The Case of the Celtic Rainforest

in-tree-300x300It was the day I  saw the fairy dancing amongst the undergrowth that I knew the whole bogus stunt had gone sour..

I hunched my collar up my neck against the  teeming rain, flicked my cigarette butt away and headed back to the office.. (unfortunately I may have burnt down a small, semi-natural ancient woodland in the process  – but it was in the name of genre authenticity).

It was time I spilt the beans..

When I was  a greenhorn ecologist,  rainforests were massive, perpetual and in  the tropics; Celts were ancient peoples from central Europe – or football supporters; and the damp, dwarfed midge-ridden woods of the west Highlands were just that – not even forests – which in Scotland are large estates full of deer.

But now look at this – from our heroic parliamentarians,   breathy with wonder..

The Celtic rainforests ignite the imagination. For those who have not visited—me being one—the names alone paint a picture of an otherworldly habitat. I understand that we could explore Puck’s glen or go on a hunt for blackberries and custard or octopus suckers.(Labour)

The species that dot the forest floor and enjoy an epiphytic bond with the overhanging trees contain a joyous mix of names and uses (Nationalist)

I do not know what bush tucker can be found in Scotland’s rainforests, but I am told by my eldest daughter Sibylla that wild garlic makes very good pesto.  ( guess..)


It is a little hard to pin down what exactly has changed to create this buzzing uniquely ‘Naturally Scottish’ ecological zone – and that may be because it’s existence has a tinge of contingency, which I ‘ll get to, but lets review the ecology first..

To begin with it appears that a rainforest has become a forest that grows for a long time in a rainy place, and although it should still have certain characteristic indicator species,  but these can be related to microflora or non-flowering plants.

Then we are, it appears,  to extend that elasticity a little further to suggest that it may not always have been there – at least in its current form.. And that there might be a degree of fluidity in the size, structure and presence of the vegetation needed to make the sites part of the same zone.

So in the case of this Celtic rainforest, or Atlantic  semi-natural woodlands as they were formerly (more modestly?) known, these criteria are fulfilled by the fact that it is pretty wet and windy in Argyll and west Invernesshire ;  it’s near the sea (a high oceanity index); that there are a lot of woods which were cultivated for charcoal smelting  or tan-barking in this area which gives them a unique history and structure ( at least in Scotland); that although most of the flora and fauna occur in other places, there are, amongst the lichen, moss and  fungal communities ( again not unique),  some species which are found nowhere else in the UK, and possible nowhere else at all ( which may of course be a function of how hard the rest of the world is looking for small cryptic non-flowering plants).


The slightly underwhelming but undoubtedly rare White script Lichen, graphis alboscripta

Of course by these criteria we can have a lot of rainforests , as long as we have a lot of rain.. we can have birch rainforests, hazel rainforests ( now that we have revised our opinion that hazel is not scrub), oak rainforests, and possibly ash ones too . And maybe pine ones if they could cope with the rain.. To an uninitiated woodland creature,  or  world-weary ecological gumshoe, the reality of all these situations might look  pretty different, but we might not understand categories so well as the people who write the guidebooks.

And then ‘Celtic’ – there are similar forests ( which I would call woods) on the west coast of Ireland (  one of which  Colin Farrell and Rachel Weiss’ frolic through with a camel in my favourite dystopia , The Lobster ). As there are also in Cornwall, Portugal and Madeira – and probably on the Azores as well. Is there something which makes the maritime woods of Scotland and Ireland more alike than say those, or the woods of Argyll and the Southern Lakeland area..? Ermm..

So would that thing be cultural?

In the hastily coffee -tabled glossy Rainforests of Britain and Ireland, used as a sourcebook by the researchers who wrote the politician’s speeches above, Clifton Bain suggests

The term Celtic rainforest has been adopted to reflect the shared geographical distribution with remaining Celtic languages, but it also conveys some of the mystical and spiritual connections with our ancient past.

Like any rural medieval community , Gaelic culture used woods as sources of fuel, pasture and timber and they figure in Gaelic culture . The Gaelic alphabet is named for trees and in that alphabet there are lovely, ancient, concrete poems describe natural phenomena.

James Hunter has suggested a special cultural attitude towards nature in archetypal Gaeldom.  But in my view the evidence suggests that the  woods figure as a backdrop rather than as a cultural space – there are for example no specific words remaining  in Scots Gaelic for types of forest – coille , is used for all woods, and, unlike the rich array of landscape words which cover the moors and coasts of the north west, there are not many for wood types. Duncan Ban McIntyre and Sorley McLean, are both rightly seen as great nature poets  working in Gaelic, but are using contemporary poetic forms in their native tongue.

Historical records don’t suggest any patterns of use that identify consistent timber conservation or management patterns through the Gaeltachd – instead they suggest the usual interplay of pragmatism and economic interest found in the rest of Britain.

Celtic does have other connotations, which if mumbled vaguely in a lilting tone  can be attractive to tourists ( ‘Gee,  didnt they film Game of Thrones somewhere round hereabouts’?) but none of these have anything to do with damp woodland

I have it on good authority that in the post offices of Assynt  and Ardnamurchan the words ‘Celtic rainforest’ translate into local speak as ‘tourist hoakum’.img_20160917_175031977

So where has all this come from – and suddenly. Something persuaded the daddy of lichenology,  Paul Gilbert to move from a cheery description of the joys of the semi-natural woods, to slightly awkward hagiography of the Celtic between two publications in less than a decade.. Could he have been lent on?

