Last August (2018), Bill Badger brought me a couple of twigs from an old willow tree he had found about 1km east of his house at Stoer. The leaves were unlike those of any other local willows, being elongated, pointed and fairly narrow, with fine teeth along the edges and a coating of silky hairs on both sides. A couple of old catkins indicated that the tree was male. I provisionally named it as a white willow Salix alba, a species not previously recorded from Assynt. White willow is an ancient introduction to the British Isles and widely planted, but scarce in north-west Scotland.
I visited the site with Bill on 7th June this year (photo 1) and confirmed the Stoer willow identification. The tree is situated on a small burn at the junction of the boundary walls of three adjacent areas of old in-bye (see 1887 estate map, photo 2), less than 100m south of the Old Soldier’s House (NC049284). Its trunk is nearly 40cm in diameter, hollowed out above, and lies almost parallel to the ground, propped up by a major branch (photos 3 and 4). Despite its apparent age, it is thriving, with a good spread of smaller branches, twigs and leaves (photo 5), where these are out of reach of browsing animals. It would appear to have been planted as a marker, perhaps over 100 years ago; I wonder by whom, where they obtained the original cutting and how they protected it from browsing until it was established?
We approached the site by the ruins of the Old Soldier’s House (photo 6), which was occupied by Angus MacAskill until shortly before his death, at the age of 80, on 13thJanuary 1945. He was indeed an ‘old soldier’; he enlisted on 8thJune 1888, was invalided out on 5thJuly 1905 and may have served in India. His house is on a well-chosen site, facing south, backed by a small crag which provides some shelter from the prevailing winds, and surrounded by trees. These include several large ashes and some large old sprawling examples of bay willow Salix pentandra (photo 7). They have broad shiny leaves, again quite unlike any other local willows, and magnificent male catkins in early summer, bright yellow and up to 5cm long (photo 8).
Bay willow is a native tree throughout central and northern England and southern Scotland and up the east coast of Scotland as far as Caithness, but male plants have been widely planted as ornamentals, both within and outside its native range. It is frequent along roadsides south of Lochinver, but those at Stoer are probably the northernmost local examples; all are male. Why they were originally planted, other than for their decorative value, when, and where the stock came from, we shall probably never know.
P.S. As chance would have it, on 25thJune, Gwen Richards and I came across another old white willow, on the edge of the working area/car park in the middle of Culag Woods (photo 9; NC092219); are there are others scattered through the parish?
Ian Evans (words and photographs)