Dating back to the Victorian era, Spiers Old School Grounds Arboretum has become something of a passion project for Ayrshire locals, desperate to preserve it for future generations. 

IT was a chance conversation with Ted Nevill, over lunch at the 2022 Garnock Valley Carves (GVC), that allowed me to find out about the Spiers Old School Grounds Arboretum. This arboretum is also to be found in Beith, North Ayrshire, which is home to this annual carving competition. A few weeks after GVC, I was back in Beith for a tour with Ted and Tom Hart, both members of the Friends of Spiers which helps to look after it.

Interestingly, Tom is a former pupil of the school and was able to offer much insight into not only its history, but also the trees that were planted in its grounds. Spiers School was designed by James Sellars and opened in 1888. It was funded by a trust set up in the 1860s by Margaret Gibson Spier in memory of her son John. Spiers was an endowed co-educational school for children of the local area, offering advanced education.

Forestry Journal: Twin-stemmed sycamore stumps which Ted would love to see turned into an appropriate carving.Twin-stemmed sycamore stumps which Ted would love to see turned into an appropriate carving. (Image: JH)

Spiers School was built on the site of an old farmhouse in an area known as Marshalland. This area, apart from some small woodlands and farm buildings, was mostly open fields. The foundation stone was laid in September 1887 and the school opened the following year, offering education to 150 children, some of whom were boarders. Boarding ended at the start of World War I and the Ayr County Council took over its running just before World War II. By the end of that war, more classrooms were added. The school closed in 1972.

The school was a distinctive red sandstone building and it was set in 17 acres of landscaped gardens, which were planted with trees and shrubs and it also had grassed areas, playing fields, and even tennis courts. It was the Earl of Eglinton’s head gardener, amongst others, who was responsible for the selection of a number of trees and shrubs, which were planted up to shape the grounds and to create the arboretum which is there today.

Amazingly, the original order for the trees used to start the planting up with Samson Nursery, in 1888, still exists to this day. So does the order for fruit trees that were required for the walled garden. This comprised nearly 400 trees and berry plants.

The tree order was for some 3,350 trees costing £9 16s 6d. The largest number of individual species for this tree order was for 1,000 Scotch fir or Scots pine as it is commonly known today.

Forestry Journal: Tom can remember many of these trees when they were much smaller in size when he attended the school.Tom can remember many of these trees when they were much smaller in size when he attended the school. (Image: JH)

Sycamore, Scotch elm, and beech were also ordered in relatively large numbers with lesser numbers of trees such as English oak, turkey oak and hornbeam. Willow and ash were ordered for hedging purposes. There were between 50 to 100 different tree species planted, including a large number of holly tree varieties. After the school closed, there was a period when a number of different proposals for what the buildings and grounds could be used for were made but none proved successful and the school was eventually demolished.

Today, only the Spiers and Geilsland entrance gates, some perimeter walls, a commemorative stone with the school’s name and 1887 date on it, and bits of the wall of the walled garden remain. Next to where the school stood there is now a small car park and BBQ area, and nothing really to suggest that there used to be a school. This is where I met Ted and Tom and they showed me, sadly, a blank information board that should have been telling visitors this but it had been vandalised.

Regrettably, as they pointed out, some of the trees, including a giant redwood, near here have been damaged as well. Always the risk in an area which, while it attracts visitors, is in the main an isolated location. 

The school itself has been consumed back by nature with self-colonising willow, birch, and alder trees now growing where it was situated. Tom had pictures from the past and was able to show the impressive building to me and explain what it looked like from first-hand knowledge – it certainly seems to have been a striking building.

After the school’s closure and up to 2008, very little was done to maintain what many saw as this valuable local asset. That year, the North Ayrshire Council Ranger Service coordinated a number of local groups to help with a tidy up operation in the grounds and then in 2010 the Friends of Spiers was formed. This was a voluntary group that came together to raise awareness of the Spiers Old School Grounds and to assist in their maintenance and upkeep.

