Designing the Future-Forest: Scotland’s forestry futures

Patricia Macdonald all rights reserved

Bernard Planterose looks at the history and pre-history  of Scotland’s ancient forests, and envisages a transformed future

Parallel Histories

A group of Norwegian land use and rural planning professionals visiting the Scottish Highlands recently on a study tour took in the landscape, its patterns, its processes, its layers of human inhabitation, in the way that people involved in ecology of landscape do. Their reaction was one of shock, their collective response: “What has gone wrong here?” A Highlanders historical perspective will respond with the well kent story of the Coming of the Sheep, of forced emigration, of the decline of a cattle grazing and shieling system : in short it will tell of the Clearances. It’s emphasis will rather naturally be on the people and all that was lost of their ways of life, their culture.

But there is another story that the landscape tells, inextricably interwoven but extending both long before and after, much less often told, certainly much less understood. That story is the ecological one ‘one that tells how on a geologically ˜new” landscape, only recently emerged from under the ice, there grew a varied and almost complete covering of forest in the space of three to four thousand years. And how, in a similar period of time, this forest was gradually fragmented, indeed all but decimated in most areas. By the time the great flocks of sheep came north (less than 250 years ago) clearly there was grazing enough to support them. The last two hundred years of ecological history could be described as only the nail in the coffin as far as soil and biological development is concerned – as native woodland was reduced to 2% of the land area and an explosion in the population of red deer (a tripling in the last 40 years) removed nature’s powers of recovery and established its bleak regime.

As I move through the landscape of the Highlands and Uplands of the south of Scotland, but mostly the north west where I live, I see that forest wherever I go. Partly because of an obsession with hill running, maybe because I have read the history in the pollen analysis, but certainly because I have planted trees here for twenty five years, I see more of the ground beneath my feet and in more detail than many. And even though so often repeated, the shock of literally running into a ˜field” of old pine stumps in the hills remains. That extraordinary contrast between the empty, barren landscape around and the forest that springs up in my imagination before me from the twisted, fleshless stumps, remains startling. There is a gut feeling : that same question hangs in the air, “What has gone wrong here?” As resonant for me in relation to the natural elements of the scene as the same question, no doubt, for the indigenous Highlander standing in the ruined crofting township.

I have also run through the southern Norwegian mountains, the low hills of Lapland and I have run in Austria and just last week in the French Alps and all these landscapes with their intricately mixed forests and fields prompt me to think about that question. Not so much an answer to it – because that is well enough rehearsed from Fraser Darling (1) to Stevens and Carlisle(2) – but a way forward beyond that answer and into a strategy for recovery. In these other mountainous countries of Europe and Scandinavia we see landscapes and land-use systems quite profoundly different in certain ecological ways that hold keys to our potential recovery. These landscapes have never been deforested in the nearly complete way in which ours has. To this day they retain a high percentage of forest cover: “ Sweden 75%, Norway 31%, Austria 47%. But it is the integration of this forest with inhabitation and agriculture that is important, it is the systems of management that tell the story to which we might listen.

So the story of Scottish rural life may be told in terms of social dislocation but it may also be told in terms of this one singular phenomenon “ that of deforestation. A closer look at this context reveals impacts and meanings beyond the obvious. Indeed it could be argued that the ecological cul-de-sac of deforestation in Scotland has strong parallels with (and is inextricably bound to) the socio-political cul-de-sac of rural depopulation and the concentrated land ownership pattern with which the country struggles. Ecologists refer to such cul-de-sacs as plagio-climaxes “in this case where upland heath and blanket bog or grass-dominated communities have replaced the natural climax communities(3) of woodland. The significant point here is that the replacements are generally lower in productivity and biodiversity than the forest climax and in many cases considerably so.

Until we understand Scotland’s history from the ecological perspective of deforestation as well as we understand it from socio-political perspectives, we may never have the equipment to recover even a fraction of what we have lost. Acceptance of “the way things are” in terms of landscape and resource use is an obstacle to progress in Scotland. The bareness of the land is deep in the Scottish psyche. We have lost appreciation of the phenomenal power of natural regeneration as we have lost a large part of the varied seed sources to effect it. It represents a cultural loss or blindness “a century upon century destruction of a life force.”

