In December last year I, along with a group of family and friends, went for a walk in Pollok Park in Glasgow. Walking in the woodland gardens above Pollok House, we came across the Pollok beech. Oddly shaped, old and gnarled it sits atop a large conical mound, into which wooden steps have been built. Climbing the steps we approached the tree and touched the gnarled bark, marvelling at its distorted shape and obvious age (it’s thought to be at least 250 years old), while the more intrepid members of our group climbed onto the tree itself. From the evidence of bits of cloth tied to the tree others had clearly done the same as us, attaching even more significance to this natural wonder than we did.
What was interesting about this encounter was the fascination that this strange tree held for us, and others before us. The distorted shape, clearly a tree but not quite tree-like, somehow at odds with the semi-formal gardens around, marks it out as different, special. Its position on top of the mound cements this observation of otherworldliness. Here is something different, not quite like the trees around, a place where the everyday is transformed, a liminal place, a glimpse into another world. The bits of cloth tied to the tree mark this out as a wishing or clootie tree where a wish or prayer is offered while attaching strips of cloth, a practice that was adopted into Celtic Christianity though its origins likely stretch back into prehistory. A reminder that natural features were a source of fascination, perhaps even veneration, in the past as well as the present. A reminder for us as archaeologists to pay attention to the natural as well as the humanly created.
Applying this insight to the Neolithic period in Scotland (my particular area of interest), we can begin to suggest some important connections with woodland, trees and the forest. During this period of prehistory, trees formed an important element of the landscape: Scotland was largely forested, it was a time when the forest began to be removed to make space for the new farming practices, a time too when trees were being turned into spectacular monuments. While the use of trees to create monuments may reflect the entirely practical use of an available raw material, the preferred use of oak to build monuments suggests a certain level of selection and, in a tree-filled world, it is likely that trees and the forest formed an important element of the experience and world-view of the communities living within them. So, using trees is unlikely to have been a neutral practice; instead, it may have been imbued with significance and meaning. Therefore, the monuments built of the timber drawn from these trees are likely to have had a significance and power simply from the material from which they were constructed.
Excavations at a couple of sites hint at the possibility that living trees may have been incorporated into monuments, perhaps venerated in the building of these monuments. A tree throw (the hole left when a tree falls or is pulled over) was uncovered within a later Neolithic ceremonial timber enclosure at Carsie Mains in Perthshire, perhaps representing the enclosure of a pre-existing tree. A similar tree throw was found on the line of one side of the avenue entrance into the massive later Neolithic palisaded enclosure at Forteviot and may also represent the incorporation of a living tree into a monumental timber structure. Perhaps these were special trees in much the same way as the Pollok tree is considered significant. Maybe they held such particular meaning and significance to the Neolithic monument builders that their incorporation into these monuments added meaning and power to the structures built. Perhaps the Carsie Mains structure was built to encompass or contain the meaning, power and significance of a tree, perhaps it was a place where another world came into being.
Ultimately we cannot tell if these tree throws are contemporary with the structures alongside and within which they have been found. However, the example of the Pollok tree reminds us that we cannot dismiss such natural connections, but instead must be aware of their possibility and potential importance within narratives of the past.
And so we return to the present day and the Pollok tree. There is one other feature that we have not yet considered here. What of that mound upon which the tree stands? Though it was given scant attention by our group last December, this too is significant to the story of this place. Older than the Pollok tree, now part of the gardens of Pollok house, it may be the location of the earlier 13th century Pollok castle, precursor to the current Pollok house. This has yet to be confirmed by archaeological investigation, but the fact that our tree potentially stands on an earlier, medieval, castle, literally rooted in the history of this place, makes this an even more significant location. Perhaps it really is a place where another world can be glimpsed – a glimpse into the past!