Pragmatically it’s good to have a monicker , a USP, and if that works for your sponsor all the better. The Scottish government – through Scottish Natural Heritage ( which became the Nature conservancy + the countryside commision, ecologists +planners) is now the sponsor to most research and conservation effort in Scotland – and it is keen to brand its nature.. It has discovered its own crossbill- a bird that can only be identified by minute comparisons of its beak , and may not even be distinguishable by other crossbills.. and, finding itself the proprietor of a lot of Highland land, needs to be seen to doing something worthy with it.. so whilst,  to me , the widely quoted studies of the Coppins are the kind of exploratory stuff lichenologists still routinely do everywhere, they fit that other bill (‘uniquely Scottish’) quite well.

The whole idea seem to have been bigged up by a variety of oscillating waves of publicity effort – conferences, publications, mappings and the growth of a style of conservation which functions a bit like the community health initiatives of other parts of the government. That is  – publish lots of glossy stuff and hope that it shows that we are doing something.

‘So gumshoe, why does this get you so much ?‘, said the Lauren Bacall lookalike lounging in her cagoule against the  conveniently placed standard oak..

‘Is there anything wrong with enthusiastic promotion of potential (as opposed to outright lying) – its not as if anyone actually dies, and a mossy wood is a delight whatever its called, surely? ‘ (not sure her name was Shirley, mind you..)

My problems are two fold – the first is that this type of gloss is very much using the authority of science to peddle its wares .

While I was going through the files about the Celts I came across this famous quote about Whig history

It is not a sin in a historian to introduce a bias that can be recognised and discounted. The sin in historical composition is the organisation of the story in such a way that bias cannot be recognised  (Herbert Butterfield, 1931)


So if we substitute ‘ecological’ for ‘historical’ this feels like what’s happening . Its about creating Scottishness or worse Celticness , without acknowledging  that’s what’s going on. And thats a lot to hang on some mosses and liverworts..

The second is that you might not be able to see the wood for the trees.. There are two prisms which we are simultaneously viewing nature at the moment – one is holistic, the other contextual?.. Is a wood a system of production, or an aggregate of the things which are haphazardly growing there?

The rain forest stuff relates back to a style of ecology which discusses climax vegetations, ecosystems and plant communities as if they were platonic forms ( and goes along with some fairly wacky right wing thinking too, which often goes underground in metaphors about order and natural balance)..(see Richard Mabey, Beechcombings, pp220-3 for a concise discussion of this)  It also largely wrong ..

Real places we discover through studying the records of what has actually happened and what exists on the site- so for example we have some interesting woods in Western Highlands

1/because they survived the general overharvesting and grazing in the nineteenth century Highlands

2/because their timber was locally valuable and

3/  their boundaries allowed them some protection .

They decayed gently internally until the present day – most helpfully most of them were either too small , steep or wet to have been murdered by the Forestry Commission in the last publicity driven siege on the woodlands ( anyone remember ‘Plant More Trees’) after the second world war, culminating in the tax dodging afforestation of the flow country by that jolly cove Terry Wogan and his mates in the nineteen eighties..( Sorry got a bit carried away ).

Within them there are relicts on steep inaccessible terrain from which small , slow growing damp tolerant plants can gradually recolonise . This pattern is found in other localised areas of Western Europe , but not necessarily any more frequently in the immediate vicinity of those sites.

What exists on a site is a matter of history and there is no ‘intrinsic’ reason why one part of it is better than another..

For example one of the most characteristic plants of the Celtic rain forest is the rhododendron , which loves the shade and slope of these woods – it was introduced by people who saw it as source of ongoing beauty, and in some parts of the Celtic rainforest zone like Inverewe Gardens is still visited by tens of thousands of people each year..

However at the same time SNH are encouraging landowners to root them out of woods to restore an original vegetation that often didn’t exist there.. It is a decision about woodland management to grow rhoddies or damp lichenous scrub (which does take a bit longer) , but if you allow that to be the case you cant give authoritative advice on the right thing to do –  hence another reason for the spurious nonsense about CRFs.

We should love things for what they open for us- in the damp woods it is the scale and patterns of growth that surprise and delight. There are lovely artistic responses to this, for example, in the art sponsored by the (reformed, cuddly) Forestry Commision in At the Edge,  or in the images of Sorley Mclean in his poems Hallaig and the Woods of Raasay. There are also responses in the hutting and woodcraft that occupy the denizens of Reforesting Scotland .

A visit to the Celtic rainforest is pretty much as it has always been – I actually visited four over the last two years without knowing what I had stepped in.. I went looking for woodland birds , couldn’t find any in the dense foliage , but did see a lot of moss and rain. On Seil in the  Ballachuan Hazelwood I walked for over an hour under the canopy without standing upright whilst enjoying my sense of immersion in the green glow. I thought how nice it was to get lost there.


Whilst there I thought heard a rustling and along a branch thought I spied a fleeting glimpse of the Caledonian Chimera , the one animal that is unique to our rainforest . Feasting on a diet of publicity materials and nesting in an ancient druid’s staved oak it has existed for hundreds of years in a way which is both authentic and really quite cool.. but I fear all of the fuss and attention from the excited tourists that our MSPs believe are about to flock there might scare it back into the Celtic twilight from which it had emerged..



3 thoughts on “The Case of the Celtic Rainforest

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this – amusing and informative. I remember camping around Applecross some years ago and was a bit puzzled by the whole rainforest thing on some of the tourist noticeboards around there. I’d never heard of it. Then again, I’m no ecologist so didn’t have the expertise to think about it.

    Let’s be honest though, Scotland is expert at spinning legends and marketing narratives. It’s quite a skill!


  2. Thanks Alex, you’re right of course. But there is the other tradition – what Sheila Rowbotham once called ‘the Scottish hairsplitting’ one, which is resistant to glossing, and tends to get you ( one /us) closer to whats really there. Lichens are far more magical than fairies, and a lot easier to see.


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