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Living archaeology: the legacy of the Beauly Elm

Author:  Sarah Franklin
  05/12/2023
Last Updated:  05/12/2023

Sarah Franklin, Landscape Manager at Historic Environment Scotland

Although Historic Environment Scotland (HES) has a property portfolio of over 330 sites of national importance managed on behalf of Scottish Ministers, it only has a relatively small landholding of 750 hectares.

The Digital Documentation and Innovation Team at HES recorded the Beauly Elm using laser scanning and photogrammetry. (Historic Environment Scotland)

The Digital Documentation and Innovation Team at HES recorded the Beauly Elm using laser scanning and photogrammetry. (Historic Environment Scotland)

The Beauly Elm on a chilly day. (Historic Environment Scotland)

The Beauly Elm on a chilly day. (Historic Environment Scotland)

Traditionally, the focus has been on the upstanding built and below-ground archaeology of the sites. However, with the formation of Historic Environment Scotland (the dissolution of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and the amalgamation of the responsibilities with Historic Scotland), there has been a clear definition provided of what the historic environment is. If you were wondering, in Scotland it is defined as the physical evidence for past human activity. It connects people with place, and with the traditions, stories and memories associated with places and landscapes.

So that brings us to trees. HES has managed trees on a risk/hazard management basis on the sites, habitually seeing them as a risk to property and people. When we do tree surveys, we’ve referred to them as ‘Tree Hazard Management’ rather than maybe ‘Tree Condition Surveys’ as an example. But when we consider the definition for the historic environment and investigate the term ‘physical evidence of human activity’, then trees certainly tick the box.

Reams have been written on trees as key structural features within historic gardens or designed landscapes, the development of plantation ancient woodland to support past industries, and the planting of trees as key land-boundary markers and community gathering places. And if we then talk about the connection of people with place, traditions and stories, there are bucketloads of examples, from the 600-year-old Birnam Oak and Macbeth associations to Pontius Pilate being born under the 5,000-year-old (dates vary) Fortingall Yew in Perthshire. Indeed, it seems that every other tree in Scotland on a historic property claims to have been planted by Mary, Queen of Scots herself! It’s apparent that many trees are indeed ‘living archaeology’.

The demise of the Beauly Elm

However, the demise of the 800-year-old Beauly Elm due to Dutch elm disease has provided us with an opportunity to see afresh and consider the tree stock on the estate as a cultural asset, and a key component of the historic environment. The Beauly Elm itself was a lone remnant of a once ancient avenue leading to Beauly Priory and thought to be the oldest surviving elm in Europe. It’s described in medieval documents as a boundary marker for the land granted to the Valliscaulian Monks on establishment of the priory and has stood, as a prominent and gnarly gothic landmark, in the north side of the village square for centuries.

In 2021, any vague hope was lost, and the elm was reported as being only 5% living material. The temptation and recommendation were to fell immediately, but how do you deal with the demise of a significant cultural asset? If we were to lose a building to demolition, we would at the very least make meticulous records of its structure and condition before it was lost. What would we do for a tree?

Digital recording and community consultation

A decision was made to retain the tree for as long as structurally possible (at the time we were anticipating six months to a year), even if that meant as a standing monolith. This would allow time for recording and surveying and informing both the local community and other interested parties. Recording of buildings, collections and archaeology is now done by digital scanning, and that summer the Digital Documentation and Innovation Team at HES recorded their first tree, producing stunning images through laser scanning and photogrammetry.

The news of the elm’s demise was messaged out to the scientific community in terms of dendrochronology, climate change and disease, with the images shared with the local community and wider press. The images captured the public’s imagination, and with additional articles and interviews requested, it is thought that around 3.5 million people read or heard about the elm. As a Landscape Manager, I have often said to colleagues that no one will comment on masonry works on a site, but if you undertake any tree works, everyone will be in touch. The Beauly Elm was no different.

This public interest allowed the snowball to keep rolling, and in the summer of 2022, HES issued its first ever Historic Environment Support Fund (HESF) to a specific tree-related project – the 2022 Year of Stories, Guardian of the Gateway: 800 years of the Beauly Wych Elm. Public events were held throughout the year in Beauly by Circus Artspace and artist Isabel McLeish, with engagement from NatureScot and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and an accompanying 80-page publication produced.

However, by the winter of 2022 the structural condition of the tree, which by this time was dead, was a concern and the remaining limbs were removed, with the intention of a full fell being undertaken at the end of the winter with a last community send-off. But over Christmas, after a period of intensive cold followed by rapid thaw, Mother Nature beat us to it and the Beauly Elm finally succumbed.

Public love and legacy

The elm again hit the headlines, and HES was inundated with queries from the public. However, the feedback was all positive and we did not receive a single note of complaint or criticism. Like a terminal diagnosis for a loved one, the community had had time over the past year to digest and celebrate the life of this silent presence in the village. And the elm will live on, no longer as ‘living archaeology’, but as a piece of timber within the HES collections (the majority being gifted to the community) and survey images acting as a picture book to the intangible heritage surrounding the historic tree.

To view the three-dimensional digital scan model of the Beauly Elm and read more about it in the media, visit these websites:

www.sketchfab.com/3d-models/beauly-elm-bf14d2bdc7604599bddf5aad549959ec

www.circus.scot/guardian-of-the-gateway

www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-64176914


This article was taken from Issue 203 Winter 2023 of the ARB Magazine, which is available to view free to members by simply logging in to the website and viewing your profile area.