What I want to write about here is not a lament for what we have lost and certainly not an account of how it happened but to suggest how an understanding of this ecological history might inform a whole new land use approach, “ dare I say a revolution – and how this relates to bio-political strategies that are beginning to emerge in response to a perceived global ecological crisis. I will touch on (a) the link between the macro scale of global climate change and the micro scale of local habitat management – by which I mean to include both built and managed natural environments (b) the link between Scottish and global deforestation and (c) the way in which a Regional (indeed a Bio-regional(4)) approach to resource use could lead to new or modified systems of land and water management designed to meet the ever increasing demands on natural resources that larger and more demanding Human populations are making.

This exploration, inevitably technical in places, suggests the need for a deeper and more fully rounded understanding of the ˜place in which we live” than at any time in our previous history.
Emblematic of all that we have lost from the Scottish ecosystem. From refuge on cliffs and islands of many sorts, forest would return rapidly were it not for excessive deer populations.

Biosphere Design

At the macro level, the first cornerstones of what we may call ‘biosphere design’ are being laid in the global approach to atmospheric composition that a number of relatively recent international initiatives and agreements signify.(5) The most tangible of these is the Kyoto Agreement and the subsequent Protocol whereby global targets are translated into meaningful national green house gas (GHG) emission targets.

The goal of this macro level approach is to design our way not merely through an immediate environmental crisis but beyond it into some new state of balance or harmony with the Planet, its natural resources and other species. This suggests an advanced level of design in all aspects of Human inhabitation, manufacturing and resource management joined up across many disciplines. It particularly suggests a creative collaboration of ecologists with agriculturalists and construction professionals in an avant-garde of Human endeavour where, as Kenneth Frampton has pointed out “architecture could play a central role if it chose(6).”

The beginnings of that role are just developing as architects are asked to lead the way in designing very low and ‘zero carbon’ buildings. But other areas where architecture has barely started to fulfil its wider ecological potential are also apparent. The master-planning of towns and cities represents a shift in scale of influence and is extending rapidly as whole new towns are planned and designed in China and elsewhere. Even in the north of Scotland we have proposals such as Tornagrain to accommodate 10,000 people. Such projects are easily large enough to be linked to food production and energy systems supplying a good part of their own needs. A thorough integration of energy, water and waste systems with growing systems is the next creative step and there is much to be learned from a number of small scale eco-village initiatives including Findhorn on the Moray coast.

A further role for architects in wider ‘biosphere design’ is through material specification decisions. The straightforward cause and effect this has on world resources has always and will remain of great significance. Larger or more influential architectural practices along with Local Authority procurement departments have a crucial role in respect of ensuring ecologically responsible sourcing. Setting an example at a higher level still, Central Government can also take matters into it’s own hands as in the brave and unequivocal policy recently enacted by the Norwegian Government which has banned the use of all Tropical timber in publicly funded projects.

Indeed governments across Europe and Scandinavia are at the forefront of emerging co-operative biosphere management and the beginnings of an appreciation of the need for a bigger scale of resource planning is clearly evident in emerging Scottish resource strategies that place ‘Climate Change’ at their core. Ironically in some respects, it could be said that the potential catastrophe of climate change is now driving the emerging field of ecosystem management faster than it would otherwise have evolved. The Scottish Climate Change Programme (SCCP) has formed the background to a clutch of land use and energy strategies and policies over the last two to three years including those for agriculture (7) biodiversity(8), forestry(9), biomass energy(10), deer(11) and building standards(12).

Each of them has called for policy integration of a higher and more considered level than before and several have explicitly identified a ‘landscape’ or ‘ecosystem based’ approach to resource management. The recent (Scottish Government multi-agency) draft deer strategy backs them both : “Responses to climate change are also likely to lead to more focus on ecosystem and landscape scale management of natural resources” (11). This is a new and encouraging language but what does it really mean ?

Advanced erosion of peat to reveal 4000 year old Scots pine roots can be seen throughout the Highlands from Tongue to Perth. Ironically such erosion reveals the glacial substrates that supported the first forest after the last Ice Age and which could once again support a future forest. A slight drying of the Highland climate could accelerate this process.

Reforestation as a Paradigm

Despite the much-voiced need for integration of policy to achieve ambitious goals, it has often failed to recognize the relationship between the various problems of past and present land use. It might be said that it has failed to answer that fundamental question : “What has gone wrong here ?” or at least failed to answer it from the informed ecological perspective of 4000 years of Scottish (indeed British) deforestation. It is therefore not surprising that it has failed to identify the glaring synergy that exists between the recent climate change policy and a large number of objectives scattered throughout (and beyond) the list of strategies above.

