Birnam Oak

Earth Matters: Exploring the lakes and trees of Scotland

by Betsy Herbert

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 08/21/2015

The Hermitage Pathway was been walked by the likes of Wordsworth, Queen Victoria and Mendelssohn. (Contributed photo)

The Hermitage Pathway was been walked by the likes of Wordsworth, Queen Victoria and Mendelssohn. (Contributed photo)

After a few days of fun and frolic at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland last week, I rented a car and set out on an eight-day foray through the Scottish Highlands. As an American, I did not take driving in Scotland lightly. It’s scary driving on the other side of the road and you have to muddle through “rotaries” to find your exit while remembering to yield to cars coming from the right. Scotland’s roads are narrow and often edged with high and unforgiving curbs. Stressful!

For me, hiking has always been a great way to relieve stress, so I decided to visit plenty of forests, rivers, and trees in Scotland. What a joy it was to see so much water! I started with a visit to a Scottish fish ladder at the dam in the town of Pitlochry. The ladder is designed to help salmon returning from the sea bypass the dam on their way back to their ancestral headwaters to spawn. Engineers have installed an electronic counter that keeps track of the fish that use the ladder each season. When I looked, the count was 3,760, but the season isn’t over yet.

No visit to Scotland would be complete without a visit to Loch Ness. My favorite view was from the ruins of Urquhart Castle, near Inverness.

The original Loch Lomond and Ben Lomond. (Contributed photo)

The original Loch Lomond and Ben Lomond. (Contributed photo)

I next set out to view some of Scotland’s oldest and biggest trees. First on the list was the Fortingall Yew, an ancient European yew (Taxus baccata) in the churchyard of the village of Fortingall in Perthshire. The yew is estimated to be anywhere between 1,500 and 5,000 years, so it may be the oldest tree in Britain. It’s difficult to ascertain its age because the tree has been cut back and burned repeatedly over the ages

On my way to the village, I stopped to visit Castle Menzies, a 16th century stone relic that has been thoughtfully restored. I learned from the exhibits inside that one of the Menzies clan who inhabited.the castle was the famous Scottish botanist Archibald Menzies, who traveled the world in the 1700s collecting plants. Menzies’ name is commemorated in the scientific names of several plants he discovered, including the Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and the Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii), trees which are very familiar to Californians. (David Douglas introduced the Douglas fir to Scotland from the Pacific Northwest in 1837).

The next ancient tree I visited was the legendary Birnam Oak, thought to be the last surviving tree of Birnam Wood, featured in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The Birnam Oak grows, along with other very old giant trees, along the River Tay near the town of Dunkeld.

Though most of the forest land that I saw from the road was intensively managed timberland, there are also some beautiful protected areas that are part of the National Trust for Scotland.

One of them is the Hermitage, a woodland surrounding the river Braan and its spectacular Black Linn Waterfall. I took great pleasure in knowing that the path that I followed had been walked by Wordsworth, Queen Victoria, Mendelssohn and Turner. The path, which feels like the backdrop to a fairy tale, takes you into iconic stands of enormous Douglas firs, planted in the 1800s and 190

I ended my Scottish Highlands tour with a visit to Loch Lomond, the largest freshwater lake in Britain, and Ben Lomond, the peak that towers above it. In Santa Cruz County, our own Loch Lomond and Ben Lomond are named after these places, so this was indeed a meaningful way to end my tour.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer. She can be contacted through her website,