Posted on July 12, 2012 by admin

In Ettrick Forest, Moffat, Bowhill on 12 July, 2012

Moffat and Bowhill are directly connected by only the one road, which leaves very little choice of route. Luckily it’s really a very nice road, and a little bit like reliving GCSE geography[1]. I was enjoying some rare sunny weather, too. But then clouds loomed on the horizon, and the sky darkened as I entered Mordor the Scottish Borders. I cycled into the rain, and then, unwittingly 2 minutes away from my destination, I managed to explode my front tyre on an unseen water covered gap in the road. I arrived at Bowhill estate wet and muddy after a scramble up a slope into a forest to fix my ailing velo.

The Bowhill Giants were the first I’d visited which weren’t in a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. They weren’t hidden and demanding unearthing, like the previous ones, either. The three Bowhill badboys had originally made their homes amongst the oldest trees in the estate, a triptych of beeches planted along the bank of an artificial loch in 1790! Very sadly, the weather has taken its toll on them and they needed some very serious trimming, effectively transforming them from living organisms to woody architectural sculptures. My much feted arrival[2] coincided with the couple of weeks when the tree surgeons were nipping and tucking the forest, so instead of going hunting for Giants, they were temporarily on holiday and out in plain sight to greet me. The first was facing down the guard hut at the entrance to the grounds, the second on the gate at the end of the old drag up to the house, and the third on a tree near the guest entrance to the building. Admittedly these Giants were not in their Forest (Ettrick forest, here), but this meant it was the first time that I could meet the giants on a level playing field. Face to face. Mano a mano. The Bowhill giants were diverse and full of character – one looked po faced, one yawning, and one had a nose like a retired prize boxer. Their foliage had taken a battering with some of the bizarre weather, and while the moss, fern and spider plants were growing great, a lot of the native forest flowers were still to show themselves.

When the Giants eventually disappear back to their beech hut homes, they won’t disappear from view – Bowhill has extensive plans for them, including photography workshops, artistic workshops using found forest materials, and storytelling sessions. Speaking to visitors to the estate, they were certainly engaged by them and spurred to visit other Giant colonies, particularly those nearby (Glentress forest, to be visited tomorrow!). Interestingly, even in their current obvious locations, people still had trouble spotting them. If, as a species, we can’t see anything which is (a) a similar colour palette to its surroundings and (b) more than 2 metres above the ground, I have no idea how we evolved evading sabre-toothed tigers and mammoths and things.

The Bowhill estate itself is an interesting thing. Having seen how the old estate in Machynlleth was dealt with and reclaimed by the people – fully integrated into its community, housing council and useful amenities – at Bowhill we have a halfway solution. The duke of Buccleuch[3] and his family still live in the house at certain times of the year, but a section of the house is open for visitors to appreciate the interior, ornaments, and paintings. The grounds are open, and have been open to locals from the days before the estate charged entry. It runs as an educational charity, a sustainable forestry business, a tourist destination, an orienteering and woodland knowledge hotspot, and a family home. The place itself is a strange Victorian beast. Rebuilt in the early 1800s and continually developed and expanded during the following centuries, it is remarkably modest, yet erratically sprawling. No gothic twiddles, but a simple (big) grey stone house set into an estate managed not with the over-thought gardening you might expect, but with an attempt to fit the house into its surroundings and create a manmade faux-natural environment around it. It works pretty well.

The tour of the house brought a lot of aristocratic history into play. Big families marrying other big families and royal spinoffs, people inheriting this, people inheriting that: centuries of history accurately recorded, down to the names of pet dogs, and the comforters they wore as toddlers. Except this family originally made their money as Reivers, nicking family fortunes, swapping allegiances about as frequently as I change my shorts[4]. The dukes of Buccleuch have been good, they look after their land, they look after their serfs, they love their trees and indeed planted 15,000 of them after the war[5]. But does a couple of generations of theft and one or two tactical arranged marriage deserve vast estates for centuries and overly recorded historical relevance, even if they’re very nice about it? I was given a tour, and it’s a fascinating display of tradition, of British history, of opulence, and of family stories. But it’s a vast privilege that is still enjoyed by a small few. The Queen had a super jubilee, and her most socially acceptable grandson and 2nd inline to the throne had a PR boostingly excellent marriage. And I guess it’s the same with the giant landowners – as long as they don’t annoy people, then they’re tolerated and if you’re lucky actively come good for their environment, and that’s fine. But sometimes I wonder whether the French way is better: Marvel at the Palace of Versailles, at the tradition, at the French history, at the opulence, and at the family stories. But it’s all owned by the people. I don’t know, I had a lovely day anyway.

Tomorrow the Glentress Giants, and the Edinburgh Family!

[1] A V-shaped valley, cut by a river, with some nice lochs at areas where the valley widens and joins other contributing rivers. You could even see springs springing out of the valley walls, all at the same level where the rock changes from permeable to impermeable. And the little springs were themselves cutting little V-shaped valleys into the big valley walls!
[2] Free coffee and tours of the house and grounds!
[3] Rumour has it that the dukedom of Buccleuch gets its name from the first duke, a ranger in the royal Ettric forest, who wrestled a stag that was threatening the king into a valley (stag = buck, valley in Gaellic = cleuch)
[4] Once every two weeks.
[5] The estate was used as a military hospital, and then base in world wars I and II respectively, and presumably a whole bunch of trees got felled in the process. In fact, the wars were part of a bizarre timescale of the house, compared to noteworthy events including the release of the last Harry Potter Book, and of the Wizard of Oz at Grauman’s Chinese in Hollywood, of the first Apple Macintosh, of the US declaring war on GB, of the first McDonalds, and tsunamis and volcanoes.

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