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Caledonian Forest

Coordinates: 57°07′12″N 4°42′36″W / 57.1200°N 4.7100°W / 57.1200; -4.7100
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(Redirected from Caledon conifer forests)
Caledonian Forest
Caledonian Forest above the Allt Ruadh in Glen Feshie
Map of the ecoregion
BiomeTemperate coniferous forest
Area180 km2 (69 sq mi)

The Caledonian Forest is the ancient (old-growth) temperate forest of Scotland. The forest today is a reduced-extent version of the pre-human-settlement forest, existing in several dozen remnant areas.

The Scots pines of the Caledonian Forest are directly descended from the first pines to arrive in Scotland following the Late Glacial; arriving about 7000 BC. The forest reached its maximum extent about 5000 BC, after which the Scottish climate became wetter and windier. This changed climate reduced the extent of the forest significantly by 2000 BC. From that date, human actions (including the grazing effects of sheep and deer) reduced it to its current extent.

Today, that forest exists as 35 remnants, as authenticated by Steven & Carlisle (1959)[1] (or 84 remnants, including later subjective subdivisions of the 35) covering about 180 square kilometres (69 sq mi) or 44,000 acres (18,000 ha). The Scots pines of these remnants are, by definition, directly descended from the first pines to arrive in Scotland following the ice age. These remnants have adapted genetically to different Scottish environments, and as such, are globally unique; their ecological characteristics form an unbroken, 9000-year chain of natural evolution with a distinct variety of soils, vegetation, and animals.

To a great extent the remnants survived on land that was either too steep, too rocky, or too remote to be agriculturally useful. The largest remnants are in Strathspey and Strath Dee on highly acidic, freely drained glacial deposits that are of little value for cultivation and domestic stock. An examination of the earliest maps of Scotland suggests that the extent of the Caledonian Forest remnants has changed little since 1600.


Following the last glacial period, trees began to recolonise what is now the British Isles over a land bridge which is now beneath the Strait of Dover. Forests of this type were found all over what is now the island of Great Britain for a few thousand years, before the climate began to slowly warm in the Atlantic period, and the temperate coniferous forests began retreating north into the Scottish Highlands, the last remaining climatic region suitable for them in the British Isles (see Climate of Scotland).

Caledonian pinewoods near Loch an Eilein

The native pinewoods that formed this westernmost outpost of the taiga of post-glacial Europe are estimated to have covered 15,000 km2 (3,700,000 acres) as a vast wilderness of Scots pine, birch, rowan, aspen, juniper, oak and a few other hardy species. On the west coast, oak and birch predominated in a temperate rainforest ecosystem rich in ferns, mosses and lichens.


Mam Sodhail as seen from Glen Affric

The name comes from Pliny the Elder who reveals that 30 years after the Roman invasion of Britain their knowledge of it did not extend beyond the neighbourhood of silva caledonia. He gives no information about where the silva caledonia was, but the known extent of the Roman occupation suggest that it was north of the River Clyde and west of the River Tay.[citation needed]

Legend and folklore[edit]

In the Matter of Britain, the forest is the site of one of King Arthur's Twelve Battles, according to the Historia Brittonum, in which the battle is called Cat Coit Celidon. Scholars Rachel Bromwich and Marged Haycock suggest that the army of trees animated by sorcerers in the Old Welsh poem Cad Goddeu ("Battle of the Trees") are intended to be the Caledonian Forest.[2]

In related Merlin literature, the figure of Myrddin Wyllt retreated to these woods in his madness after the Battle of Arfderydd in the year 573. He fled from the alleged wrath of the king of Strathclyde, Rhydderch Hael, after the slaying of Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio. This is written in the two Merlinic poems in Middle Welsh Yr Oinau and Yr Afallenau in the Black Book of Carmarthen. The forest is also the retreat of another character named Lailoken from the Vita Kentigerni, who also fled into the woods in a fit of madness and who may be the original model for Myrddin Wyllt. William A. Young argues that Brocéliande, the forest which features in Chrétien de Troys' Arthurian romance, Le Chevalier au lion, may be the forest of Celython.[3]

