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Discussion > Greening?

golfCharlie. It was never my intention to argue with you that the Roman Warm Period of the southern Mediterranean might not have been wetter than the present day. I just don't know. My intention was to counter your apparent claim that today the region is not green.

Personally my belief is that the main differences between then and now are not climatic but matters of soils and population. Today the region's soils are two millennia further worked out, and cannot be as fertile as they were. They are also suffering from centuries of depredations from goats and sheep. Just as importantly there are more people, occupying more land and leaving no room for the African megafauna. Some of the foothills of the Atlas Mountains seem to me to be prime land for elephant. I suspect their absence is due to over hunting long ago.

Nov 2, 2016 at 8:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterACK

Golf Charlie
Do you have a reference for this

Scotland has more trees now, than anytime since the last Ice Age,

From personal experience I find it a bit hard to believe. there are large tracts of peat bog with tree stumps at the bottom over most of the Southern Highlands. I am not sure how far north this extends. Going on the theory that peat requires fairly level ground to form and last thousands of years it's safe to assume that land not currently peat bog also was forested before the peat bogs formed. The existence of Vitrified Forts as far north as Sutherland and Inverness suggests trees were available in quantity (if burning large quantities of wood was actually involved in producing the vitrification).
Much of the Caledonian Forest still existed in medieval times, and the Oak forests of Fife never recovered from James IV cutting them down to build Great Michael

If what I believe to be the case is correct, it suggests that Scotland was warmer and drier in past than it has been since including the 20th century; if what you say is correct then it is reaching that climate again which is no bad thing.

Nov 2, 2016 at 11:23 AM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

SandyS, sorry it was nothing about climate, more about Forestry Commission, and planting trees for tax reasons. There are far more trees, they are planted very dense! They are not native, and do not support much biodiversity either

ACK used the term "Parkland" a few months ago, which caused confusion, as his use of the word was very different to the UK rural use, and there was some discussion resulting from confusion over terminology (I think). Natural Scottish Deer Forest, or Hampshire's New Forest are similar to ACK's (correct academic) use of Parkland.

Nov 2, 2016 at 12:12 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

golf charlie
OK, thanks for the clarification. Agree about the problems associated with Forestry Commission and other commercial plantations.

Nov 2, 2016 at 2:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

ACK 8:21 Soil Fertility etc

As a country bumpkin, I grew up with an acceptance of agricultural muck spreading, manure being dug into the garden, and a compost bin under the kitchen sink for potato peelings etc to be put on the garden compost heap later.

I can remember something on TV about 30(?) years ago about soil fertility and farming in Africa. The people had little firewood to burn, and burnt dried cattle dung. This deprived the soil of natural fertiliser. Composting digesters allowed gas to be collected for cooking whilst still producing something that could fertilise the soil. I remember thinking at the time it made sense.

Goats get a bad press. They can survive on very sparse vegetation that cattle cannot, so goats will be found in those areas. I think they reduce the chance of an area regreening, but the presence of goats is a consequence of land becoming "barren" rather than a cause.

Nov 2, 2016 at 2:47 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Sorry cannot agree about goats. Saw a programme long ago about experimental plots of land fenced off from goats in Israel. Left alone such land plots became verdant rather quickly. The problem with goats is that they eat plant roots giving the vegetation little opportunity to recover. Once the vegetation is lost, so is much of the soil.

I also think good agricultural practices get interrupted by outbreaks of war, forced deportation, disease, and especially overpopulation - all of which have affected the Mediterranean. Most of the geological processes that renew soil fertility (with the exception of localized delta sedimentaion and volcanism) are absent from the Mediterranean coastlands.

