Arboreal Nationalism and Species Variety in Early Nineteenth Century Scotland

News | Posted on Wednesday 20 July 2022

In early nineteenth century Scotland a wave of popular interest in trees swept the nation. Harrie Neal considers the implications.

A lakeside village scene with lombardy poplar trees (Populus nigra cv. Italica) growing by the water's edge. Lithograph after G. Barnard, 1848. Wellcome Collection.
A lakeside village scene with lombardy poplar trees (Populus nigra cv. Italica) growing by the water's edge. Lithograph after G. Barnard, 1848. Wellcome Collection.

Writers of novels, educational texts, and poetry began taking an interest in Scottish forests and connected them to a national identity. The Clearances, which saw rural villages, common lands, and forests enclosed and an Anglo-agricultural model imposed over the course of the late eighteenth century, prompted contemporaries to reflect on the ways in which ‘improvement’ was affecting rural life and culture. Several writers expressed a generalised concern that native trees were being destroyed and replaced with foreign ones. Some considered the deforestation of native trees and spread of non-native trees as a biological onslaught on Scottish culture and aligned new species with European colonisers seeking to drain the nation of its indigenous resources. This led some to interrogate what it was that made one tree species Scottish and another foreign. Books and illustrations appeared detailing the precise qualities different trees possessed in relation to human qualities. Poetry emphasised the nature-based roots of Scots-Gaelic, and educational writing encouraged children to learn with and from trees in order to become good patriotic citizens. This particular blurring of nature and nation sought to protect and define a native national identity through protecting and defining native trees.

‘A Dangerous Most Plant’

A tree species often targeted as a foreign invader was the Lombardy poplar; a tree hailing from Italy that became popular in the eighteenth century as a timber source because of its fast-growing properties.[1] In 1792, the Scottish poet and linguist Reverend Alexander Geddes compared the Lombardy poplar to Scottish oaks in a defence of the rural Highland dialect:

Our numerous monosyllables, rough, rigid and inflexible as our oaks, are capable of supporting any burthen; whilst the polysyllables of our southern neighbours, tall, smooth, and slender, like the Lombardy poplar, bend under the smallest weight.[2]

Here, Geddes connects the deforestation of the Highlands during the Clearances through English agricultural techniques, with the cultural erasure of dialect in the image of the invading Lombardy poplar. This analogy is deployed to criticise English and Anglo-Scottish approaches to the improvement of Scotland, presenting them as motivated by commercial and military gain. By describing the weakness of the Lombardy poplar, in comparison with the old, sturdy oak, Geddes asserts that the Scots, and Scottish culture are durable enough to withstand these attempts at colonisation.

Drawing on Geddes poem, the Ulster-Scottish novelist and educationalist, Elizabeth Hamilton later critiqued the invasion of Lombardy poplars in Scottish oak forests as replacing the ‘durable’ with the ‘weak’, noting that such quick-growing trees will in turn produce ‘weak timber’ grown in a ‘hot-house’ for the navy.[3] In this way, Hamilton objects to the deforestation of ancient and diverse trees, and their replacement with fast-growing species like the Lombardy poplar, which had already taken root in England.[4] Hamilton’s criticism of Lombardy poplars here becomes a broader critique of Britain’s recent military’s failures in the Napoleonic wars and aggressive imperial expansion at the expense of Scottish values. Given that Britain was expanding its military and commercial interests under the auspices of union between England, Wales, and Scotland (and Ireland within the newly formed United Kingdom), Hamilton’s alignment of values like ‘utility’, ‘strength’ and ‘durability’ with Scottish oaks marks a disassociation with England, subversively critiquing English values and behaviours by contrast as ‘weak’, commercially-minded, and ultimately splintering the United Kingdom and damaging the empire.[5] However, the difference between her treatment of Scottish and English trees and the Indian Mango and Banyan groves, which she presented as ‘wild’, dangerous, and ‘solemn’ in comparison with the enclosures of England, demonstrates a level of ambivalence towards imperial agricultural improvement schemes, of which she is far more critical when applied in Scotland.

