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How the Scottish Redwood Trust came about! Part 2 of 2

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

How the Scottish Redwood Trust came about!

By Fiona Ross, Co-founder and Chair of the Scottish Redwood Trust

Today, 6 years on from Patrick Matthew landing on my doorstep, I have just come off the phone with a man who wants to create a redwood grove, well a forest actually on a 40 acre site he owns in Argyll and Bute. It was a very exciting conversation. We have come a long way.

Previously, in part 1 of this blog, I talked about how the SRT came about. It all began when a ‘2015 zeitgeist’, a collective spirit, collided to tell the story of Patrick Matthew (PM). He was a relatively unknown 19th century landowner, to many, who had published a basic theory of the ‘process of natural selection’ twenty-eight years before Darwin. And the first person outside California to receive and cultivate redwoods, specially Sequoiadenrdrom Gigateum. The Carse of Gowrie Sustainability (CoGSG), which I chair, had secured £10,000 in Heritage Lottery Funding to promote the legacy of the remarkable life and times of Patrick Matthew.

Two years previously, the first person to introduce Patrick Matthew to us, Dr Mike Sutton had travelled up to Scotland at his own expense, to do an Evening Lecture at the Hutton Institute hosted by CoGSG. Mike was a Professor of Criminology at Trent Nottingham University, now retired, and his lecture was to share his investigations into the PM v Darwin controversy. I, also, wanted to gauge interest in a wider reaching PM project. The event was fully booked with interested locals and representatives from agencies like the Perth and Kinross Countryside Trust and the Tay Landscape Partnership.

On reflection, what I did gauge, was a whiff of Darwin’s supremacy as the 'owner' of theory of the ‘process of natural selection’, not a relatively unknown man who many viewed as a ‘crank’. If I look back on that night, it was more of a sneer from the establishment at a community group who were flying their flag to Mike Sutton’s new scientific evidence. Were we naïve or had we hit a nerve? What we at CoGSG recognised was that this was just one of many elements of the PM story and not the only time PM had been sidelined by the ‘establishment’.

More often than not, my instinct is to drive things forward, and in my enthusiasm I sometimes don’t see or don’t want to see the things which will hold me back. On this occasion, if I’m honest with myself, the ‘sneer’ was one of the reasons to applied to study for an MSc in Climate Change, my biggest passion, at Dundee University. Saying to myself, they won’t be able to sneer at me then!

Oddly, that evening at the James Hutton Institute, the fire alarm went off 3 times, driving the audience out into a very chilly March night. I was concerned about a number of elderly attendees standing in the cold, seeing their breath on the night air. At the time, I had credited it to Patrick Matthew playing tricks, perhaps to distract from my embarrassment about the technical failures. Now, I wonder what ‘Darwin’ poltergeist was at work that night.

Undaunted, at the end of the lecture, I asked the audience “would you be interested in promoting PM on a bigger scale?”, there was a resounding raising of hands! Two years later, we launched the Patrick Matthew Memorial Weekend, funded by the Heritage Lottery.

The project revolved around the Patrick Matthew Carse-wide Trail which took visitors and locals across the Carse to key PM locations, all connected by QR coding to navigate them back to the CoGSG website and the fuller details. The information is still available on the CoGSG website listed at the end of the blog. The event was attended by locals and visitors including PM descendants from the US, Germany and Holland. – including Howard Minnick, the 3rd great grandson of PM. Custodians of Patrick Matthew redwoods and other Carse redwoods, opened up their private grounds to visits and tours, like Catherine Drummond Herdman (CDH) the custodian of Megginch Castle. Catherine’s family are related to the Matthew’s by marriage and are located just about 2 miles from Grange, where PM lived.

Photos: left to right: Howard and Patti Ann Minnick, tree hugging at Errol Park and Hans Gertz, great grandson of PM, and his wife.

Previously, Dr Mike Sutton said in his first email to me “The discovery of Matthew's grave is of great cultural importance for Scotland”. They knew he was buried in Errol Graveyard but didn’t know the precise spot. With the help of Perth and Kinross Council checked the burial records and surveyed the site – where they literally push down long metal poles into the ground to find coffins and remains.

