6 things you didn’t know about Scots pine

The Scots Pine is a large cone-bearing tree which is the National Tree of Scotland. Its botanical name is Pinus sylvestris which translates as “pine of the woods”. It also has a synonym, P. rubra – which means red pine.

As a tree, it’s not one that’s suitable for most gardens – unless you have a large estate with a couple of acres of land to spare – as it can reach a height of 25m (82ft) and a spread of 10m (32ft). However, in the right position it can be planted to provide a shelter belt, or grown commercially for timber and other products.

Scots pine is easy to grow in cool temperate conditions. The optimum pH is 5.5, but it’s not fussy about this and will even tolerate very alkaline or very acid soil, nor does it mind nutritionally poor soil if it’s well drained, but it doesn’t like heavy clay soil. It will grow on soil over chalk or limestone, but this does shorten its life. Once established, drought isn’t a problem, and neither are atmospheric pollution or maritime exposure. Like most trees, it prefers full sun or semi-shade.

When young, Scots pine is sometimes confused – even by nurserymen – with Lodgepole Pine, which is native to North America. Superficially very similar, it’s easy to tell them apart by checking the needles. Lodgepole has twisted needles, which explains the botanical name, P. contorta.

Mature Scots pine forests are attractive to wildlife, in particular the red squirrel, and likely to have a natural under-storey of holly, oak and hazel. The tree grows well in mixed woodland alongside larch, oak, Norway spruce and birch.

Despite the common name, it’s not just indigenous to Scotland but is native to a whole swathe of places in Northern Europe, Eastern Asia and beyond (see table below). It’s also cultivated for its timber as well as various other products.

In common with many conifers, rain dripping from the needles, particularly in warm weather, contains a terpene which inhibits germination of many other plants. Apart from terpenes, other extracts are produced commercially. Resin, extracted by tapping, is distilled to provide turpentine, a solvent, and rosin, used by violinists and also to make varnish and related products.

Scots pine is grown commercially for timber, which can safely be stored outside for up to 20 years without risk of deterioration. Both needles and cones are used to make natural dyes: tan or green from the needles, and reddish yellow from the cones.

Essential oil is distilled from the needles or the seeds for medicinal use, mainly as an inhalant for respiratory conditions. Pollen is collected and sold as a remedy for men. Young needles and shoots are used by herbalists to treat chest conditions, rheumatism and arthritis.

Along with all its other uses, Scots pine has been used as a famine food; the inner bark can be ground and used for making bread or mixed with oatmeal. A vanilla substitute can also be produced from the resin.

Burns Night

Robert BurnsBurns Night is celebrated every year on January 25th in Scotland, and all over the world by those of Scottish descent and admirers of Robert Burns (often called “Robbie” or “Rabbie” Burns). It commemorates his birthday in 1759.

Burns Night celebrations generally take the form of a Burns Supper at which the traditional menu always includes a Haggis (though even this is omitted by some). A piper or a recording of Scottish music opens the feast and accompanies the delivery of the haggis to the table.

The guests are usually expected to contribute a recitation of the poet’s work or one of his songs (although some or all of these may be performed by professionals). A great deal of Scotch whisky is often a prominent part of the celebration, so these performances may become quite rowdy, with the other guests joining in or contributing pithy remarks.

The party is kept under control by a Chairman, whose duty is to welcome the guests and to keep order. There is also a Speaker, who proposes the Toast to the Haggis.

Some traditional dishes which you might expect to find at a Burns Supper are:

Cock-a-leekie soup
Haggis with neeps ‘n tatties
Clootie dumpling, Typsy Laird, Cranachan or Selkirk Bannock


This is a traditional Scottish dish, originally made from a sheep’s stomach stuffed with a mixture of oatmeal, lamb’s liver, suet and onion. Nowadays, supermarkets sell their own products – many of which are derived from pigmeat products rather than sheep. However, if you want a haggis worthy of the name, many Scots say that the only one worth eating is the one produced by MacSween of Edinburgh.