A Taste for Nature

Hamilton frequently used trees to explain principles like taste and national character. In one passage, she describes walking through a woodland with an acquaintance who instead of admiring the vast and ancient beauty of an oak tree, claimed that she preferred the tall ones that looked ‘just as if they had been shaped with a pair of scissors.’[6] Hamilton quips, ‘Need we ask by what associations her notions of beauty were influenced?’ indicating that her acquaintance’s taste has been shaped by fashion, most likely in London and Paris.[7] Moreover, her companion’s dismissal of the ‘common’ oaks, directly connects the idea of the oak trees’ durability and slow growth with Hamilton’s common sense philosophy with which the text is largely concerned: like the oak trees, the mind too requires slow and careful attention and experience in order to become strong and durable.[8] For Hamilton then, forming ‘a taste for the beauties of nature in the material world’ is important for developing the habits, principles, and behaviours that constitute British national character like ‘utility’, ‘strength’, and ‘durability’.[9]

Another Scottish writer concerned with the relationship between native trees and national character was Hamilton’s friend, Reverend Archibald Alison, to whom she dedicated one of her books. Alison proposed that trees themselves possessed ‘character’ and that it was of patriotic importance to pay attention to the different qualities oaks, yews, spruce, ash, and willow, have in relation to each other.[10] For instance, while oaks possess durability and strength, willows are ‘melancholy’, and paying attention to both develops the fortitude required to overcome both personal and political hardship. [11] Hamilton argues that Alison’s  notion of tree variety as developing national character can even operate as a means of resolving disputes. In an example of two gentlemen who fight over their different ideas about different trees, Hamilton argues that if they had both paid attention to many native trees rather than focusing on just one species, they would share the same expanded taste for nature. In this way, Hamilton suggests that native diversity has the capacity to moderate and unite in a way that might even harmonize conflicting political opinions. As such, Hamilton argues that protecting diverse native forests over mono-species plantations will reunite a splintering United Kingdom, for the benefit of the union and by extension its domestic and imperial political activities.

These examples of arboreal nationalism and interest in native tree diversity, though brief, illustrate the ways in which contemporaries of the past saw the conservation of native species as a means to preserve the language, culture, and way of life of people with a historic attachment to the land. Yet, they also show how some people used native species to assert their own ideas about national identity and reinforce the mechanisms of colonial oppression. This research forms part of a larger project that investigates how early ideas about biodiversity, or species variety, were used by the British empire to organise people and nonhuman species.


[1] Anne Beamish, ‘A much-abused tree: the rise and fall of the Lombardy poplar’, Studies in the Histories of Gardens and Designed Landscapes (2022): 1-18.

[2] Reverend Alexander Geddes, ‘Three Scottish poems, with a Previous Dissertation of the Scotto-Saxon Dialect’, in Transactions of the Society of the Antiquaries of Scotland  (Edinburgh: William and Alexander Smellie, 1792), 92. Charles Jones, ‘Alexander Geddes: An Eighteenth Century Scottish Orthoepist and Dialectologist’, Folia Linguistica Historica XVII-2 (2009):71-103.

[3] Elizabeth Hamilton, Letters on the Elementary Principles of Education (London: G. and J. Robinson, 1801), 2:179.

[4] Christina D. Wook, ‘“A Most Dangerous Tree”: The Lombardy poplar in Landscape Gardening’, Arnoldia 54, 1 (1994): 24-30 (24-5).

[5] Elementary Principles, 2:179.

[6] Ibid, 1:219.

[7] Ibid, 1:219

[8] Ibid, 1:219.

[9] Ibid, 1:218.

[10] Elizabeth Hamilton, A Series of Popular Essays, Illustrative of Principles Especially Connected with the Improvement of the Understanding, the Imagination, and the Heart (Edinburgh: Manners and Miller, 1813) 1:217.

[11] Ibid, 1:219.

Related links

Find out more about Harrie Neal's research.

Related links

Find out more about Harrie Neal's research.