Picture a broad expanse of moorland in the Southern Uplands. There’s turning grass and the shadows of clouds across the open hill. And there’s a single tree in the middle distance; it stands like a range marker and gives scale to the blue, burling horizon.
These isolated trees are often pines; homespun grannies with their limbs curled in red knots against the riding sky. Each one is a work of art, carefully kneaded into shape by the wind and the weight of winter snow. Sometimes you’re lucky to find a dozen pines in some abandoned spinney, ringed around their roots with a rumble-down dyke. Stand back five miles and they blur to a shimmering smear. Climb in amongst the trunks and listen to the hiss of a breeze in the needles.
Trees like these have stood their ground for centuries. They belong to a different age, and now they’re a lost generation; the last of their kind. They turn out seed every year, then watch their offspring vanish as grazing for cattle and sheep. And this pattern has come to define them until the hills are flagged only by age and antiquity. There are no reinforcements; no youngsters to replace them, so they wait for the wind that will cast them down and leave no trace of their passing.
I could take you to a hundred such pines in this part of Galloway. Ravens hop along their boughs, and streaks of white shit are sprayed into the crumbling bark. But there are ash trees too, standing far out in teeth of the wind. Sometimes there’s an oak which bends in the gale, and her burrs swell in the boles like a bulge of meat. These are nesting places for buzzards and kites; something for the wind to rake and baffle. The ash trees are just as childless as the pines, and they approach old age with nothing more to show for their lives but heft and stature.
It’s not unusual to find a gathering of ash trees clustered up a cleugh or huddled around the lee of a fallen fank. As the years go by, these old-timers begin to fall apart. Trunks shatter and heavy limbs come away like fruit. I go to chop them up as firewood and find the logs are hollow and black inside like a chimney. This seems to be a fault with ash, which often dies from inside out. The first sign of illness is death, but the outer rings are still good and they burn with heat and patience.
And now I find that these trees face a new challenge; “chalara die-back”, a fungal disease which blows in the wind and strips away the last few ash survivors. I’ve seen twigs hanging emptily in the sunshine this summer; shrivelled stems and the weepy streaks of black lesions which has confirmed the diagnosis. Many of these old trees will soon be hastened towards their death, and how will the hill go without them?
You could look upon an empty land old trees and call it an aberration; a sign of something sorely wrong. People ask how it is that we allowed this to happen? How did the hills become a retirement home for lost and forgotten frailties? But I’m drawn to the fact that these trees are most often found around ruined yards and the remains of rubbly houses. They tell tales of care and a bond with humanity; ash casts a long shadow in folklore and legend. Old folk said the sap would cure your ills; hang an ash cross in the bedroom and be sure of safety. Even in practical terms, ash is a handy tree to have around the farm; the wood was treasured for tool handles and cart shafts. And in older days, ash was grown for poles which could become spears in times of chaos. For all these reasons and so many more, it made sense to keep ash close to home.
But then came days of change. Small farms were blurred into larger holdings and the people were sent away. The farmers packed their trunks and left their homes. It wasn’t long before the glass in the windows had broken. Leaks sprang in the roof and the rafters were rotten. The slates were down in a decade or two, and then the walltops began to sag. Lintels fall in fifty years, and nettles crept through the porch and into the socket where the range once stood.
And soon even the trees are falling down around this place which once was human. There’s nobody there to care and tend to the ash trees which turned the wind and bound the cart to the horse. And there’s no cause to replace the tumbled trunks because who needs a spear or a hay rake these days? What call for medicine and symbols of good fortune? If there are seeds lying unborn in the ground, they’d do well to stay hidden; sheep hunt for new saplings, and they do not leave much in their wake.
The loss of these old trees seems to speak of full finality; the delayed arrival of an end which has been in the post for decades. And if that’s true, then it chimes with so many other ghosts which hang in these hills. The old ways are dead, and now we wonder what comes next.