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ForestHarvest :   non-timber forest products in Scotland

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Past use of NTFPs in Scotland

Prehistoric NTFPs

When the first settlers came to Scotland during the Mesolithic era, about 10,000 years ago (after the last Ice Age), much of the country was already wooded. Hazel and birch had colonised large areas that had been laid bare by the ice sheets, Scots pine was already established in the Highlands, and other species were gaining a foothold.

As well as providing timber for dwellings, weapons and tools, these woodlands undoubtedly furnished the early Scots with vital sources of food, medicine and other raw materials. We know from archaeological evidence, for example, that they ate huge numbers of hazelnuts, and it is thought they may have deliberately sited their settlements according to the abundance of this tree. Many of the larger mammals that used to roam the Scottish woods, such as wild boar and aurochs (wild cattle), are now extinct, but these would doubtless have been valuable sources of protein and skins.

Historical NTFP use

During the more recent past, NTFPs continued to provide a wide range of useful products. Oak and birch bark, for example, were formerly gathered in large quantities for the tanning trade, and juniper berries were once exported to Holland for making gin.

NTFPs were also very important at the domestic level, particularly in poor rural areas. The rights to graze one's livestock in the woods, for example, where they fattened quickly on the autumn acorns, were carefully allocated by landowners. In some parts of Scotland, woods continued to provide significant supplies of food (e.g. game, nuts and berries), medicine (e.g. wild garlic), dyes (e.g. alder bark) and other essentials for rural dwellers until well into the 20th century.

 

  • Birch bark was rolled up and used as candle substitutes by poor people.
  • The great tree planters of the 18th century, such as the Duke of Atholl, employed collectors to gather seed from the woods.
  • 18th-century Highlanders prepared exotic liqueurs by soaking forest fruits such as rowan, bird cherry and blaeberry in whisky.
  • Elder leaves were used to repel flies in the home.
  • Sap was tapped from the trunks of birch trees, and either drunk for medicinal purposes or fermented into wine.
  • In the 19th century, fishermen still caulked (filled the gaps in) their boats with a mixture of pine tar and moss.
  • Hart's tongue fern was commonly boiled into syrup and taken as a remedy for coughs and consumption (tuberculosis).
  • Bracken and male fern were gathered from the woods during the 17th and 18th centuries, and burned to make potash for bleaching linen.
  • Beech leaves were sometimes used to stuff mattresses (said to stay fresh for longer than a straw bed).
  • Rowan berries were used as bait for catching songbirds such as thrushes and blackbirds, and holly bark was boiled up to make birdlime for the same purpose.

 

Basket weave
A meagre record

Scotland's soils are generally acidic, and any organic matter buried in them rots quickly. Thus, apart from the odd artefact buried in a peat bog, we have little evidence to go on.

To understand what the earliest people may have been using, we therefore need to look elsewhere. By studying the way that prehistoric people used plants in Denmark (where the archaeological record is better-preserved), for example, and by observing the lives of more recent indigenous cultures, we can get a reasonable idea of how people may have been living in Scotland:

 

  • Fibrous elm bark for string and rope.
  • Birch bark for baskets and canoes.
  • Boar tusks for cutting blades.
  • Pine resin for glue.
  • Acorns for winter food.
  • Moss and bracken for bedding.
  • Blaeberries for curing diarrhoea.
  • Red squirrels for the pot.
  • Antlers for digging tools.
  • Bracken for bedding.