of the prize-winning H Is For Hawk. The motorway in question is the M25, which rings London, but the question could be asked of any of the UK’s tarmacked arteries. Watch, learn and wonder.