To spell this out, the thread that links all of these – providing that elusive integration of their multiple objectives – lies in the most obvious of positive responses to our history of deforestation “ that is a substantial reforestation of Scotland. This is not a new idea and has been ‘in the air’ in Scotland for some 25 years. Its’ roots can be traced back to Fraser Darling and on through Scottish ecological texts of the mid 20th century. But what may be called the ˜reforestation movement’ in Scotland is reasonably clearly defined by the formation of such grass roots initiatives as the Loch Garry Tree Group, Native Woods Campaign, Trees for Life and Reforesting Scotland all between 1986 and 1989.

It is interesting to note how the timing and steady consolidation of this movement corresponds rather precisely to the beginnings of an identifiable renewed interest in the use of Scottish timber in construction and it is no coincidence that key early members of Reforesting Scotland include Neil Sutherland and Howard Liddell (Gaia Architects) who are today at the forefront of ˜ecologically informed’ timber architecture in Scotland. And I preface timber with ˜ecologically informed” to differentiate a strand that displays an understanding of the (often drastically) different consequences of using timber from Scotland and Scandinavia say than from Russia and Canada. The majority of Neil Sutherland’s Highland houses utilize larch cladding and Douglas fir framing, sourced and milled within the region. Additionally, many of them incorporate floors and fittings with home grown hardwood. The Glencoe visitor centre by Gaia Architects took the same principles onto a slightly bigger scale, notably into ceilings lined with home-grown birch.

Returning though to Government initiatives, the notion of a reasonably large scale ongoing reforestation programme is quite explicit in the vision statement of the Scottish Forestry Strategy (SFS) but is also implicit in emerging biomass energy and carbon sequestration strategies. While the grass roots reforestation movement has paved the way for what may be called the social forestry aspects, the type and functioning of the State version of a future Scottish forest may be rather different from the ambitions of the now dozens of non-governmental and community based woodland groups in Scotland. Leaving this difference aside for the moment, the SFS suggests that Scotland should move from its current 17% forest cover to 25% by mid century, an increase in forest area equivalent to the size of the whole of Aberdeenshire, yet still leaving us well short of the average European forest cover of 36%.

Little or no flesh has been added to the concept of an ‘ecosystem approach’ in Scottish Government documents and perhaps the next stage could be to sharpen focus a little with language that helps to locate the subject in the realm of strategic level planning. I would offer ‘Strategic ecological master-planning’ as a possible label which strikes a chord with current approaches to integration of architecture and planning “albeit almost entirely in an urban context. The single overarching goal of reforestation has the potential to provide both a unifying objective and the scientific basis for this master-planning and would also have a strongly inspirational or motivational quality to many people.

Reforestation provides a large scale and coherent concept capable of delivering the Government’s promise of ‘ecosystem management’. It signifies the primacy of a proactive, design-led approach “as opposed to the customary, largely reactive ˜managing what we have” approach. Essentially the task would be to reconcile the anticipated demands on the natural resources of Scotland with a genuine ecological remit to restore soil fertility, biological productivity and biodiversity at the nation level, and meet GHG and other targets at the global level. Reforestation has the potential to lead to this reconciliation – the pre-requisite of sustainable economic activity.


One response to Peak Oil and the generally increasing costs of many material resources including their transportation is a move towards greater regional self-sufficiency and we are already seeing this in relation to energy. The Scottish Forestry Strategy signifies the start in terms of a regional prescription for cellulose production that will ensure the supplies we need this century and beyond. The limited resource availability is already becoming apparent as we move towards biomass energy generation and we can see an unhappy picture developing where demand for this use may increasingly compete with demand for construction material. Current very limited supplies of home-grown hardwoods and the higher quality and more durable softwoods already effectively limit building specifications but equally promote imports of foreign timber and timber products, a proportion of which come from ecologically and sometimes socially unsustainable sources.

Our response to an analysis of future demand should prescribe the establishment of extensive new areas of (1) a variety of hardwoods “especially those with framing, flooring and cladding potential such as oak, ash, beech (2) short rotation woody crops for energy biomass (3) medium and long term broadleaved coppice for energy biomass on more fragile soils and for a variety of specialist timber products (4) the dismissively labelled ˜minority conifers”, ideal for external cladding as well as visible structural elements such as Larches and Douglas fir.

