Tom Hovell Shanks, Skye, c. 1950s, gouache and watercolour on board, 42.6 x 72.1cm, The Hunterian (GLAHA:57908). Image: Gerber Fine Art, Glasgow.

The Scottish landscape painter Tom Shanks was first fascinated by Skye as a seven-year-old in 1928, and called sketching on childhood holidays there ‘a formative experience’ for his ‘artistic life’.[1] In this adult work, he intriguingly focuses on what lies beneath Skye’s moorland grass: a section of ancient peat bog at the shore, with the Cuillins on the high horizon. Has this fragile yet defiant wall of greys and browns been exposed by human hand, by the cutting of peat across the centuries? Or have wind and weather crumbled the moor, laying its substance bare? Shanks, who admired the visionary approach of the twentieth-century ‘Romantics’ John Piper and Graham Sutherland, and, as a Conscientious Objector in World War II, had been allowed to work for the Forestry Commission at Benmore,[2] seems to delight in this enigma. For he captures a point where the trunk of an ancient tree, preserved by the peat’s acidity, has been revealed to view; a ghostly yet insistent presence, that speaks of Skye’s prehistory, when it was covered by forests. But bog oak, of course, is a stage in the fossilisation of dead trees, and because of its hardness has been used for centuries by humankind to fashion objects, from jewellery and furniture to dirks and the sgian-dubh, the ‘black/hidden knife’ worn with the kilt.

Bog oaks and Pines from Ballymacombs Bog, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland. These are dated using tree ring dating to the period between 5024 BC to 509 BC. Photo: Phil Barratt.
Bog Oak from Thorne Moors, South Yorkshire, dated to sometime between 3777-3017 BC by Gretel Boswik. Photo: Paul Buckland.

Having started his career designing for Templeton’s Carpet Company in Glasgow, Shanks clearly also delights in the visual patterns formed by the preserved tree. If his artist’s eye already thus reclaims the past – the bog oak and pebbles, whose slow formation over millennia is pointed up by the transient light and weather effect – then we may recall that Skye includes the Sligachan Peatlands Special Area of Conservation, ‘one of the most important and intact pool systems in the UK’.[3] In 2020 a major project was completed to reclaim this from commercial conifer planting that had ‘choked’ the peat.[4] 

Bog oak and pines are commonly preserved at the base of many raised and blanket bogs, the remnants of the great forest that used to live in these peatlands, before the rising water tables made conditions impossible for these trees to survive. They are often revealed when peat milling machines cut over the bog and can be preserved in their thousands. They can tell us not only about the ancient wildwood forest, with all its plants and animals, but provide us with important information around the environment and climate when these trees were alive.

What stories can they tell us? We can, firstly, accurately date the trees, by matching the tree ring width patterns found in samples from historic buildings or archaeological sites with those found in bog oaks and assign precise calendar ages to the trees. The trees from Ballymacombs More, Co. Antrim, for example, were alive between 5024 BC to 509 BC, the oldest trees being over 7000 years old! The large oak tree presented on Thorne Moors, South Yorkshire, was alive sometime between 3777-3017 BC, probably the relic of the widespread forest that used to grow across the Moors. We can also extract climate records from the individual tree rings, allowing us to understand whether the climate was warmer or wetter compared with today. Finally, we can also obtain information about the carbon absorbed by the tree during its life-time and measure the radioactive isotope carbon 14 content of the tree rings. This allows us to correct radiocarbon dates (known as ‘calibration’) used by archaeologists to date thousands of organic archaeological artefacts. These bog oaks are therefore of huge scientific value for our understanding about the past and also the present.

Clare A.P. Willsdon and Nicki J. Whitehouse

[1] Susan Mansfield, ‘Tom Shanks: respected Scottish landscape painter’, obituary, 9.7.2020, The Scotsman (, accessed 22.8.21)

[2] For details of Shanks’s career, which included training after the war at Glasgow School of Art and design for the Edinburgh Weavers Dovecot studios in Edinburgh, see ibid; Mark Smith, ‘Tom Shanks, artist with a lifelong passion for Scotland’s peerless landscape’, obituary, 22.7.20 The Herald; and (accessed 22.8.21).

[3] (accessed 22.8.21).

[4] Ibid.