The Friends of Spiers, The Spiers Trust, Beith Cultural and Heritage Society and Youth Making Beith Better and other local organisations and bodies have since worked alongside one another at Spiers. North Ayrshire Council Streetscene (grounds maintenance) and the North Ayrshire Ranger Service have supported the efforts, and a grant was secured that paid for the completion of a tree survey and allowed for the dead and decaying trees to be identified and removed.

This grant also provided money for the upgrading of the existing paths and for the construction of a circular path around the grounds. The main paths were also made wheelchair accessible. The restoration and reopening of the Coronation Gardens, which were originally opened at the school in 1953 and had a dawn redwood as a central tree planting, was seen as something that had to be done early on to try to return the Spiers Old School Grounds to their former glory.

With the first UK planting of the dawn redwood tree species being at Cambridge University Botanic Gardens in 1949, this planting at Spiers must be one of the early ones in the country. A former pupil gave this tree to the school for planting. Tom was one of the pupils who were able to see this tree and the gardens after the formal planting ceremony had taken place and recalls that the tree was around 5–6 ft high at that time.

While it has gown much taller than that now, dawn redwood trees are very slow growing. The gardens, which have other ornamental plantings, are formed of a path which splits with the tree in the centre. There are also four donated Maidenhair trees planted in these gardens as well. The reopening of the gardens was achieved in 2013 to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee; the dawn redwood certainly forms a lovely centrepiece to them.

Forestry Journal: The hazel tree, which grows next to the girls’ entrance off Geilsland Road.The hazel tree, which grows next to the girls’ entrance off Geilsland Road. (Image: JH)

This is tree number seven on a tree trail of over 30 trees at the arboretum, which have been identified for visitors to take note of as they walk around it. When they were first planted, the trees were labelled for identification purposes. Today, there has been a similar attempt to label; unfortunately on many it is hard to read what is on the label next to the tree. Ted admitted that coming up with a successful tree identification tool has been hard and something that still needs work.

The tree survey at Spiers showed that there were over 800 trees growing there.

Those that were felled, if deemed a risk, had their stumps and felled trunks left in place to provide a natural habitat for wildlife and insects. Ted explained that there remains a need to be aware of any trees that may potentially become an issue or indeed suffer storm damage, which is always a risk in a woodland area. Tree nine on the trail, a horse chestnut, bears the scars of storm damage with one of his big limbs missing.

Since 2010, there have been a number of new tree plantings carried out at Spiers involving youth groups and schools and NAC Streetscene. The Friends of Spiers have also facilitated plantings through their celebratory and memorial schemes to allow individuals to have trees planted at the grounds. Indeed, Ted himself has had a hand in many of these plantings. On the day of my visit, he showed me the record of the various different types of tree species that have been planted.

Forestry Journal: Ted (right) and Tom (left).Ted (right) and Tom (left). (Image: JH)

Such plantings have included wellingtonia, holm oak, walnut, monkey puzzle, and juniper, taking the overall number of different types of tree species now growing at Spiers to around 50. Ted did explain that not all the plantings that have been carried out have been successful, some due to nature’s intervention and others due to human’s, once more in the form of deliberate vandalism. Tree 14 on the trail is a Handkerchief tree, or rather now two trees, as the first was damaged by vandals and replaced, only for it to continue to grow!

The tree that was first planted had its main branch broken over, but, as can sometimes be the way because it was not snapped off completely, it has kept growing. Ted, at the time, fearing the worst, had another tree of the same species planted next to it. Ted also pointed out some aspen and juniper plantings where the tops had been broken off. Fortunately, the nearby Wollemi pine to date remains unaffected by these, what can only be described as mindless acts.

Tom explained, as we walked, that the school had separate boys’ and girls’ entrances, with the girls’ entrance being located off Geilsland Road and coming through the Geilsland Arch past tree 14 on the trail, a hazel, opposite to which are a number of newer hazel tree plantings. The Forbidden Path, which pupils were not supposed to use, links both gates and passes through an avenue of beech trees. Nearby, there is a natural spring whose waters, Tom assured me, eventually find their way into the River Clyde. He also said these waters, in the past, were used locally to produce lemonade.