Vegetarians can buy or make a vegetarian haggis also available from MacSweens, whose product is approved by the Vegetarian Society, and those who eat fish can elect for a seafood soup such as Cullen Skink.

Neeps ‘n tatties

Tatties are what we call potatoes up here, and neeps are not turnips, as you might expect, but swede (also known as rutabaga or Swedish turnip). To make neeps ‘n tatties you need about twice as much swede as potato. Peel them, cut them up (the potato should be cut larger than the swede, as the swede usually takes a lot longer to cook) and boil in salted water until soft enough to mash, then mash together, adding nutmeg, salt, pepper and butter. Garnish with parsley if liked.

Robert Burns

Robbie Burns was born into a poor tenant farmer’s family on January 25th 1759, in the village of Alloway, near Ayr, where his former home still stands. It is now maintained as a museum to his life and work.

The young Robert was an avid reader and received a good education. As he grew up he worked on farms and developed a passion for women, drink, poetry and nature as anyone familiar with his poems can probably work out for themselves.

When he was 26 Burns met Jean Armour who was to become his most well known female companion. They originally planned to elope to Jamaica until Burns’ success overcame her father’s objections to their relationship.

It was his growing fame that led Robert to move to Edinburgh, and his poetic language started to become more of a mixture of English and Scots (although he is known to have had mixed feelings about the people he was mixing with in the Capital).

Surprisingly, some of his most popular works were not written until later, when he returned to farming near Dumfries in 1788. These include Tam O’Shanter (after which many pubs are named) and the immortal songs My Luve Is Like A Red Red Rose and Auld Lang Syne.

Burns’ popularity is partly due to his radical thinking, well expressed in A Man’s a Man For A’ That. The belief in equality and liberty expressed in this piece was not unique to him, but reflected ideas which were influencing the whole of the Western world at the time (leading up to and following the French and American Revolutions). However, this does not negate his position in Scotland as the champion of the underdog. It might even be said that much of the Scottish character of today can be attributed to his influence.

Burns became an Excise Officer in 1789, which was a great surprise to his drinking buddies, to say the least. The decision was taken so as to provide a reliable means of support for his wife and children, although the irony of the situation is reflected in his poem The De’il’s awa wi’ the Exciseman.

Robert Burns' cottage in Alloway

There are many museums and places of interest associated with Burns, mainly in Scotland and in particular in Ayrshire, including the Heritage Centre near Ayr, Burns’ cottage in Alloway and Souter Johnnie’s cottage in the village of Kirkoswald.

This Burns interactive is well worth a visit.

St Andrew’s Day

St Andrew

St Andrew’s Day falls on 30th November each year, and is the National Day of Scotland, although it is not currently a public holiday (in common with the days relating to the patron saints of the other nations which form the United Kingdom). In recent years, there have been calls for the day to be made a public holiday, but as yet these have not been successful. After Independence, this may well change!

St Andrew was one of the 12 Apostles and the elder brother of St Peter. According to tradition, he was a Jew born in Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee although, if so, it seems strange that he should have been given the name Andreas. However, there are no records of an alternative Hebrew or Aramaic name for him.

Andrew was the first disciple of Jesus Christ, having formerly been a disciple of John The Baptist. He is recorded as being present at many of the more important occasions related in the Gospels. He and his brother were fishermen and lived at Capernaum.

After the execution of Jesus, Andrew is believed to have gone either to the Black Sea or Greece (possibly both). There are strong reasons to associate him with Constantinople and Patras, in what is now Southern Greece and that his activities angered the Romans leading to his crucifixion at Patras for his activities and beliefs.

There is an old saying that “Wherever lilies of the valley grow wild, the parish church is always dedicated to St Andrew,” though why (or even if) this should be so is beyond me.

The Scottish Saltire

St Andrew’s association with Scotland goes back many years although there are many conflicting accounts. He is believed to have been adopted as Patron Saint about the middle of the 10th century. The saltire, the type of cross on which he is said to have been crucified, has been the flag of Scotland for centuries. It is also the flag of Tenerife and the naval Jack of Russia. The Saltire is included in the Union Flag of Great Britain as a result of the Act of Union in 1707, and the American Confederate flag contained a Saltire.

Three hundred years following his death Andrew’s bones were apparently taken to Constantinople from their burial place at Patras, under the orders of the Emperor Constantine. The bones fell into the hands of a monk now known as St Regulus who had a dream in which an angel told him to take the bones to the “ends of the earth” so as to protect them.

Scotland (to the Greeks and Romans at the time) was just about the “end of the earth” so, according to legend, St Regulus arranged for them to be transported to Scotland or possibly brought them himself by sea. Some accounts then say he was shipwrecked off the Fife Coast at what is now the town of St Andrews, more famous for golf nowadays.

Over the years since, more and more relics of St Andrew have found their way to Scotland, and they are now housed in various locations. As recently as 1969, on a visit to Scotland, Pope Paul VI gave further relics to the Scottish Catholic Church.

St Andrew’s Day itself is a fairly low key celebration in Scotland, so low key, in fact, that you might not even notice it. At the moment, it is definitely not as heavily promoted as the national days in Wales, Ireland and parts of England. In some places in Scotland you would probably come to the conclusion that St Patrick’s Day is of more importance! This could be because St Andrew’s Day is too close to Christmas, or because of the huge popularity of Burns Night or Hogmanay – or could it just be apathy? Toiling under the yoke of the United Kingdom does not leave much room for celebration, in many Scots’ opinion.

Of course in Scottish churches, many of which are named after St Andrew, there are special services to celebrate him and his links with the country. St Andrew is celebrated by all Christian denominations, and globally in both Western and Eastern Orthodox churches. This reflects the fact that St Andrew is not just associated with Scotland. He is also a Patron Saint in Greece, Romania, Russia, Amalfi in Italy, Luqa (Malta) and Prussia.

Wherever Scots are found around the world you will find societies dedicated to St Andrew. These societies are focal points for Scots to meet, not just (or even mainly) to commemorate his life but to socialise and share memories of their homeland and heritage.

The Battle of Bannockburn

The Scottish Independence Referendum was held in the same year as the 700th Anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. Unfortunately, the people of Scotland failed to win the victory we deserved.

Cairn at the site of the Battle of Bannockburn
Cairn at the site of the Battle of Bannockburn

The Battle of Bannockburn (Blàr Allt a’ Bhonnaich in Gaelic) took place on 24 June 1314. It was the battle which effectively ended the First Scottish War of Independence in Scotland’s favor, although the English throne did not finally ratify Scotland’s independence until 1328 in the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton.

The war started with the invasion of Scotland by the English in 1296. The king of Scotland, John Balliol abdicated his throne to the English in July 1296, but in 1297 Andrew de Moray and William Wallace led revolts, attacking and overcoming many English castles in what is now Aberdeenshire and Highland. By September 1297, de Moray and Wallace were in joint command of the Scottish forces, leading them in battle against the Earl of Surrey at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Andrew de Moray was killed at Stirling, although it was otherwise a decisive victory for the Scots.

The following year, Wallace led the Scottish forces against the English (led by Edward I) at the Battle of Falkirk where the English won, as a result of which Wallace resigned his position as Guardian of the Kingdom of Scotland. The English, however, failed to consolidate their position, and no further significant battles took place until 1304 when they laid siege to Stirling Castle for some three months before it finally fell. The English believed that this left Scotland undefended, and their confidence increased after the capture and execution of William Wallace in 1305.

However, Robert the Bruce, heir to the Scottish throne was crowned King Robert I of Scotland at Scone Abbey on 25 March 1306 and in June he rode to Perth where he intended to take to the field against the Earl of Pembroke. When the Earl refused to engage with him, he withdrew to camp with his army at Methven, where the English ambushed them as they slept, achieving a significant victory.

Having switched tactics and had a first small victory at Glen Trool in April, 1307, Bruce got his own back on the Earl of Pembridge at the Battle of Loudoun Hill in May of that year. By digging parallel ditches between a bog and the highway down which the English must approach, constricting their front flank, his smaller army was able to cut them down as they filtered down the highway towards them.

Edward Longshanks, the English king, died in early July 1307, succeeded by his son, Edward II. From this point on, though he continued the war in Scotland, successes mostly fell to Robert the Bruce, culminating in the Battle of Bannockburn when Scotland won its independence. King Robert held Edward II in such low esteem that he was reported to say that he feared the dead king’s bones more than his living heir. As his father had instructed Edward II to boil his bones and carry them with the army in Scotland, it seems he may have missed a trick by disobeying and burying his father in Westminster Abbey!

In an attempt to defend Stirling Castle on 23 June 1314, an army of 20,000 foot and 3,000 horse was led by Edward II at Bannockburn against the much smaller force of Robert the Bruce. Sir Philip de Mowbray, who commanded the castle, had threatened to surrender to the Scots if the king and his forces had not arrived by the 24th.

Knowing that Edward must come to defend his castle, Robert the Bruce laid a trap. He instructed his soldiers to dig potholes in the road and cover them with bracken to break any cavalry charge, placed his army in concealment on either side of the road and laid in wait. Edward’s army had been called late and was ill-prepared, undisciplined and lacking in confidence due to the continual losses of the previous 7 years. Their faith in their leader was almost certainly also affected by rumours about his sexuality. He was known to have at least two male favorites who could ask anything of him, and this wasn’t a confidence booster in the 14th century.

Even though he received a direct warning from his commander that he should not advance but wait for the battle to come to him, since he had little or no control over his forces Edward was not able to act on this advice. The Earls of Gloucester and Hereford were already charging to battle, meeting the Scots at the entrance to New Park.

The Earl of Hereford’s nephew Henry de Bohun was ahead of the field, and catching sight of King Robert unarmored and seemingly alone and unprotected, decided to charge him with a lance. Robert the Bruce stood his ground until the last moment, then stepped aside, cleaving Henry’s head almost in two with his battle axe. The Scots piled in and forced a retreat, but King Robert did not allow them to continue their pursuit.

Meanwhile, another part of the English army tried to reach Stirling by going around the Scottish army to the east, but were easily warded off by spearmen, since they had no archers to provide cover. The English squadron broke ranks and fled either towards the castle or back to the main body of men.

The following day, Edward ordered his troops to cross the Bannockburn. The Scots advanced towards them, stopping first to pray. When Edward saw this, he was surprised and said, “They pray for mercy!” But his attendant said, “For mercy, yes. But from God, not you. These men will conquer or die!”

As the English army drove forward the Scots fought with them closely, making it impossible for the bowmen on the English side to get a clear shot. When they moved to one side in an attempt to make their presence felt, they were dispersed by the Scottish cavalry and as they fled, first the English infantry and then the knights were spooked and also started to run away.

Seeing this, the Scots cried out “Lay on! Lay on! Lay on! They fail!” The Scottish camp followers took up banners and weapons and joined the fight, so that the remaining English still fighting thought that reinforcements had arrived and gave up, running headlong to get across the Bannockburn, most drowning in the attempt.

The Battle of Bannockburn is considered to be the worst defeat for the English since the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

The picture on this page shows a cairn at the site of the Battle of Bannockburn. The inscription on it reads:

For God and St Andrew Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, planted his Standard near this spot when the Scottish Patriots under his command vanquished the Army of Edward II of England at the Battle of Bannockburn, 24th June 1314.

We fight not for glory, nor for wealth, nor honour but only and alone we fight for freedom, which no good man surrenders but with his life.


The Herald, 5 June 2014: Items dropped by English reveal site of Bannockburn battlefield