In the Middle Welsh story Culhwch and Olwen, the main character Culhwch is the son of a king named Celyddon Wledig, who may or may not be related to the forest in name. Another figure from the same story, Cyledyr Wyllt hints at a close relationship of the forest being a retreat for people who suffered from a special kind of madness or gwyllt (Irish geilt). In line 994 to 996 of the story, it is briefly explained, "a Chyledyr Wyllt y uab, a llad Nwython a oruc a diot y gallon, a chymhell yssu callon y dat, ac am hynny yd aeth Kyledyr yg gwyllt." ("and his son Kyledyr the Wild. Gwynn killed Nwython and cut out his heart, and forced Kyledyr to eat his father's heart, and that is how Kyledyr went mad"). Though not named directly, the very name Kyledyr Wyllt is close to the two related notions of the forest of Celyddon being where people suffering madness or gwyllt hide.


Western capercaillie – a species that depends on the Caledonian Forest

Being a unique ecosystem in the British Isles, the Caledonian Pinewoods are home to some of the islands' rarest wildlife. It is considered to be one of the last remaining wildernesses in the British Isles.

Breeding bird species in Caledonian pine forests found breeding nowhere else in the British Isles:

Breeding bird species in Caledonian pine forests rare elsewhere in the British Isles:

Mammal species present in Caledonian pine forests:

Red deer near a patch of Caledonian pinewood

Insect species in the Caledonian pine forests:

  • Scottish wood ant - a mound building species in the Formica genus that is almost exclusively found near and inside Caledonian pine forests, as they primarily feed on honeydew that they collect from various scale insects living on the Scots pines found in the forest.[5]

Mammal species extinct in Caledonian pine forests:


A review of the native pinewoods of Scotland Steven & Carlisle (1959)[1] highlighted the plight of the remaining 35 ancient pinewood sites, many of which had been damaged by felling, fire and intensive grazing from sheep and deer. A later review in the 1980s[6] showed that further damage had occurred through ploughing and planting with non-native conifers with less than 12,000 ha of the ancient habitat remaining. A subsequent guide to the ancient pinewoods reviews the conservation story and provides a summary of the management in each site as well as a guide on how to reach all the woods using public transport, walking, and cycling.[7] Much of the remaining Caledonian pine forest is fully protected with most of the forest lying within the Cairngorms National Park. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and Forestry and Land Scotland also own several areas of pinewood on their reserves. One of the largest remaining areas is Ballochbuie Forest on the Balmoral Estate, which is protected as a Special Area of Conservation under the European Union Habitats Directive.[8]

Scientific research continues on the ecology of the Caledonian Forest and its restoration. Populations of the rare groundcover, Linnaea borealis, may be too isolated from one another to produce viable seed.[9] Diversity of fungi has also been affected by the decrease in habitat.[10] The agaric fungus Mycena purpureofusca is commonly found in Caledonian pine woods,[11] and it is considered an indicator species for that habitat type.[12] Fire appears to increase the natural recruitment of Scots pine seedlings.[13]


The charity Trees for Life (Scotland) has been working to conserve the remaining forest, and reforest areas where it has been lost, using fences to prevent deer from eating saplings. This involves the reintroduction of the full range of native flora, including mycorrhizal fungi that assist soil regeneration.[14][15]


In recent years, there has been a growing interest to reintroduce animals which are native to but currently extinct in Great Britain, back into Caledonian pine forests. Corporations have been set up to persuade the government to allow this. The long-running campaign to reintroduce the Eurasian beaver to Knapdale in Argyll has been successful,[16] and there is some support for the reintroduction of the grey wolf and Eurasian lynx.

