Monday, April 04, 2011
Spare Him Not, Devil
One lamentable error we certainly have committed, are committing, and, so far as appears, will ever commit. We massacre every town tree that comes in a mason's way; never sacrificing mortar to foliage. Stark [William Stark, architect, 1770-1814] raised his voice against this atrocity, but in vain. I do not know a single instance in which the square and the line have been compelled to accommodate themselves to stems and branches. To a considerable extent this is a consequence of our climate, which needs sun and not shade. But there are many situations, especially in a town, where shade is grateful, and many where, without interfering with comfort, foliage, besides its natural beauty, combines well with buildings. And there was no Scotch city more strikingly graced by individual trees and by groups of them than Edinburgh, since I knew it, used to be. How well the ridge of the old town was set off by a bank of elms that ran along the front of James' Court, and stretched eastward over the ground now partly occupied by the Bank of Scotland. Some very respectable trees might have been spared to grace the Episcopal Chapel of St. Paul in York Place. There was one large tree near its east end which was so well placed that some people conjectured it was on its account that the Chapel was set down there. I was at a consultation in John Clerk's house, hard by, when that tree was cut. On hearing that it was actually down we ran out, and well did John curse the Huns. The old aristocratic gardens of the Canongate were crowded with trees, and with good ones. There were several on the Calton Hill: seven, not ill grown, on its very summit. And all Leith Walk and Lauriston, including the ground round Heriot's Hospital, was fully set with wood. A group was felled about the year 1826 which stood to the west of St. John's Chapel, on the opposite side of the Lothian Road, and formed a beautiful termination of all the streets which join near that point. One half of the trees, at the least, might have been spared, not only without injuring, but with the effect of greatly adorning, the buildings for which they have been sacrificed. Moray Place, in the same way, might have been richly decorated with old and respectable trees. But they were all murdered, on the usual pretence of adjusting levels and removing obstructions. It was with the greatest difficulty that Sir Patrick Walker, the superior of the ground, succeeded in rescuing the row in front of Coates Crescent from the unhallowed axes of the very vassals. It cost him years of what was called obstinacy. I tried to save a very picturesque group, some of which waved over the wall at the west end of the jail on the Calton Hill. I succeeded with two trees; but in about four years they also disappeared. It only required a very little consideration and arrangement to have left the whole of these trees and many others standing without abating a single building. But the sad truth is that the extinction of foliage, and the unbroken display of their bright free-stone, is of itself a first object with both our masons and their employers. The wooded gardens that we have recently acquired are not inconsistent with this statement. There was no competition between them and building. It is our horror of the direct combination of trees with masonry, and our incapacity to effect it, that I complain of. No apology is thought necessary for murdering a tree; many for preserving it.Circuit Journeys by the Late Lord Cockburn, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1889), p. 279 (West Circuit, Autumn 1845):
A few years ago (not twenty-five) the left bank of the River Leven was covered, for about five miles from the junction of the stream with the loch, and high up, with very fine old birch. The whole of this wood was sold by the meanest man I was ever acquainted with, for about £80. The purchaser, finding it too expensive to cut and carry away the trees, left them standing, but all peeled; and there are still thousands of them not yet rotted away, but standing dead and grey. Can there be any doubt that the rich brute who could allow five miles of wood, the ornament of a district, to be destroyed for £80, is now suffering for this in a hotter world? Spare him not, Devil. Give him his own faggots.Id., p. 284 (West Circuit, Autumn 1845):
So I have seen Loch Etive. There are few things in this country better worth seeing.Id., p. 300 (North Circuit, September 1846):
From the Bunaw ferry it runs about fourteen or fifteen miles up the country, is nearly straight, and from one mile to three wide. The boatmen said that for about seven miles up, on the right side, there was, since they remembered, a profusion of birch, which the Bunaw furnaces had cleared away. Whether this be correct or not, there is scarcely one observable stem or leaf there now. No country can be more utterly woodless. There is some tolerable wood for about a mile next the ferry on the west side, and a sprinkling on the same side, very near the top. But these, though aided by a few foliaged ravines, are too insignificant to affect the general character of the valley, which may be described as utterly bare.
Montrose's side of the loch is still bare. It was cut, or rather grubbed out, I don't remember how long ago, but certainly after the publication of the poem [Lady of the Lake]; for I remember Scott, in his indignation, threatening to save the trees, and to disgrace their owner, by getting up a penny subscription, and paying the £200 (this, I believe, was the sum) for which they were to be sold. But we observed one of the very finest weeping birches, on the right-hand side of the road going towards Loch Katrine, which we were told that Lady Willoughby had given five guineas to save. I trust, and have no reason to doubt, that she has in store the treasure of many as good deeds.Hat tip: Eric Thomson, who also supplied the notes in square brackets.