The rich history of West Lothian’s trees was a pleasant surprise to our writer, a native of the Scottish county. 

DURING the second lockdown and for almost every weekend of it, my eldest daughter, Louise, and I decided we would work our way through the 40 ‘favourite walks’ contained in a book about our county of West Lothian. In doing so, we discovered so much about the history of the place where we stay, but we also came across so many interesting, historic and wonderful trees and woodlands that I did not quite realise were literally on my doorstep.

West Lothian has over 6,000 hectares of woodland, most of which is coniferous in origin.

There is, though, around 300 ha of ancient and semi-natural woodland (ASNW). Most of this ASNW is to be found in three areas around water sources: the Linhouse and Murieston waters and close to the rivers Almond and Avon. West Lothian has three main country parks – Beecraigs, Polkemmet, and Almondell and Calderwood – each of which offers wonderful woodland areas and a number of different walks through them.

Forestry Journal: The author pictured with the book that inspired these walks of discovery.The author pictured with the book that inspired these walks of discovery.

Almondell and Calderwood Country Park was created by combining two adjoining estates and has a mixture of trees, some ancient and some more recent. The champion tree for the county, a white poplar, is to be found in this park on the riverbank close to the visitor centre. While at Calderwood, on a plateau above the Linhouse and Murieston waters, you have amazing unspoilt natural woodland. Here oak, hazel, ash, beech and birch are to be found growing side by side.

Calderwood was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1988. Before its management was taken over by the local council, it formed part of the estate of the Sandilands family. One of the walks, in the book called The Calderwood Birch Trail, allows you to explore what it claims is the largest area of ancient woodland in the county. 

With such wonderful woodlands comes a real mixture of flora and fauna as well as wildlife, with deer, bats, badgers, foxes and other animals resident. Some of the trees, perhaps not unexpectedly being part of a local estate, were grown for a purpose. In the 16th century some were coppiced to provide charcoal. Mighty oaks were grown during some periods of the history of the woods for use in shipbuilding. Some just offer a wonderful sight, especially some giant gnarly old beech trees that are to be found in this wood.

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Other amazing specimens of beech trees are to be found in the Linhouse Glen Nature Reserve, which joins up with the Calderwood Country Park. This reserve affords walkers the chance to discover the Linn Jaws Falls, which have been created as a result of the Linhouse water passing through a narrow gorge before dropping down to continue on its way.

Trees once more line the top of the gorge and the route of the water. En route to that you pass the grounds of Linnhous, an old 16th century and now privately owned manor house, which has some wonderful mixed tree plantings in its grounds. While this walk goes through fields and farmlands it also allows you to see other mature trees.

Forestry Journal: The new orchard plantings at Kinneil House.The new orchard plantings at Kinneil House.

Almondell Country Park contains woodland that was planted in the 18th century by James Erskine, the owner of Almondell House. Tree species included beech, lime and horse chestnut, as well as some conifer species. Sadly, with many now at the age of a couple of hundred years, they are being lost to storm damage and disease. A woodland management plan was drawn up in 2019 to try to address this.

In an area called Larch Wood, which borders the country park and a new large private housing estate, development work has been ongoing to fell the larch trees. This is aimed at allowing the broadleaved trees to flourish alongside new plantings of other new broadleaved tree species and Scots pine. Most of these larch trees are large and susceptible to storm damage, as well as Phytophthora ramorum, which has been found nearby.

Forestry operations have been ongoing and were visible during the time we were following the various walks that go through the country park in the earlier part of this year. Other mature trees are being inspected as part of the plan. 

Beecraigs Country Park is perhaps the most well-known of the West Lothian country parks, covering 370 ha, located in the Bathgate Hills, and close to the ancient town of Linlithgow. There is so much on offer here for visitors, with walking and bike trails, cafes, play areas, camping and BBQ sites, as well as animal attractions. 

One stand-out route is ‘The Korean War Memorial and Witchcraig’ trail. This is an 8-ha site where visitors can see a memorial built to commemorate the Scottish servicemen killed during this conflict in the 1950s. There is then the opportunity to climb the hillside to explore the Witchcraig Woods, which are part of the southern woodlands of Beecraigs Country Park. 

Forestry Journal: The woodlands at the House of Binns have some old tree plantings for visitors to admire.The woodlands at the House of Binns have some old tree plantings for visitors to admire.

