The Most Magnificent Walnut Tree in Scotland

My family and I are preparing to travel back to Scotland for the first time since we moved back to Vancouver in 2011 (though my wife has taken one trip there in 2013). I often talk about the house where we lived in St. Andrews. Boast, really. I often boast about that house, knowing that we’ll almost certainly never live in a place as magnificent as that home.

From what we could tell, the house was built around 1780. There are a few mentions of it online and I’ve found some references to its use as an illegal Anglican Church in the 19th century in a book. Its main claim to fame, however, is that it lies next door to what is known as Mary Queen of Scots St. Andrews apartment. It’s not clear how often she stayed there, but the apartment was definitely owned by the Queen in some shape or form, before she was imprisoned and executed by the English Elizabeth I. Her apartment is now a mini museum and houses the library for an elite boarding school. If we were to take a sledge hammer to the wall in the front room, we could have made a doorway right into Mary’s old bedroom. In fact, our house was built on a cellar that was part of Mary’s property in the 16th century and the garden was part of the same lot.

Occasionally, we would have locals over and they would point out some details that we would never have noticed about our house. For example, one neighbour, who was working on a Masters in Renaissance art history remarked that the fire place in the great room was likely designed and built by one of the Adams brothers, a family of famous architects and designers in the 18th century.

On another occasion, our downstairs neighbour noted that Samuel Johnson remarked that the walnut tree in the garden was perhaps the most magnificent walnut tree in all of Scotland (though I cannot remember the exact quote). Given the lifespan of a walnut tree (250 years?), it had certainly seen better days. But it was obviously a stately tree at one time.

I don’t know why it took me so long, but while preparing for our trip to Scotland, I thought about that tree and Johnson’s quote and wondered if I could find mention of our old house in Johnson’s diaries myself. I checked out his book recounting his trip to Scotland from the Vancouver Public Library recently and found the following quote about trees in St. Andrews:

From the bank of the Tweed to St. Andrews I had never seen a single tree, which I did not believe to have grown up far within the present century… There is no tree for either shelter or timber… At St. Andrews Mr. Boswell found only one, and recommended it to my notice; I told him that it was rough and low, or looked as if I thought so.

Now, given that the walnut tree lives only about 250 years and that Johnson made his trip to St. Andrews in 1775 (about 242 years ago), perhaps he did see our walnut tree. And perhaps this 10 year old, slow growing tree, was the most magnificent walnut tree he had seen in Scotland. Unfortunately, that is a pretty backhanded compliment.

Two more things to say regarding Johnson’s tree hunting experience in Scotland:

  1. If his experience was true, he would likely barely recognize Scotland now. It does not, by any means, resemble, say, the Redwood Forest, but there are some very impressive

    Holm Oak at St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews

    trees nonetheless, one of which is an evergreen Holm Oak just down the road from our old house in the quad of my alma mater, St. Mary’s College at the University of St. Andrews. It would have been planted around the time of his trip, so it might not have counted as a tree in his eyes.

  2. For an otherwise brilliant man, Johnson displays the height of English colonial arrogance and snobbery. At one time, Scotland was well forested, but “colonized by wankers” who wanted to have the most powerful navy in the world. To do that, the “wankers” needed timber, so they took it from Scotland’s forests, which still haven’t grown back (due partly to the eradication of wolves in Britain). When they discovered British Columbia, they took that timber, too, and now we, in Vancouver, have to travel hours on end to find giant trees in a province once covered in them. So for Samuel Johnson to complain about the lack of trees in Scotland is to ignore what his own people did to the rest of the world. Suddenly, the Scottish independence movement seems even more reasonable.

Now there is a movement (however unserious) to have Scotland join Canada. And it makes sense to me. They are both smaller, liberal countries dominated by larger nations to the south, now run by nationalist wackos. Not only that, they have in common English deforestation originating in the desire for a now antique navy.



About azlewis

I'm an academic living in the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. I also teach at a local seminary.
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