Our parallel objective of restoring soils, biological productivity and biodiversity will shape the establishment and subsequent forest management regimes along with the integration with other primary land use types. Of these, agriculture will be the most important along with a horticultural economy which could greatly expand in response to improved drainage, soils, fertilization effects and shelter of major increases in surrounding woodland. The drastic reduction of deer numbers which will be an essential part, indeed pre-requisite, for forest establishment and for natural regeneration systems, will generally promote major expansion of forest food and other non-timber woodland produce systems – so many of which are currently out of the question without expensive deer protection measures. The opportunity cost of half a million stomachs grazing the land down to its bare bones in many places is yet to be fully appreciated.

Subjecting Scottish forestry to the same carbon budgeting analysis that we are now introducing for construction and other sectors of the economy will throw up some uncomfortable truths concerning the plantation systems we have worked hard to establish for over half a century. This ‘cradle to grave’ critique or analysis would take proper account of the energy expenditure and emissions all the way from growing trees in nurseries, transporting them to site, mechanical ground preparation, to planting and fencing them. In a world of much higher energy costs and rigorous controls on carbon dioxide emissions, plantation systems of forestry will compare increasingly unfavourably with – and indeed may become completely uneconomic compared to – systems based on the more biologically and economically efficient processes of natural regeneration that our European and Scandinavian neighbours primarily enjoy.


Timber could become Scotland’s greatest construction resource as well as a major energy resource by the end of this century, if we choose. We have the physical space and the climate. In the drive for greater self sufficiency in all resources including building materials, this is a very plausible objective. Rising energy costs along with carbon policy backed by legislation may strongly endorse this strategy and promote more ambitious forest establishment rates than the SFS has suggested.

In this scenario, we currently stand at a threshold with regard to our land management systems and the landscape which they shape. A laissez-fair attitude at this time will, at best, waste an opportunity for improvements that could increase productivity across a broad front and establish sustainable long term production systems of increasing rather than declining biodiversity and fertility. At the worst, it will signal a major further decline in ecosystem qualities, a long lasting deterioration of landscape and a deepening of the separation of Scottish systems from those of our neighbours.

Adopting reforestation as the central theme of a considered integration of ecological restoration and resource management will do more than help to secure the resources of the future. It would help avert that possible decline as well as take critical pressure off threatened forests in other parts of the world (including the Siberian Taiga). Working with the ecological principles of Bio-regionalism involves understanding and respect for the climax communities(3) of that region which provide a basis for the design and management of production systems “agricultural, horticultural or forest based. Evidently, some crops and their management systems will represent major departures from the climax but elements of it should always be present. Forestry provides ready opportunities for relatively simple adaptations of natural systems where the climax is forest – as it is over most of Scotland. Forestry in what may be called the Boreal bio-region of Scotland (the larger part of the Highlands), for instance, would most logically be based around the native Scots pine. It is not difficult to see how such an approach to resource management tends towards “an authenticity of landscape“ a relative trueness to nature and place. It follows that a building culture deriving its primary materials from such a bio-regionally organized landscape would reflect at least some local characteristics that essentially derive from vegetation, soil and climate.

As builders, architects, engineers, landscape architects, the timber we specify and choose “its species, quantity and even its quality” whether in constructions or their energy systems, has a direct impact on the forests that are planted and harvested around the world. If we only design timber frames and energy systems that require low quality softwood, we should not be surprised if the forests of the world are converted to produce predominantly this material. At a national level in Scotland we are perilously close to this situation already. Only a strategic master-planning approach of the type envisaged is likely to alter this course. In the scenario of a major expansion of demand for home-grown timber, in the construction and energy specification of buildings, it will be essential that these be linked in a reciprocal design process with the forest types that we require to meet the longer term and wider ecological objectives. To put one aspect simply, if we want a diverse forest, we must specify a diversity of timber types in our buildings. We specify the timber and we specify the forest “ together.

In a visitor facility I have been helping Chris Morgan of Locate Architects design for Forestry Commission Scotland, we are taking this approach quite literally. The building has large internally expressed post and beam portal frames from Douglas fir while the hidden framing is Sitka spruce and Scots pine. The cladding and decking structure and boarding is larch. The flooring and ceiling is to be in a random mixture of hardwoods. We are hoping the mixture will include rowan, birch, ash, oak and sycamore amongst others. This spectrum of timber species will reflect the client’s policies for a diverse Scottish forest and illustrate ways in which such a diversity can be easily specified by designers where the will exists, promoting the establishment and management of these species.