There are two grass mounds in the shape of Ying and Yang, the ancient Chinese philosophy, which suggests opposite forces may in fact be complementary to one another. Planted onto these mounds are 110 Korean firs (Abies koreana) and all around are 1,100 or so Scottish trees to represent those men who never returned home. 
Close by is Hillhouse Wood and it is another example of woodland that was created in the 1990s. This woodland, however, on converted farmland and in an area that historically was quarried and mined for lime, was not planted with conifers, but rather with a wide range of mixed broadleaf species. These species included beech, apple, oak and birch. 

In the same area is Ravencraig, which is quite a different woodland to others in the county as the trees in it grow on a rocky hill summit. Old oaks and horse chestnuts grow serenely in parts. In other areas of the woodland, conifer species, including Scots pine, larch and spruce, dominate. In 1997 while work was being carried out on tree management, a 4000-year-old Bronze Age burial mound was discovered.
Linlithgow is perhaps West Lothian’s best-known and most historic town. The town’s biggest landmarks are Linlithgow Palace and the loch next to it. There are a number of walks to follow in and around this ‘Royal’ town, which has connections to some of the kings and queens of Scotland. There are some old specimen trees in and around Linlithgow Palace itself, but it was on a walk called ‘The Perambulation of the Marches’ that I made a couple of interesting ‘tree discoveries’.

This walk follows the route of the parliamentary boundary of the Royal Burgh of Linlithgow, which is marked by March stones, eight in total. In following the route I came across Rosemount Park, where the seventh stone is located, and a number of interesting trees as well. 

One of the oldest trees here dates back to around 1800. This tree is a sycamore and it grows alongside a number of other deciduous and conifer trees. There are some old examples of horse chestnut, oak, lime and beech trees amongst other deciduous trees that grow serenely in the centre of the park. The conifers include native Scots pine and Corsican pine. There are flowering cherries, as well as silver birch and Whitebeam. The list of different trees in the park numbers 40.

Forestry Journal: Many of the original tree plantings around the old Peel Tower were made by Sir Patrick Murray. Some of these were transplanted on his death to an area in Edinburgh, which ultimately became the Royal Botanic Gardens (RGBE).Many of the original tree plantings around the old Peel Tower were made by Sir Patrick Murray. Some of these were transplanted on his death to an area in Edinburgh, which ultimately became the Royal Botanic Gardens (RGBE).

Each of the trees is labelled and it is possible to identify each tree species. Also on a positive note there has been a number of recent plantings of limes, red oaks and field maples. The long-term plan for the park is to add additional more exotic tree species, such as magnolia, ginkgo and eucalyptus, to develop it into a full-blown arboretum.

There was a now lost arboretum close by at Rockville, where a large cedar of Lebanon can be seen growing.

The ‘Marches’ walk ends at the West Port of Linlithgow, where there is a willow tree growing alongside a new bronze sculpture of a woman called Katie Wearie. Katie is said to have been a cattle drover, who is reputed to have washed her feet in a cattle trough located here in days gone by and then rested underneath a willow tree. The current tree is not an original; that tree, which is thought to have been planted to commemorate the Reform Act of 1832, blew down in 1910.

A sapling from the original tree was then planted to replace it, but this had to be felled in 1978 and it took until 1982 before the current tree, another sapling from this second tree, was planted. West Lothian Council had the sculpture, which it had commissioned, put in place in 2011. 

Burgh Beautiful, as part of the Linlithgow Burgh Trust, with volunteers and community partners, now maintains the entire town’s floral displays. It has been proactive with new tree plantings in other parts of the town. 

In 2019, the trust was given a grant from the Scottish Government’s Town Centre Fund to plant more trees on the town’s high street. While delayed by the pandemic, once in place these trees will not only return the high street to the more tree-lined character that it was in the past, but they will also help with reducing CO2 levels and encouraging birds and wildlife. 

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Kinneil House, at nearby Bo’ness, is famous for having part of the Antonine Wall in its grounds. There is also a building where James Watt carried out experiments on steam engines. There are also the remnants of woodland that was planted between 1929 to 1949 for commercial harvesting. Finally, in recent times a new orchard has been planted in its grounds. Bo’ness, while now part of the council area of Falkirk, has historically been part of West Lothian, hence the walk appearing in the book we were using.