Nov 2, 2016 at 3:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterACK

" The existence of Vitrified Forts as far north as Sutherland and Inverness suggests trees were available in quantity (if burning large quantities of wood was actually involved in producing the vitrification).
Much of the Caledonian Forest still existed in medieval times, and the Oak forests of Fife never recovered from James IV cutting them down to build Great Michael"

I think that this was definitively exploded back in the 1990s. If you read Oliver Rackham's book "Woodlands" he devotes a section to the myth of the Caledonian Forest. The logs dug out of bogs oin the 18th and 19th centuries were thousands rather than hundreds of years old, confirmed by carbon dating. "Pollen analysis shows that Scotland had lost most of its wildwood before the Romans came......When historical records do appear, they refer to woods in definite places, mostly where there are still woods today. Records of logging by Englishg and Scottish entrepreneurs are nearly all from woods that still exist.....In historic times the Caledonian pinewoods have never been much more extensive than now." However, he does give qualified support to the idea that Caledonian pinewoods were a little bit more extensive in c1590 than nowadays, so I cast doubt on GC's assertion too.

Nov 2, 2016 at 4:34 PM | Unregistered Commenterdiogenes

ACK, I agree goats stop regreening, because they can and will, eat and digest most vegetation, over a wide geographical area and over extreme topography. They are safer from predators, canine and feline in rocky and mountainous terrain. But a goat would prefer to graze in lush grassland, that man would prefer to be grazed by cattle.

I certainly agree that the best way to destroy agricultural productivity is to fight wars on the land, and kill farmers. A lot of time and effort goes into planting a crop. This requires food until harvesting time, and the confidence that he who plants will still be alive and around to reap the benefits.

Nov 2, 2016 at 4:34 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

I should add that he makes no reference to the oak forests of Fife

Nov 2, 2016 at 4:36 PM | Unregistered Commenterdiogenes

diogenes 4:34 I hope you have noticed my apology to SandyS. My comment was about the planting of trees by the Forestry Commission schemes instigated after the UK almost ran out of timber for pit props and trench building in WW1.

There are now more trees, but NOT in natural settings or terrain.

Admiral Collingwood who fought at Trafalgar was reknowned for going for country walks, and planting acorns as he went. Those oaks were the wrong timber for shipbuilding by WW1, but they might have made nice Wardroom furniture.

The trees planted by the Forestry Commission in the 1920s were not used for trench building in WW2.

Nov 2, 2016 at 5:24 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

My post was reply to Golf Charlie's contention that that there are more trees in Scotland than at any time since the last ice age. I questioned that on two fronts the existence of bog stumps and more modern references. You have confirmed the time frame for large forests in Scotland and GC refined his statement to numbers not area.

With regard to The Great Michael the woods of Fife was something that dates back 50 years to my school days, however Wikipedia says

The chronicler Lindsay of Pitscottie wrote of the building of Michael that "all the woods of Fife" went into her construction. Account books add that timbers were purchased from other parts of Scotland, as well as from France and the Baltic Sea. There were reportedly many cargo loads of timber imported from Norway that were used in Michael's construction.[citation needed] Lindsay gives her dimensions as 240 feet (73 m) long and 35 ft (11 m) in beam. Russell (1922) notes that Michael was supposed to have been built with oak walls 10 ft (3.0 m) thick. She displaced about 1,000 tons, had four masts, carried 24 guns (purchased from Flanders) on the broadside, 1 basilisk forward and 2 aft, and 30 smaller guns (later increased to 36 main guns), and had a crew of 300 sailors, 120 gunners, and up to 1,000 soldiers.

Nov 2, 2016 at 7:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

SandyS & Diogenes I am intrigued by the descriptions of the "Great Michael", and the timing of it's construction relative to that of the Mary Rose and Grace a Dieu.

The "frame" or "ribs" of the Mary Rose (and ships into the 19th century) were cut out of oak branches that had the right shape/bend. Oak trees that had grown in a clearing had branches that spread out with the right sort of curves. Oak also had the right structural qualities and durability. Oaks that grew in dense woodland or forest, might achieve height, but not the spread. Shipwrights could select specific branches off a tree, and leave the rest of the tree unfelled.

Natural woodland/forest in England provided good growing conditions for oak trees for shipbuilding, though not every tree was an oak. I do not know how woods/forests in Scotland compared.

