The royal, the rich and the rapacious
11 April, 2013
Monday took me to Loch Leven, where I visited the castle and the surrounding woodlands. Lochleven Castle is one of the most outstanding medieval monuments in Scotland. Probably built as a stronghold by the invading armies of Edward I of England, it has a long and eventful history. It was reputedly captured by William Wallace before his death in 1305.
Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned here for almost a year, before her escape in 1568. Not long afterwards Mary’s jailer, Sir William Douglas, relocated to a new residence beside Kinross.
The present Kinross House was completed in 1693, built to aligned with the medieval ruin, so the castle acted as a prominent eye-catching feature of the view. This is probably one of the first times such a ruin was specifically used as a landscape feature. Its attractiveness was enhanced by the planting of feature woodland. The trees around the castle are therefore are not a natural feature. Historically the island was much smaller: the loch was artificially drained in 1826–36.
Many of the trees are not native to Scotland. The older trees are sycamore, planted widely by rich landowners in the 1800s, both because of its classic, imposing shape, and to provide shade.
Exotics were also imported, many costing large sums of money, partly as an ostentatious way of demonstrating wealth. The woodlands around the castle are therefore a cultural artefact and are as much a part of the history of the island as the castle.
The island is part of the wider Loch Leven National Nature Reserve. More than 20,000 ducks, geese and swans overwinter here. In the spring and summer the loch hosts over 1,000 pairs of nesting ducks, including gadwall, teal and tufted duck.
The presence of sycamore in a nature reserve is a bit incongruous. It is considered a ‘rapacious weed’: it does out-compete native tree species and its large leaves tend to smother underlying vegetation. Far fewer species of invertebrates have adapted to living on it than on indigenous species, so it is a less useful component of a woodland habitat.
In defence of sycamore, it does grow well in exposed situations, which explains why it is associated with isolated homesteads in the Highlands, providing some woodland cover.
Loch Leven is an ideal location for a family day out, with the boat trip to the castle an obvious highlight. The ferry runs from Kinross pier and tickets are available from the Historic Scotland shop.
Also of interest is Vane Farm, an RSPB visitor centre with bird hides, binoculars and helpful staff. For the more energetic there is a recently completed footpath. The trail runs from Kinross pier to Vane Farm, a distance of 8 miles (12.5km). Level and barrier-free for most of its length, it is also suitable for cyclists and wheelchair users.