Scots Pine, Pinus sylvestris, in the Gaelic Guibhas


Scots Pine opposite Gairloch harbour by Gordon Harrison

In the ancient Ogham Alphabet the Scots Pine was known as Peith and represented the letter P. Despite a natural range from the Artic Circle to southern Spain, and from western Scotland to eastern Siberia, today the national tree of Scotland is confined to separate isolated remnants of the once great Caledonian Forests covering a mere 1% of its original growth area (apprx. 17,000 hectares). Unusual among conifers, the Scots Pine exhibits some eleven different forms of growth, all are normal from the generally associated flat or domed canopy to the conical shape characteristic of conifers in young trees. Separated in layers on the same tree, female flowers are located on higher more exposed boughs with the male flowers clustered underneath. The wind facilitates pollination and the fertilised female flowers take two years to become fully developed cones. Scots Pines do not regenerate under its own canopy but instead (again) rely upon the wind to carry the tiny mature winged seeds to the mineral rich slopes of glens where they can hopefully take hold.

At Winter Solstice, to celebrate the passing of the seasons and to draw the sun back to the Earth, Druids would light large bonfires of Scots Pine. Whilst glades of the pine were decorated with shiny objects, covering the trees with 'stars' to represent the Divine Light - its not a stretch to see the customs of Yule logs and decorating Christmas trees evolved under early Christian missionaries trying to convert the pagans of Scotland. Aside from these ancient traditions relatively little folklore exists around the Scots Pine. One superstition stands out and in turn seems grounded in contemporary science is that of not felling pine trees for shipbuilding during the waning moon as the tidal influences of the moon were said to affect the resin content (high resin content impedes the decay of wood). Botanists are only now beginning to understand the influence of the moons' cycles on the sap flow on plants. Perhaps the old shipwrights were onto something not so mysterious after all.