The Caledonian Forest is one of Scotland’s ancient old-growth forest habitats (the other is the Celtic Forest, but more of that later), growing primarily in the Scottish Highlands. Like many of the Earth’s great forests, it is today a shadow of what it once was. What remains of this great woodland totals around 180 square kilometres (a similar area to the city of Glasgow) scattered across dozens of fragments throughout the Highlands. Some patches are more extensive than others, such as the forests of Rothiemurchus, Abernethy and Glen Affric. Others are little more than stands of a few aging pines, clinging on to life in quiet corners of the Scottish glens.
Ecologically, the Caledonian Forest is a unique entity that sits somewhere between a Boreal Forest, such as those found in Asia and North America at northern latitudes, and Temperate Rainforest, such as those found in high-rainfall coastlines throughout the world. It is perhaps best described as a Boreal Forest that has learned to cope with the rain.
Unlike the Boreal Forests of the north, the dominant tree species here is not spruce but pine, and it is the eponymous Caledonian Pine (also known as Scots Pine) that immediately springs to mind when you mention Caledonian Forest. But there is far more diversity to these woods than just pine trees, and many broadleaf species also thrive here, such as Birch, Rowan, Aspen, Holly, Alder and Willow.
In a word, humans. The landscape of Scotland has seen many changes throughout the course of human habitation since the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago. The old, extensive woods were cleared gradually over time, to provide building materials and fuel, to clear land for agriculture and so on. Britain’s extensive military history accounts for much deforestation over the last several hundred years to feed the fires of war, as does changing economic conditions and behaviour which affects how we use our landscape. The finger of blame these days is often aimed squarely at sheep farming, deer stalking and grouse shooting, beginning during the time of the Highland Clearances, for introducing more grazing pressure on the landscape than the forest can handle. This prevents the growth of young saplings, and prevents the regeneration of old patches of wood. But of course the truth is more complex. There is no single factor at play.
However, there is a swelling wave of hope for the future of this precious habitat. Across Scotland, diverse groups of people are coming together to rethink the ways that we balance economy with ecology. In several areas large landowners are working together on long term projects to reinvigorate nature and encourage landscape-scale restoration of lost habitats. Elsewhere, conservation charities have land under management and are making progress to bring the forest back to barren landscapes. And of course, throughout Scotland and elsewhere, people are more aware than ever of the impact we have upon the ecological web upon which we all ultimately depend. Although there are still areas of concern, and species that are on the brink, there are also signs of recovery.
The Caledonian Forest is something I care about deeply. It is the primary source of my inspiration as a creative person, which I explore through photography, video, and writing. The forest is a quiet place. You can spend time there, and come out not sure if you have passed hours, days or a lifetime. You can connect with the primal and essential aspects of your own nature and what it means to be a human – a creature of the earth in its own natural place. You can feel humbled and small, yet your awareness expands to a sense of infinity. It is a place made of simple elements of wood, water and light, yet out of this rises a complexity of endless and varied beauty. It is a quiet riot of life, and an absolute joy to explore. I’ve made it intention to weave the threads of my life between its branches, to make the tapestry of living richer. It is a place, a story and experience I want to share with everyone, to show people how to reconnect with our own essential nature. That’s what this website is all about.