Finding the Lost Glebe [3] – The last of the ‘Old Trees’ of Lewis

We do know that the peninsula here reputedly had/has the last remnants of the native woodland that once covered the island before the Vikings ‘torched the earth’.

This remnant was known as ‘Coile Suardail’ or Swordale forest, of which in the present day only a few scrub birch trees remain, clinging to loch and sea margins.

Why this corner remained through the centuries is unclear, but even through to the early 19th century it covered a still significant area.

In c1817, Keose and Swordale were said to have 18 acres of wood. William Macgillivray wrote that year that he went to see:

“a small birch wood near the [Manse]- the only piece of natural wood, or rather shrubbery, in the Long Island”

In 1830 he wrote:

“In the island of Lewis, not far from the manse of Keose, there are the remains of a birch wood, the stunted bushes of which occupy a considerable extent of ground”

But by the time of writing of the New Statistical Account in 1833 this had perhaps dwindled:

“There is a stinted scraggy copsewood of birch of small extent, in a point of this parish called Swordale… This is the only wood now on the island; but the Lewis was at one time covered with wood of great size and variety, as is evident from the huge roots which are yet abundant in all parts of the island. Tradition says that the woods of Lewis were burnt by the Danes…..Only a few acres (of Lochs) are under natural wood.”

Extract from ‘A voyage round the coasts of Scotland and the isles’ – by James Wilson in July 1841:

“The parish of Lochs is characterised by possessing the only copsewood in the island,— and this is merely a small collection of stinted birch-trees, on a point called Swordle.

That the now bare and barren Lewis was, however, at one period partly an umbrageous forest country, is evident from the large roots, and occasional pieces of timber which occur in the preserving moisture of the mosses.

Even in the far northern and exposed district of Barvas, where the hardy sinewy heather has enough to do to hold its head, and no tree now dapples the surface of the sterile earth, branches and trunks of fir and oak and birch, with hazel boughs and numerous nuts, are often found embedded far below the storm-swept surface.

Has some great physical change come over the constitution of the clime and country? or has fire from heaven scathed its surface, reducing to dust its leafy honours?

The tradition of the island on this subject is twofold. Some say that in ancient times the Northmen, with a view to monopolise the trade in timber, set all the woods on fire, when they landed on the Outer Hebrides.

Others assert that these invaders, being often surprised by sallies of the natives from their sheltering groves, burned all the trees for the sake of fighting in aperto loco.”

In the late 1840’s some additional information was provided by Alan Ross (formerly a Keose resident) to the Ordnance Survey:

“The MacCiphers [Macivers?] are a branch of the surname Smith.

Tradition relates that the Smiths in the Western Isles are of Norwegian origin and that they claimed exclusive right to all the drift timber by virtue of a compact between them and their relatives who returned to Norway at the cession of the isles to the Scottish Crown and stipulated to float timber there, part at least of which might be supposed to be cast ashore in the isles.

It also asserts that this was at an era subsequent to the destruction of the Hebridean forests, and that the art of forging metals was introduced to the Isles from Norway.”

John Munro Mackenzie, in his diary on the 5th of September, 1851, wrote that he had:

“Accompanied Sir James (Matheson) to Luerbost. Crossed the loch to Swordale which is rather a pretty place and where grows the only natural wood in the Lewis. Sir James talked of enclosing the wood.”

Captain F Thomas wrote (in c1890) that:

“Loch Luerbost…is a sheltered and picturesque arm of the sea; and is further remarkable from having at is south side, at Swordale, several acres of natural wood.

There are a few willows, but most of the trees are birches. None of the standing wood was more than thirty years old, but the stools from which they sprung were some of them 3 feet across.”

Perhaps we can do something to restore and mark this historic corner of our estate?

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