One possible reason why PM’s legacy was lost in time, is that he died penniless, on the 8th June 1874. After of years of speculation, it was confirmed that Patrick, his wife, an aunt and two daughters are interred in plot 184, purchased by Patrick himself. The lair is awaiting the family to place a headstone.

Photo: Errol Graveyard, Howard Minnick at Errol graveyard and a poster about the PM Project.

Well before I met Peggy in person, we had been sharing redwood locations and sightings with Ron Levy of Redwood World to add to his UK redwood register. It led to Peggy and I talking about creating something similar just for Scottish trees. On the 27th June in 2017, Peggy emailed to say “Would it help if I started a spreadsheet with these trees (by county)? Is someone already doing this? Ron Levy has quite a few on Redwood World, but it would be nice to see them all on one sheet, I'm getting confused!”. That spreadsheet started with about 250 trees, and now it catalogues over 3,600. As curator, Peggy dedicates 100s of hours to log in new sightings and manage amendments. It’s become a daily activity! It’s become our greatest asset.

All in all, if you ask someone in the Carse of Gowrie ‘who is Patrick Mathew’ now most local people would know – especially if they are a Junior Carsonian. One local lass whose family were visiting the Royal Edinburgh Botanic Gardens was asked by the guide ‘do you know what tree this is?’. She quickly said “Yes, it’s a redwood and Patrick Matthew was the first person to receive the seeds from California!”. That’s what I call spreading the word!

That was all back in 2017 and after two years of hard graft and six steps forward and eight back, whilst I was studying, the project was finished. Two project officers and 10,000 hours of volunteer time later. It was a community initiative which focussed on all aspects of PMs life, but we were was constantly reminded that the project walked a parallel path with the scientific establishment’s disapproval of PMs contribution. For one individual, it was less sneering and more attack!

This staunch Darwinist, who had an on-going ‘robust’ ‘scientific’ relationship with Mike Sutton, tried to prevent the PM project happening. Dr D, as we affectionately named him, was a part-time lecturer, who I’d probably rename a ‘Darwinian poltergeist’ today. He was infuriated by Mike Sutton's research work and publications. He contacted Astrid Leeson, who was working with our junior division, the JCs, and myself, saying we were “poisoning the minds of the local school children”. He contacted the Heritage Lottery to withdraw the funding by calling us ‘sharletons’ – was the word used, I seem to recall. It was astounding and exhausting as CoGSG navigated the path to execute the project. His ‘Darwinian fire’ was finally dampened after I exchanged a few emails with the University he worked for. Note Dr D, or any Darwinian poltergeist for that matter, don’t use your work email when trolling!

Nevertheless, the Patrick Matthew Memorial Project was launched, and it was amazing experience, which left a lasting PM rainbow from west to east across the Carse landscape. And now was the time for CoGSG, and I myself, to take a break to focus on our lives and other projects. Funnily enough, that didn’t last long either, about 2 months in fact. It would seem that for PM ‘time and tide wait for no man’ or woman, when we discovered that the project was underspent. We had to use or lose it!

I saw an opportunity, to match with Scottish Forestry Commission community funding, enough to create a memorial orchard. First question was where to locate it, and a quick call to Catherine Drummond-Herdmen (CDH) at Megginch Castle was positively received. On the 12th December 2017, she emailed to say “What an exciting idea Fiona. Yes, is the answer. I have a vegetable cage (with hens in it!) where [we] can overwinter them [the fruit tree seedlings grafts]. And by March I will have found where we can put them...then we can plant them as…the first truly commercial orchard back in the Carse”.

Photo: PM orchard trees ready for planting, Coral and Ian Bell planting out & sitting area

The second question was ‘if Patrick Matthew was alive today what kind of orchard would he design?’. In 2018, the Patrick Matthew Heritage Orchard, as CDH said a commercial orchard, was created a year later. It included 125 heritage trees, including local heritage varieties like Lass O’Gowrie, Bloody Ploughman, Megginch Favourite, Port Allen Russet and Tower of Glamis. Many of these varieties would have been available during PM’s lifetime. So hopefully, there was a big thumbs up coming from Errol Graveyard, just 2 miles away.

In that year, after 10 years, I moved away from the Carse of Gowrie to just over the Sidlaw Hills to rural Angus, near Birkhill. And, if I thought I was putting physical and mental distance between myself and the all- consuming PM legacy, I probably was. Perhaps, that was the case, but whatever the reason, funnily enough, that didn’t last for long either – less than six months!

