IF lockdown has had any positives, it has at least allowed me to fulfil some dreams and promises, just one of which was catching up on my reading. The latest delight was Dr Samuel Johnson and his colleague Boswell’s account of a journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, which they undertook in the autumn of 1773.

Although Johnson famously dismissed Scotland as a backward and primitive place, he clearly developed an affection for the country and its inhabitants, in spite of his oft-quoted view that the finest prospect ever seen by a Scotsman was the road south to England. The two intrepid travellers left the comforts of Edinburgh with a somewhat random itinerary, mostly selected to allow them to visit all manner of clan chiefs and landed and noble families, all of whom welcomed the global celebrity lexicographer with open arms. And he stayed in some pretty dire pubs as well.

He soon made some pithy and penetrating observations. Early on, he commented on the dreadful condition of the roads and, as he progressed further west, he soon forsook horsedrawn carriages in favour of a variety of steeds, mostly lent by his hospitable clansmen. Yet he also returned several times to the treeless nature of the country.

“From the banks of the Tweed to St Andrews,” he wrote. “I had never seen a single tree that had grown up far within the present century. Now and then about a gentleman’s house stands a small plantation which in Scotch is called a policy. There is no tree for either shelter or timber. The whole country is extended in uniform nakedness. A tree might be a show in Scotland as a horse in Venice.”

The Lowlands of Scotland, he went on to say, were perhaps uniquely denuded by exploitation and cultivation.

“To drop a seed in the ground can cost nothing and the trouble is not great of protecting the young plant, though it must be allowed to have some difficulties here, where they have neither wood for palisades, nor thorns for hedges.”

The wild, uncultivated, deforested landscape didn’t have much appeal to the good doctor, and he seemed able to avoid the native pinewoods – which later generations now cherish so much – without any difficulty. But throughout the whole excursion he frequently commented on the presence or absence of trees, with the exception of Mull, where he saw some nice woods.

All this has the effect of a dram of malt to poor locked-down me. I remember my own visits to Scotland with unalloyed pleasure, and Johnson’s visits to Raasay and Skye (he calls it Sky) bring back my own memories. Following in Johnson’s footsteps, I even journeyed to the remote island of Inch Kenneth, where my most vivid memory was of coming ashore in an inflatable boat which turned over as a rogue wave hit it just as we were landing. To foresters of my generation, Scotland was where it was at. I can’t remember who it was who claimed his one ambition was to see ‘a reeve standing in a policy’, but I share it to this day.

But some things don’t change. The weather in September 1773 has an all-too-familiar ring to it, and the intrepid travellers were beset by storms at sea and rainfall which continued for days at a time. On the other hand, I can’t say how happy I was to read a letter in the press from Fergus Ewing, Rural Economy Secretary to the Scottish Government. In response to a rather dreary piece about how the Conservative Westminster Government had failed to plant many of the famous acres of trees promised during the election campaign, young Fergus tells of a Scottish success story, with some 10,000 hectares of new planting, the second-highest total since 2004. All in all, a herculean effort, he describes it, and with all else that is going on at the moment this can be described as apt. It was also revealing that in England they still talk in acres, and indeed, play tennis with wooden tennis rackets.

This would be comic if it weren’t so serious. The total lack of an original and imaginative motivation for landowners to actually plant the missing thousands of hectares south of the Border and west of Offa’s Dyke is beginning to show. It is really no use to expect those who seem to sound off about global warming, through dated if altruistic motives bound up with native species and conservation, to effectively fill the gap. And although the NFU is very persuasive when it points out how much of our foodstuffs are imported, I don’t hear too much said about the 80 per cent of our timber which comes from overseas.

Perhaps another Johnson could provide the answer?

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