The complexity of future global resource management implies that design and specification by architects and other design professionals must rise to meet new degrees of sophistication in ecological understanding. Designers in Scotland should be encouraged to feed into the process of ‘Designing a Future Forest’ and strategic ecological master-planning at a bio-regional level. This will bring the necessary deeper understanding and consistency to decision making behind the material specification and energy design of buildings. It implies a new and creative coalition of designers of the built environment with strategic planners and managers of natural resources that will potentially lift architecture in its broadest application to a central place in the avant-garde of cultural progress.

The current emphasis within building standards on reducing carbon emissions in energy systems and the strategy for a low carbon future which the building industry is straining to implement is but only a stage along the path to building and inhabiting the planet sustainably. The second major plank in reducing GHG emissions through the use of low embodied materials will grow rapidly in relative importance as very low carbon energy systems are reached. Timber is a growing part of low embodied energy specifications in Scotland but a limited forest resource is already constraining growth.

Good place making, good design must involve an understanding of place at many levels : in Kenneth Frampton’s words : “the peculiarities of a particular space”. It is important to an architecture of sensitivity and perhaps ultimately to a meaningful individuality that we understand a place ecologically as much as socio-politically. An appropriate modern response to such layer upon layer of complexity will need to be found in a new and similarly complex relationship between nature and culture in their broadest senses. A part of this new relationship we are seeking finds expression in the concepts of biosphere design which, at the risk of enormous hubris, challenge an alternative of lazy and irresponsible regard for Human actions across the planet.

In Scotland, due to a long and largely unacknowledged history of deforestation, understanding even of ecological basics – the ‘way things are’ – is generally as limited as understanding of the biological potential of the country – ‘the way things could be’. A misunderstanding of the fundamental ecology of place will be a poor and ultimately hollow basis for its development whether in material or spiritual terms.

Bernard Planterose is an ecologist working in the field of timber design and construction. He was founder Director of the national charity Reforesting Scotland. He ran a native tree nursery and planting business in Sutherland for 10 years and now operates his timber building operation from a softwood plantation near Ullapool.
This essay originally appeared in the publication accompanying the Building Biographies exhibition, curated by Oliver Lowenstein and The Lighthouse, Glasgow 2008/9

Footnotes & references

(1) Sir Frank Fraser Darling : pioneering ecologist and author of many books on land use and Scottish ecology including the West Highland Survey (1955) in which he first coined the term ‘wet desert’ to describe the state of much of the Highlands. The report on which he based this work was allegedly suppressed by his employer, the Department of Agriculture, and ensured that he would never hold a further government position.

(2) Steven H and Carlisle A : The Native Pinewoods of Scotland (1959)

(3) Climax community is an ecological term to describe the supposed natural group of organisms that would inhabit a particular place at a particular time if allowed to evolve ˜naturally”. The term underlines the difficulty of accounting for Human influence and, indeed in defining the whole relationship between our species and all others.

(4) The term, Bio-regional in ecological science, refers to geographical zones of similar climax communities. Scotland is sometimes divided into two principal bio-regions. The southern or lowland part of the country where high broadleaf forest is the predominant climax may be referred to as Northern Temperate : the northern part of the country where Scots pine and birch form the predominant climax as part of the Boreal bio-region (extending across most of northern Scandinavia). An Atlantic (west coast) zone may be considered as a subset of both where high winds and rainfall restrict tree growth and limit species.

(5) Rudimentary or early initiatives would include CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and, more recently, the proliferation of timber certification schemes including FSC and PEFC which represent international collaboration in ecosystem management.

(6) Cultural sustainability – an interview with Kenneth Frampton. I.H. Almaas & E.B. Malmqist

(7) A Forward Strategy for Scottish Agriculture: Next Steps – The Scottish Government, March 2006

(8) Scotland’s Biodiversity: It’s in Your Hands. Scottish Executive, 2004

(9) The Scottish Forestry Strategy. Forestry Commission Scotland, 2006

(10) Biomass Action Plan for Scotland. The Scottish Government, 2007

(11) Strategy for Wild Deer in Scotland : consultation draft, 2007. Deer Commission for Scotland

(12) A Low Carbon Building Standards Strategy for Scotland. Scottish Building Standards Agency, 2007

Bernard Planterose © August 2008


  1. Austrian (Vorarlberg) landscape : (Photo by author) : Caption : an intensively managed land use system with a close integration of forestry and building culture based on native tree species and meeting multiple objectives including construction, fuelwood, slope protection and field drainage.


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