Recently, some landowners have announced plans to build large game reserves on their land and release the species within them.[17] Paul Lister plans to release Eurasian lynx, brown bear, grey wolf, elk, wild boar and species already present in Scotland into a huge 200 km2 (49,000-acre) enclosure at his estate, Alladale Wilderness Reserve,[17] although releasing top predators such as wolves and bears has become a difficult proposition with local and national regulations.[17] An initial trial enclosure of 5.5 km2 (1,400 acres) was built with elk, wild boar, red deer and roe deer.[17]

Remaining pinewoods[edit]

Bain (2013) lists 38 ancient pinewood sites in Britain which have been identified as the most genuinely native and natural. All of them occur in the Scottish Highlands. The Caledonian Pinewood Inventory[18] breaks these down into 84 smaller sub-units of the main sites. In March 2019, as part of the implementation of the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Act 2018, the Scottish Government listed 84 sites as Caledonian pinewood in regulations, given below.[19]


  1. ^ a b Steven, Henry Marshall; Carlisle, A. (1959). The Native Pinewoods of Scotland. Oliver and Boyd.
  2. ^ Green, Thomas (2007). Concepts of Arthur, p. 64. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus. ISBN 978-0-7524-4461-1.
  3. ^ Young, William A. (2022), The Ghosts of the Forest: The Lost Mythology of the North, Inter-Celtic, pp. 330 - 331, ISBN 9781399920223
  4. ^ The Scottish Beaver Network Archived 2006-02-16 at the Wayback Machine (viewed June 11th 2009)
  5. ^ "Guide to the Wood Ants of the UK and related species" (PDF). Cairngorms. July 2024. Archived (PDF) from the original on August 5, 2021. Retrieved June 9, 2024.
  6. ^ Bain C.G. (1987). Native Pinewoods in Scotland: A Review 1957-1987, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Sandy.
  7. ^ Bain C.G. (2013) The Ancient Pinewoods of Scotland, A Travellers Guide. Sandstone Press, Dingwall
  8. ^ "Ballolchbuie SAC: Site Details". Joint Nature Conservation Committee. Archived from the original on 2010-10-13. Retrieved 2011-02-21.
  9. ^ Scobie, A. R.; Wilcock, C. C. (2009). "Limited mate availability decreases reproductive success of fragmented populations of Linnaea borealis, a rare, clonal self-incompatible plant". Annals of Botany. 103 (6): 835–46. doi:10.1093/aob/mcp007. PMC 2707897. PMID 19181748.
  10. ^ A. C. Newton; E. Holden; L. M. Davy; S. D. Ward; L. V. Fleming & R. Watling (Oct 2002). "Status and distribution of stipitate hydnoid fungi in Scottish coniferous forests". Biological Conservation. 107 (2): 181–92. doi:10.1016/S0006-3207(02)00060-5.
  11. ^ Orton PD (1986). "Fungi of northern pine and birch woods". Bulletin of the British Mycological Society. 20 (2): 130–45. doi:10.1016/S0007-1528(86)80042-6.
  12. ^ Tofts RJ, Orton PD (1998). "The species accumulation curve for agarics and boleti from a Caledonian pinewood". Mycologist. 12 (3): 98–102. doi:10.1016/S0269-915X(98)80002-5.
  13. ^ Mark Hancock; Siobhán Egan; Ron Summers; Neil Cowie; Andrew Amphlett; Shaila Rao & Alistair Hamilton (1 July 2005). "The effect of experimental prescribed fire on the establishment of Scots pine Pinus sylvestris seedlings on heather Calluna vulgaris moorland" (PDF). Forest Ecology and Management. 212 (1–3): 199–213. doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2005.03.039.[permanent dead link]
  14. ^ "Trees for Life - What we do"
  15. ^ "‘Magical' mushroom mix to boost regrowth of lost Scottish forests"
  16. ^ "They're back!" Archived 2006-02-16 at the Wayback Machine The Scottish Beaver Network (viewed 11 June 2009)
  17. ^ a b c d "In Scotland’s Search for Roots, A Push to Restore Wild Lands", Yale Environment 360, 16 Sep 2010
  18. ^ Jones A. T. (1999). "The Caledonian Pinewood Inventory of Scotland's Native Scots Pine Woodlands". Scottish Forestry. 53: 237–242.
  19. ^ Scottish Parliament. The Forestry (Exemptions) (Scotland) Regulations 2019 as made, from legislation.gov.uk.

External links[edit]

57°07′12″N 4°42′36″W / 57.1200°N 4.7100°W / 57.1200; -4.7100