In my new environs, I took to walking frequently in Camperdown Park with my dog Millie. It’s house and grounds were originally owned by Admiral Duncan, who was related to Patrick Matthew by marriage. No surprise, then that there are 21 redwoods in the extensive grounds, and there is some evidence to suggest that the 10 giant redwoods have links to PM. The extensive 400 acres, often allow glimpses of the Tay estuary and the Carse of Gowrie beyond, were gifted to Dundee in 1946. I must have walked past these redwoods 100 times, until one day I was suddenly struck, or as Peggy has said, struck ‘by an Edison’s light bulb’ moment.

I emailed Peggy, after mooting the concept with Howard Minnick, on the 4th April 2018, saying ‘I did want to talk to you about the idea of setting up a Scottish Redwood Trust. This idea has been in Howard's sights for quite some time but it’s hard for him to drive it forward here on the ground and what with political landscapes and funding avenues ever changing it’s even harder. I have discussed with him that I would like to scope this idea out, find some initial experts, patrons etc to come on board.’. Peggy came on aboard as a co-founder. So did Howard Minnick.

By a co-incident, over the last ten years, I had got to know many of the custodians of PM’s trees and Carse redwoods like CDH at Megginch Castle (the Drummonds were also related to PM by marriage), Lord & Lady Inchyra and Jamie Heriot-Maitland at Errol Park Estate (who have a 31 redwood row, although not PM). I knew Catherine from orchard community work, for two years I had rented a cottage from Lord Inchyra and I had restored quite a bit of furniture from Jamie at Errol Park – my main day job at that time. The serendipity was remarkable, with the widening of the CoGSG collective ‘little black book’.

In those early days, the invaluable support from experts like Syd House M.B.E and Martin Gardener from the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh helped navigate the path. I would also like to mention my redwood ‘spotter’ pals Maggie Ballantyne (our Secretary) and Val Beveridge (management committee), especially Maggie as Covid hasn’t stopped us walking and spotting – which has kept us sane.

It’s now four years, since we formed the Trust, and it seems to have become its own zeitgeist – a collective “spirit” of togetherness! Our many talented & passionate spotters have brought our STR catalogue to nearly 4,000 redwoods. A resource which is meticulously curated by Peggy. John Lamont’s careful and precise cultivation enables us to now plan ‘PM heritage redwood glade’ projects. The SRT campaigns: i) Inchture Redwood Avenue and ii) Gillies Hill. Perhaps, Covid lockdowns has given us more time to focus on the Trust and giving purpose to our daily exercise, it has for me.

Whilst PM was not recognised initially as the first to receive and cultivate seed from the Californian redwood he himself wrote "These seeds mean more to me than any amount of gold. Planting them here on the Carse will change the face of the landscape and really put Perthshire on the map". There is some irony, that 160 years later, they aren't on Perthshire’s Big Tree Country map, an initiative of the Perth and Kinross Countryside Trust. PM did get an information board, which has now seen better days. We are continuing to address this.

Photos: PM information board at the Redwood Avenue in Inchture

On a final note, about the ‘sneerers’, well, with or without an MSc, they are still there, They are there for anyone who pops their head up above the parapit. To those of us who question the establishment. My year at Dundee University, taught me some amazing things and it stretched me in all directions. Whilst I gained a ‘distinction’, I knew I would never be a social scientist. I'm too much of a maverick, a community activist and a storyteller. Vive la difference!

p.s I have included a number of excerpts from emails in this blog, to represent the old fashioned letter by post of today. With the art of letter writing in on the decline, emails and blogs seem to be the new 21st century letter and how we will archive the words of wordsmiths in the future?

Links of interest from the above:

· Patrick Matthew website (Mike Sutton)

Fiona Ross is a community activist and practitioner, and co-founder and Chair of the Scottish Redwood Trust. She graduated from Dundee University, in 2017, with an MSc with distinction, in Climate Change, Sustainability and Low Carbon Futures and also teaches at HERA at the Harris Academy. Her previous career, as a producer/director in factual television, started after she graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1989, with an M.A in Film and Television. After travelling the world, she retrained as antique furniture restorer, and moved back to Scotland in 2008 to find a more sustainable life. She’s never been busier.

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