Updated: Jan 11, 2019
In the Autumn of 2007, a friend and I were exploring Gillies Hill near Stirling looking for the fourth largest Scots pine in Britain when we came across a grove of five giant sequoia on the very top of the hill. Having been born and raised in California, home to the massive giant sequoia and towering coast redwoods, I was delighted to find these majestic conifers in Scotland.
At the grove, we met a local resident, Douglas Campbell, who said he’d be glad to show us to the Scots pine and while walking to it, he told us about Gillies Hill’s history, about its Iron Age Hill Fort and Dun.
Douglas added that Robert the Bruce hid his camp followers among the woods calling them down near the end of the Battle of Bannockburn. He also told us that the hill was currently threatened by renewed quarrying and that Save Gillies Hill needed help surveying the flora and fauna of the hill. Having had experience with the United States Forest Service as a field botanist, I said sure, I’ll do it! And for good reason as the redwood is on the international ‘endangered’ list, threatened by drought caused by climate change.
“Conifers are an extremely important group of plants, many species provide human-kind with essential materials including timber and medicines, and vast conifer forests act as huge carbon sinks. Despite this, over one third of the world’s c.650 conifer species are threatened with extinction in their native habitats, as a result of unsustainable logging, forest fires, habitat loss, pests, diseases and climate change. Wellingtonias....By establishing collections here in Perthshire, iCONic is creating an internationally important conservation resource that could be used to help restore depleted forests around the world in the future.”
Tom Christian, iCONic Project Officer, Edinburgh Botanic Gardens
Along with other redwoods planted in Scotland in the mid to late 1800s, Gillies Hill’s giant sequoia have been tested by the Dodd Lab of the University of California, Berkeley who concluded that these trees could have been grown from among the first sequoiadendron seeds sent to Europe by John D. Matthew in 1853 to his noted horticulturist father Patrick Matthew of Gourdiehill, in the Carse of Gowrie, Perthshire, who then gave many of the seedlings away to friends and family as living gifts.
Little did I know that in becoming a Gillies Hill volunteer I was setting out on an adventure that is still happening 11 years later, an adventure that would acquaint me intimately with the plants of Gillies Hill - among which are a total of 12 redwoods – and expand outward to documenting redwood trees wherever I travelled throughout Scotland. I sent photos and records back to Ron Levy for his site, Redwood World: Redwoods in the Briitish Isles eventually connecting with the Carse of Gowrie Sustainability Group and their work in creating the Patrick Matthew Trail and onwards to the Scottish Redwood Trust being formed in 2018.
Sometime during the 1860s a total of 12 redwoods were planted by the Murrays on Gillies Hill. As well as the five giant sequoia on the very top of the hill, are four more giant sequoia and one coast redwood that were planted near what is known as the Secret Spring or Grotto to the south of Polmaise Castle. An additional two coast redwoods were planted near the Murray Cemetery to the north and near the estate gatehouse to the south. One of the giant sequoia near the Secret Spring is the largest tree on Gillies hill measuring 8.47 metres in circumference (27.79 feet).
The hilltop giant sequoia grove is deeply valued by the local community and other visitors to the hill. It is the destination of many of the annual 40,000 visitors to Gillies Hill who consider the grove to be a highlight of their hiking, dog walking, bicycling, geocaching, and photography expeditions.
“ From a distance they often look like two trees and have always been known in our house as the King and Queen of the woods. Our children have always been able to point out Gillies Hill from far away due to their prominence on the landscape.”
Matthew 12-13-15 Cambusbarron
Unfortunately, the Gillies Hill grove of giant sequoia is threatened by the proposed quarrying of whinstone by Patersons Quarries Ltd. who in their documents have stated that the Giant Sequoia grove on top of Gillies Hill is, “NOT SIGNIFICANT,” and that it is of low ecological value, poorly situated, stressed and unhealthy.
“I'm the 3rd Great Grandson of Patrick Matthew, who's son John D. Matthew was the one who brought the giant redwood seed stock from California [to Scotland in August 1853]… These Trees are over 160 years old...and are a National Treasure. These trees definitely need to be protected.”
Howard Minnick, Park Ranger (retired), Botanist, Conservationist (Utah, USA)
Petersons’ application included a 14 page Technical Appendix (8.2) regarding the grove which stated that “The presence of a non-native tree species should not prevent sound economic development that brings employment and mineral resources to the area,” and that the trees can be replaced by other trees in a more “suitable” location.
“It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these western woods ... Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries since Christ's time—and long before that—God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, levelling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools.”
John Muir, Scottish-American naturalist and preservationist
Over the past few years, the Cambusbarron Community Council has presented reasons why a “specific adverse impact” would result from the loss of the grove of five giant sequoia on the top of Gillies Hill that are proposed for felling if the quarry is allowed to expand. The Council has stated that the removal of the trees would involve the loss of an iconic skyline element, a hilltop landmark and beacon to local residents; a historical relict of the Victorian era; a destination to those who hike to the hill; and a destination for educational outings; as well as of conservation and biodiversity value saying that categorizing the loss of the grove of giant sequoia on the apex of Gillies Hill as “low to moderate” and “minor” completely dismisses the local people’s strong regard for these trees, historically, recreationally and emotionally. However, the Scottish Government reporter concluded by saying:
“I do not believe that woodland removed as part of the proposal, including the sequoia trees, would be of high natural, recreational or cultural heritage value or of a scale to justify retention under this policy.”
Government Reporter, May 2018 in response to Pattersons Quarries Ltd.’s Vol. 5 Supplementary Information document
Yet precedent for protecting and promoting non-native trees exists throughout Scotland in botanical gardens, historic estates, and through the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Inventory http://www.ancient-tree-hunt.org.uk/ in which are listed Gillies Hill’s nine sequoiadendron (five within the quarry zone). There is also local precedent for the protection of these trees. It can be seen from the current boundaries of rock excavation that previous Murrayshall Quarry management recognised the value to the community and worked around the grove.
“These five trees can be seen from throughout the region, a beacon seen by motorists, commuters, and walkers who pass the Hill every day in their thousands. To remove them would be to remove the hill’s ‘soul.’”
Peter Paterson, Cambusbarron historian
Currently, Tillicoultry Quarries has joined Patersons Quarries in submitting an application and supporting statement for a ROMP Review and Environmental Impact Assessment Report. Both ROMPs [for the whole site] would most likely be considered together and a joint set of conditions proposed by Stirling Council sometime in December 2018. Permission to quarry was granted years ago; the question now is if quarriers can meet with current legislation to be able to move forward. It might not be too late to stop this!
If you want to make a difference please send your email of support to Stirling Council’s Tree Officer, Ingrid Withington at firstname.lastname@example.org and her Head of Department, Christina Cox at email@example.com
You can read more about the trees at:
Save Gillies Hill’s facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/savegillieshill/
SGH website: www. http://savegillieshill.org.uk/
Gillies Hill, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gillies_Hill
Peggy Edwards, is a botanical illustrator, botanist and redwood aficionado
with a Bachelor of Science Environmental Studies from the University of California, Berkeley and a Graduate Certificate Natural Science Illustration from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has been a field Botanist, Naturalist and K-12 Teacher.