3 masts became the accepted maximum number of masts for practical construction, sailing and handling, even for HMS Victory and the Cutty Sark. The Titanic had 4 funnels, but one was a dummy, because looks and prestige dictated 4. It is possible the Great Michael had 4 masts, purely to be bigger and better than the Mary Rose

Walls 10ft thick. HMS Victory did not have hull thickness exceeding 4(?) ft. Reconstructions by the Mary Rose archaeologists proved the power of 16th century cannon, but I doubt they would penetrate 1ft of oak.

The dimensions 240ft long x 35ft wide. Length may have included bowsprits etc, but this would have made for a long thin boat for that time, design and construction

Nov 2, 2016 at 11:02 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

golf charlie
A diversion off topic here.
James IV was a interesting monarch, some say one of the better Stewart kings. He was well educated, a polyglot and I think the last British monarch fluent in Scots Gaelic, he had an interest in current military technology, with good reason, and also in science and the arts, who knows what might have happened in Scotland had it not been for Flodden.

My thoughts are that this was a time of Tudor expansion of English influence in Europe and Scotland couldn't hope to match England ship for ship so The Great Michael was an early example of the Yamato concept.

I read somewhere that there was archeological evidence of a land version dug out in the ground to aid construction. Try the options out first sort of thing.

The description may well be an exaggeration for propaganda purposes. After James' death the ship was sold to France to pay off some of the national debt. The French found her too difficult to sail to be useful and she was left to rot as far as I know. I'm not sure if any research has been done into French archives to see what they say about the ship.

I don't know what the forests in central and southern Scotland were like at the time, but I would think that at lower elevations conditions would be similar to those in central England so Oak would grow reasonably well. In the 20th century I know that Horse Chestnut will grow and survive for decades at 700' elevation in southern Perthshire, but it has to be planted as most years they won't produce viable conkers.

Nov 3, 2016 at 10:05 AM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

SandyS, growing up near Portsmouth, I loved trips to HMS Victory. The Mary Rose was raised in 1982, but I was following the story from 1978/9. I last visited the Mary Rose 3(?) years ago in the new museum, but will revisit shortly. As a yottie, I have sailed gaff rig, but never square rig or Lateen. I have an interested in the UK Naval and seafaring history and heritage.

James IV was a clever chap and interested in new technology. At that time cannon were the best thing since sliced bread, for offensive tactics and defense ie Edinburgh Castle.

The idea that he would have wanted a warship bigger, better, faster and with greater firepower than Henry VIII's pride and joy, the Mary Rose seems entirely plausible. The idea that his Naval Architects built something that was too big to be handled and steered with the technology of the time, also seems entirely plausible.

HMS Warrior (1860) also restored afloat in Portsmouth Naval Dockyard was Britains first iron battleship. She never steered very well! HMS Dreadnought (1906) on her first official trip to the Mediterranean also had steerage problems, if the rudder was used above a certain speed, it could not be straightened again. This was fixed, but I do not know if the rudder was not designed well, or the steering gear was inadequately engineered.

I had not heard about a hole being dug to test design concepts for the Great Michael. I am not sure what you could have tested. Certainly not the form or function of the hull. Possibly something to do with space and handling of cannon, because a hole was cheaper to dig than a frame was to build? Or ...

Lofting out. (google it!) In traditional boat and shipbuilding, the frames were designed and drawn full size in the loft of a building, and the timber was cut and shaped to fit. The loft was also used to design, cut and make sails. It is possible that the Great Michael was so big that they dug a hole as a sort of mould to shape and fit tmbers into? A design and build process innovation that never really caught on, perhaps because they built bigger buildings with bigger lofts that could be used for different designs with a new bit of charcoal, having wiped the loft floor clean? Pure speculation!

Nov 3, 2016 at 1:26 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

diogenes & SandyS my post at 1:26 had to be retyped because my tablet crashed. I left out some bits...

Forgot to ask: oak forests of Fife?

I was assuming that the Great Michael was built in Newhaven, nr Edinburgh?

Plantation conifers are great for telegraph poles. Larch is/was good for hull planking. The Wikipedia entry for Great Michael mentions timber from Scandanavia. I can imagine Scottish oak may have been harder/tougher than oak from Southern England to saw and shape, but whether better for shipbuilding, I have no idea.

