Mapping The Great Caledonian Forest

I love exploring the outdoors. The problem for me is avoiding temptation to just go a wee bit further, just off the track a wee bit, just to see what’s there. Before I know it I’m far off course and checking my map to see where I was meant to be going.

Research is like that too. In writing my book I’ve explored a lot of areas in written history and discovered some incredible stories that are pretty far away from the route I was supposed to be exploring. 

One of these stories is about the Great Caledonian Forest.

Prior to descending into this particular research rabbit hole, there were two things that I believed about the Great Caledonian Forest:

  1. It was all Scots Pines. Those great looming giants in the forest. The unmistakeably wonderful smell and the carpet of fallen needles beneath your feet on the forest floor making crunchy noises as you walk over them.
  2. The forest was so big and dense, the Caledonians and Picts evaded their enemies The Romans, by just melting into the trees.

However, according to carbon dating and fossil records, at the peak size of the Great Caledonian Forest the Scots Pine only made up a small portion of the trees in the forest. Oak, Elder, Ash and Elm outnumbered it greatly.

In fact, Scots Pine only really starts to get established in Scotland around 9,600 years ago.

And as for the Romans…well, if you look at the areas where the Romans were in Scotland and you compare that to the map of the forest, it seems hard to believe it posed that much of a problem.

At the time Tacitus was writing about Scotland they were having a terrible time trying to subdue the people of Germania. The pine forests of Germania were a well-known issue for the Romans, so it would’ve seemed a fairly reasonable excuse for the Romans back home, if Scotland had the same dense pine forests and that was the reason no-one could get a foothold. 

The Romans did like to embellish the truth somewhat.

Another thing I learned about the forest was how big it was and when I found out it blew my mind. 6,000 years ago it nearly covered the whole north of Scotland. I’ve drawn a rough green outline of it here, on a modern map to show it’s footprint.

Is your house in the forest?)

If your house was in the forest you would’ve shared your garden with a huge variety of species including wolves, Lynx, beavers, squirrels, deer and wild boar.

Red squirrel

By 1950 the forest had been reduced to just 1% of its original size.

There is an on-going effort to re-establish and regenerate this amazing piece of our cultural and living heritage.  The replanting programme has, prior to Covid-19, been running at 4,500 hectares of new trees planted every year, a number which has gotten bigger since the Scottish Government have pushed it a bit more.

The aim over the next 200 years is to increase tree cover in Scotland by 640,000 hectares, bringing it up to 2million hectares.

That would mean around a quarter of Scotland would be covered in trees by the end of this century.  The forests already generate over 30,000 forestry jobs, and the economic benefits of increased tourism would be immense.

But the largest benefit, would be biodiversity.

So maybe we’ll get our wolves back one day.

And its ok if not ALL the trees are Scots Pines.

Curious minds can find out more from 

Eileen Budd is a writer and illustrator currently working on an ancient Scottish saga.  A far more detailed map of the forest will make its way into the book, so tree fans can look forward to that. You can find her on instagram: @eileenbudd

All photos and illustrations by the author.