The plans for this orchard date back to 2015, when locals were surveyed about the plans to recreate the old orchard, which in the past would have supplied fruit to the residents of Kinneil House back in history. Volunteers, including children, have been planting a wide range of fruit-bearing trees, including several varieties of apple, pear and plum. 

Sadly, in 2019 a number of the young trees were vandalised creating a storm of local social media outrage.

The House of the Binns, managed by the National Trust but the former ancestral home to the Dalyell family, is another old estate in West Lothian that has a large collection of specimen trees and a number of woodland walks. 

There are many of the original parkland trees still growing that would have been planted in the 18th century, although these have been added to over the years. 

Hopetoun House, home to the Earl of Hopetoun, while coming under the jurisdiction of Edinburgh is located right on the border of the city and West Lothian. It is home to another champion tree, a Morinda spruce (Picea smithiana) and a large number of other specimen estate trees and woodland walks. There is a cedar that is more than 250 years old and a 500-year-old Yew tree. The Morinda spruce was the first planted in the UK in 1821.

West Lothian was home to the Scottish shale industry in the 19th century, with the only visible remnants of it being a number of large-scale red man-made mountains of spent ash waste, which tower up and around the county. 

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Some of these bings have been transformed with tree plantings and have become popular for the walks and the views they offer once you reach the summit.

Seafield Law is one such example and this forms another walk from the book. The bing was lowered and landscaped in 1996 and planted with trees, shrubs and flowers. It is hard to believe that it is not a natural summit 25 years later now they have all grown and helped to cover over the red shale ash waste. There are more than 140 different plant species to be found here.

West Lothian is also going to be home to Scotland’s largest new park at Winchburgh.

Forestry Journal:  Peel Park has plantings dating back to the times when Livingston House stood in this area. Peel Park has plantings dating back to the times when Livingston House stood in this area.

Auldcathie District Park will feature paths and fitness trails and will see thousands of trees and shrubs planted as it is shaped and landscaped over the coming years. The park will open up in phases, with 15,000 new trees and shrubs being planted on 16-ha part of the overall 34-ha site. There will also be 400 locally-grown trees planted in an area of country woodland.

Phase one will also include 2 km of paths and fitness trails, a community garden, dog park and large grassed playing areas and walkways to link to the nearby Union Canal.

The park will be further expanded this year on ground reclaimed from the former derelict Auldcathie landfill site. Another 15,000 trees will be planted to bring the overall number close to 31,000 trees. There will be more paths and fitness trails, a bike park, areas for wildlife to proposer and a community orchard.

As well as this there will be three further parks created. The idea is to develop recreational and leisure areas to support the new influx of people who will come to the area to stay in the 4,000 houses that are being built. 

There is a three-school campus and canal boat marina with restaurants, cafes and bars alongside the Union Canal also being constructed.

Our very first walk in November of 2020 took us into the North Wood at Livingston and along a series of paths and walkways called the Dechmont Law UFO trail. North Wood is mixed woodland of sycamore, beech and oak, but also contains some plantation conifers.

It was here in 1979 that a local man claimed aliens had abducted him. I remember the story at the time and despite a series of investigations, no rational explanation was really given for what happened to him.

Livingston, despite being a new town of around 50 years in age, does have a number of different areas of old woodland and individual trees. In the Eliburn area there are trees that were planted in the late 19th century.

Further on the walk in this area is Peel Park where there are oaks and conifers that were part of the landscaping on the now demolished Livingston House. Also in this area is the site of the Livingston Peel, an old fortified tower house, where there are trees that were planted by Sir Patrick Murray. On his death, many of these trees were transplanted to a site in Edinburgh, which over the course of time was to become the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh (RBGE). West Lothian also has a number of community woodlands some of which have walks that take people through them. 

Forestry Journal: Aged trees are to be found growing on either side of the drive leading up to Kinneil House.Aged trees are to be found growing on either side of the drive leading up to Kinneil House.

The Strathbrock Circular walk, which starts in Uphall, shows how tree planting has been used to convert industrial and waste land into recreation land. The plantings here are around 60 years old and contain a lot of hawthorn and broom, as well as some ash and alder. 

To mark the 45th anniversary of a twinning agreement between West Lothian and the Hochsauerland region of Germany, 45 new trees have been planted in Tile Wood at Beecraigs Country Park. 

Louise and I still have eight walks to do to complete the 40 in the book and I already know that we have even more special trees and woodlands to discover in the months ahead.