If there were oak forests in Fife, and the trees were not tightly packed, they probably were good for shipbuilding, especially and crucially for the frames or ribs. It is my understanding that as these were cut from the shape of the branch and trunk, a single oak tree could yield a lot of timber to build a ship, but not necessarily any of the crucial size and shape for the structural frame. A large area of oak forest might not contain many branches of the right shape, whereas a single oak tree growing in the middle of a field, or forest edge, might.

On a separate note, "The Fighting Temeraire" is a famous painting by Turner of a Trafalgar veteran being towed by a steam powered tug to be broken up. The Royal Navy sold ships for scrap then, and much of that timber will have found its way into house building etc. Some of the old historic houses built with "old ships timbers" may actually contain timbers shaped and formed for a specific ship, but cracks, splits etc formed and developed, so they were rejected during construction, and never actually got wet with seawater at all.

Nov 3, 2016 at 5:32 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Golf Charlie
It might have been in relation to this site, but it was pre-national lottery so not this project

The Hidden Remains of Higgins Neuk

Nov 3, 2016 at 5:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

Golf Charlie,
I should have waited until I'd done more research.

This makes much more sense, my brother lives in Dunning, close to Auchterarder so I may well have heard it from him. The intervening years have embellished the story in my memory.

Tracking Down ‘The Great Michael’

Nov 3, 2016 at 5:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

SandyS, interesting couple of posts. It is possible that a hole was dug in tidal mud near the High Water Mark, to build the ship in, like a dry dock, so that once the hull could float, it could be launched at High Spring Tide having dug a trench to allow water in, and the ship out. The rest of the construction could have been finished aboard a floating hull that dried out with the tide.

When Brunel built the SS Great Eastern, there was no dry dock or launch ramp big enough to build what was the world's biggest ship. To save money, he came up with a sideways launch system. It failed! It took 3 further months and more money to get afloat.

The Great Michael was at the cutting edge of technology, and novel ideas, or modified existing ones would have been required.

Nov 3, 2016 at 6:49 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

FWIW Rackham is even more intriguing when it comes to the myths around shipbuilding. For instance, he writes that a 74 gun ship needed 3000 loads of timber at 50 cubic feet per load, to build the hull. He suggests that the timber content of the hull would be about 500 loads, with another 500 loads going as sawdust and offcuts. The remaining 2000 loads went to pay the men. "When the Navy Board offered gold instead, the men went on strike." At the very lkeast, this suggests that timber was not in short supply.

Furthermore "roughly half the timber shipping ever built in Britain was between 1800 and 1860. Only at this time did the price of oak timber (but even more of oak bark) rise enough to affect nearly every wood and hedge in Britain...lack of timber was not a constraint on shipbuilding."

He notes that it is not necessary to grow trees to be a naval superpower - referencing early-modern Netherlands who, after all, gave Charles II's navy a run for its money. Your citation backs that up, with timber imported from other countries.

"Between 1295 and 1348 the cost of timber and plank amounted to some 30% of the cost pf building a ship; in the 15thc this fell to 17%. The 15thc began an escalation in both merchant and naval shipping that continued at an exponential rate until the mid-19thc. Cargo ships came to exceed 300 and then 1000 the late 18thc, although the biggest ships were much bigger, the Navy had more than 100 battleships as big as the Grace a Dieu (1500 tons) or bigger (the Grace a Dieu was twice the size of the Mary Rose). Had there been the slightest difficulty in finding timber for the ships that defeated the Armada, it would have been utterly impossible to build the fleet that defeated Napoleon." It should also be noted that commercial shipbuilders built far more shipping than the Navy.

All this was also happening at a time when there was growing demand for oak-bark for the leather-tanning trade.

He also offers up an anecdote from a man who worked in the Lowestoft yards in the 1910s building wooden steam-powered drifters. They built about 10 such vessels a year of about 45 tons and there was, it seems, no difficulty in finding timber in Suffolk within about a 20 mile radius of the yard. That part of Suffolk is not noted for its massive forests.