Forestry Journal: New tree plantings can be found in and around many of the original trees.New tree plantings can be found in and around many of the original trees. (Image: JH)

Walking through Geilsland Wood towards the Ivy Palace, there are a number of Scots fir (pine) on view from the original 1,000 that were planted. Tree 15 on the trail is listed on the trail leaflet as an example. Tree 16 is a sycamore, but sadly now this twin-stemmed tree has been reduced to stump level. This tree had been identified as a risk tree and was taken down. Given its close proximity to the path this was definitely a wise decision. Ted harbours dreams of a chainsaw carver offering to carve something from its remains!

Tom led us along to the Ivy Palace, an area of the woodland at Spiers at the rear entrance off Geilsland Road, so-called because of the predominance of ground layer ivy that is seen all around. Tom told me that this was why he and his fellow pupils christened this area as the Ivy Palace. Tom was also able to point out many of the trees across the High Field that he well remembers being much smaller in height than they are now when he attended Spiers between 1944–1957.

One of the rarer original plantings at Spiers was that of a mutated Camperdown elm; sadly, now this tree is not in too good a condition and Ted is hoping they do not end up losing this tree in the future. Returning towards where the main school buildings stood took us past the former tennis courts. In this area, there is a large Sitka spruce and the arboretum’s only Box tree. Here, there is a great selection of tree species growing along its borders, including examples of a pedunculate oak, yew, and wellingtonia.

Forestry Journal: New fruit tree plantings in the orchard.New fruit tree plantings in the orchard. (Image: JH)

Tree number six on the trail is a Cedar of Lebanon. Ted said this tree had caused much debate about whether it might be an Atlantic cedar. It and others here are some of the original plantings from the 1880s and also include other ornamental trees such as a monkey puzzle. Passing where the school stood and the Headmaster’s Lawn and the Front Lawn, Ted explained that these areas are where many of the celebratory or memorial trees have been planted and there were certainly a number of examples to see.

Pupils from Beith Primary School planted the Diamond Jubilee Wood in 2012 as an extension to the Coronation Gardens. In this area is a Douglas fir, which local legend suggests has ‘mouse tails’ sticking out of its cones. The legend goes that mice hid in the tree during a fire and the tails are a mark of this kind act. Certainly, a very unusual story but the tree is nevertheless, like many at Spiers, a fine example.

Heading to the orchard, Tom explained that at the end of the war additional classrooms and a dining hall were built in the orchard because more children were coming to the school. Five years or so ago, new apple and plum trees were planted in the orchard area with all the buildings long since having been removed. Ted confirmed that these had actually borne fruit for the first time in 2022, but again one of the trees had suffered a broken branch either by an over-exuberant fruit picker or once more just plain vandalism. More work for Ted and the volunteers to deal with and manage as they continue to work at Spiers.

Forestry Journal: Fresh sprouts in the undergrowth.Fresh sprouts in the undergrowth. (Image: JH)

There was one tree left that both Ted and Tom wanted to show me and that was tree 24, an Arran whitebeam, which grows just off the Front Lawn. Today, this tree species is recognised as one of the world’s most endangered trees with few examples to be found and the vast majority of these on the island of Arran itself. The Spiers tree is in good health and Tom and Ted suggest that the reason there is one at Spiers is because the school had an outreach programme on Arran. They think that a seed or cutting may have been brought back from there. A newer planting of a Common Whitebeam grows next to it.

There was time for a couple of pictures of Tom and Ted before I parted company with them. My visit to the Spiers Old School Grounds Arboretum had certainly been very enjoyable. Both Tom and Ted were hopeful that the future of it would continue to be good with the cooperation of all those involved in it, albeit in the current climate, having to both find the funds and the volunteers necessary to achieve this is always going to be challenging.