This suggests that the idea of the Fife oak forests being exhausted in the construction of a single vessel deserves some scepticism - even if the walls were 10 feet thick. Surely someone would have pointed out that the resources were being used up unsustainably? In England, the expansion of shipbuilding coincided with a decline in the building of timber-framed building. I would imagine a similar process was happening in Scotland, thus freeing up timber for ships? On the other hand there was an increase in demand for oak bark for tanning, which presumably would have been in competition with growing wood for building boats. Perhpas it would be worth finding out about the tanning industry in Scotland...whether it was expanding and where they got oak bark from.

Nov 3, 2016 at 7:02 PM | Unregistered Commenterdiogenes

diogenes, this is a brief note on the New Forest and ship building, though I offer no guarantee on it's accuracy!

The Grace a Dieu was probably built on the River Hamble, just off Southampton Water, and opposite the New Forest. The Mary Rose was probably built in Portsmouth not too far away, but close to the Forest of Bere. Tide Mill Ponds are shown on old maps of Portsmouth, but I don't think they were active in Tudor times.

The Dutch used their windmill technology to power saws, the most time consuming part of shipbuilding. In the mid 1600s, the Dutch could build a ship in about a third of the time it took the English shipyards.

1665 Great Plague. 1666 Great Fire of London. 1667 the Dutch sailed up the Thames estuary "unopposed". Christopher Wren and others started to rebuild London, with brick and stone walls, but still using timber floors and roofs. The towns and cities built to house the workers of the industrial revolution, were built with timber floors and roofs, but the timber sizes and quality was much reduced. Shipbuilders got the quality, housebuilders got high quantities of low quality.

Admiral Collingwood was planting acorns after Trafalgar 1805. The fact that the Temerarire had scrap value for its timber indicates the value of secondhand good quality timber, against the cost/scarcity of newly felled.

Was the Lowestoft boatbuilder constructing Thames Sailing Barges? Their strong hulls did not require carefully selected timber from tree trunks and branches the right shape. Some timber boats are still made quite cheaply in parts of the world including the Mediterranean. They tend not to be very durable.

Oak bark was the best for leather tanning. What did wine bottle cork makers do with their leftover cork bark scraps? I have no idea, but the French Spanish and Italians produce quality leather.

I am not arguing with what you have written, but as an Englishman, I am still curious about the Forest of Fife.

Nov 4, 2016 at 12:44 AM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Apologies Diogenes, you did say Lowestoft boatbuilder was making steam powered drifters.

A drifter was a boat used with drift nets for catching herring. Those from Holland and East Anglia would have been similar to Thames barges, ie shallow draft, similar length, bit more seaworthy. Those from further up the East Coast and upto Scotland may have been very different.

Nov 4, 2016 at 1:00 AM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

golf charlie
We're getting a bit off topic now, but it's an interesting diversion. The Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther has some restored fishing vessels; their website is here

There used to be an excellent fish and chip outlet in Anstruther, I don't know whether it's still there.

Nov 4, 2016 at 9:11 AM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

It seems to me that all this discussion of large wooden warships misses the point that these developments must have had different and varied effects on forests in the countries affected. Construction would have removed trees on a large scale whereas anticipated future demand would have promoted forestry and plantations. When navies changed to iron hulls and steam it must have left some of the world's first stranded assets.

Nov 4, 2016 at 10:57 AM | Unregistered CommenterACK

SandyS, just had a look at some of those photos of boats under sail. I am happy to be corrected but they look like "dipping lug sails". These were powerful sailing craft, that could sail or point closer to the wind than the 60-70 degrees of a square rigger, but not as close as a gaff rigged. They did require a lot of manpower to change tack, and so were unwieldy in coastal waters, rivers and inlets.

The Great Michael may have had a sail plan that was just too big to be handled, even with an experienced crew, in anything but ideal wind conditions in open water. If James IV had continued his innovative approach to matters technical, the Great Michael MAY have had an innovative sailplan that was not intuitive to the sailing crew composed of local fishermen and merchant traders.

Nov 4, 2016 at 11:18 AM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Stranded assets is a very good point, also iron warships coincided with the move from charcoal to coke for iron smelting (and other uses) leaving even more stranded timber assets. Presumably they were almost valueless until WWI?

Nov 4, 2016 at 12:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS