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The Fortingall Yew
Posted on May 19, 2013 by Ash
I woke up in a tent on my 27th birthday. It was early April, I had slept at the Forestry Commission’s campsite in Rannoch Forest, and it was as perfect a spring day as ever there was. I hatched a plan to photograph three big trees in the vicinity of Loch Tay while taking a motor tour through this part of the Highlands like a tourist of old: the Fortingall Yew, the Glen Lyon Ash, and a monster sycamore near Ardeonaig.
My campsite was just a short distance from both Loch Rannoch and the Black Wood of Rannoch, a remnant of the great Caledonian Forest, through which I’d walked the previous day.
Driving east along the road that follows the shore of the loch I passed the wee village of Kinloch Rannoch and soon met with the singular sight of a very shiny, snowbound Schiehallion. I climbed this mountain in November 2011 – my fifth Munro! – when I was lucky enough to see a faint Brocken spectre with double glory.
Following the Schiehallion road brought me up to Loch Kinardochy, which in contrast to the warmth of the day was still half frozen over. Back in the car I took the road south before turning right at Coshieville to follow the River Lyon upstream to Fortingall.
This is Fortingall parish church with the famous Fortingall Yew on the left. I’ve visited the yew five or six times over the last half-decade, but I’m now ashamed to admit that I never paid the church or churchyard any attention. Researching the church to say a little about it for these pictures has made me realise what I’ve been missing out on - antiquities that were right under my very nose half a dozen times! I only had eyes for the old tree, but my ignorance is inexcusable over so many visits… I must make amends on the next one.
The present church was built about 1900 on the site of its pre-Reformation predecessor. Three photographs from 1884, showing this earlier church and the yew (with a much smaller crown than today), can be found on the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland’s Canmore website.
Today the Fortingall Yew is enclosed by a sturdy stone wall with sections of iron railings to allow a glimpse of the inhabitant’s trunks; only the healthy crown can be seen from farther back, a golden-green cloud resting upon a plinth. Peering between the railings, the uninformed would be forgiven for believing that they were looking at a pair of quite unremarkable trees. In fact these are but two fragments of a once immense trunk of almost unbelievable proportions, but being fully shrouded in healthy bark and showing no sign of decay, they could pass unrecognised as two yews of far less ancient provenance. The truth is nothing short of mind-blowing!
The Fortingall Yew is one of the oldest known trees in Europe. Allen Meredith (whose estimates according to The Tree Register Handbook “are as well-informed as anyone’s”) has suggested it could be as old as 5,000 years (along with the yews at Discoed in Powys and Llangernyw in Conwy), which is certainly something to think about. But what I find truly incredible is the gargantuan size it once reached. Forget the Yew as it stands today, so small, so utterly destroyed by ‘tourists’ in the 18th and 19th centuries, and try to wrap your mind around this: in the mid-1700s the Fortingall Yew had a girth of 56 and a half feet (17.2 m): a diameter of 5.5 metres (18 ft)! Consider that the thickest tree in Britain today is probably the Marton Oak with a dbh of 446 cm when measured around the three remaining sections of its trunk (although there are giant sequoias 7 m thick where their flared boles meet the ground). A five-and-a-half metre thick yew is phenomenal!
This sketch of the Fortingall Yew is taken from Thomas Pennant’s A Tour in Scotland; 1769, first published in 1771. The accompanying description runs: “A View of the gigantic Yew-Tree in Fortingal Church-Yard. The middle part is now decayed to the ground; but within memory was united to the height of three feet: Captain Campbell of Glen-Lion having assured me that when a boy he has often climbed over, or rode on the then connecting part.
In this book Pennant describes his visit to Fortingal on the 31st of July, 1769:
Rode to Glen-lion; went by the side of the river* that gives name to it. It has now lost its antient title of Duie, or Black, given it on account of a great battle between the Mackays and the Macgregors; after which, the conquerors are said to have stained the water with red, by washing in it their bloody swords and spears. On the right is a rocky hill, called Shi-hallen, or the Paps. Enter Glen-lion through a strait pass: the vale is narrow, but fertile; the banks of the river steep, rocky, and wooded; through which appear the rapid water of the Lion. On the north is a round fortress, on the top of the hill; to which, in old times, the natives retreated, on any invasion. A little farther, on a plain, is a small Roman camp†, called by the Highlanders Fortingal, or the Fort of the Strangers: themselves they style Na-fian, or descendents of Fingal. In Fortingal church are the remains of a prodigious yew-tree, whose ruins measured fifty-six feet and a half in circumference.
Walter Johnson’s Byways in British Archaeology, first published in 1912, also mentions the Fortingall Yew. Johnson includes Pennant’s 1769 measurement (though mistakenly describing it as having been recorded “a few years later”, an error repeated from Loudon as you shall soon see) alongside another measurement taken in 1769 by Barrington, a judge – unfortunately there is a four-and-a-half foot discrepancy, perhaps accounted for by the measurements having been taken at different heights. Johnson writes:
From a long descriptive list of aged yew trees, slowly accumulated in a note-book, a few examples only need be extracted. At the head, in regard to antiquity, stands probably the yew in the graveyard of Fortingal (Fortingale, or erroneously, Fotheringhall), Perthshire. Sir R. Christison estimated this tree to be 3000 years old, and deemed it “the most venerable specimen of living European vegetation3.” De Candolle’s determination was about the same as Christison’s. The hollow stump, which has been carefully railed in, is now the merest wreckage. The Fortingal yew was measured by Daines Barrington in 1769, when the circumference was set down as 52 feet1. Pennant, a few years later, gave the result as 56½ feet… It is worthy of notice that a very old ecclesiastical establishment once existed near the Fortingal yew3. Loudon gives us a woodcut representing the tree as it appeared in 18374; beyond this we have to rely on the figures quoted, and on oral tradition.
So there once existed an even larger yew than the one at Fortingall! Later in his book, Johnson touches on one of the reasons for our yew’s present diminished state:
The Fortingal yew had its career shortened by the lighting of Beltane fires against its trunk1. The origin of Beltane fires is on all hands admitted to be at least pre-Roman. Another illuminating fact is that when this aged tree had become separated into two portions, funeral processions were accustomed to pass between the limbs2.
Jacob George Strutt does indeed give “a fine illustration of the Fortingal yew”. Here it is, taken from his Sylva Britannica; or Portraits of Forest Trees, first published in 1822 (an expanded edition followed in 1830). It is a far more life-like representation than the sketch made by Pennant in 1769, and I think we can safely consider it a fairly accurate likeness of the tree as it was in the 1820s.
Strutt provides us with an updated description of the yew:
THE FORTINGAL YEW is one of the largest and oldest trees in Scotland: it stands in the Church-yard of Fortingal, or the Fort of the Strangers, so called from its being in the vicinity of a small Roman camp; a wild romantic district lying in the heart of the Grampian Mountains, comprehending Glenlyon and Rannoch, abounding in lakes, rivers, and woods, and formerly inhabited by that lawless tribe of freebooters, who, setting the civil power at defiance in the intricacy of their fastnesses, laid all the surrounding country under that species of contribution so well known at the time it was exacted, by the name of Blackmail.
Johnson, in his Byways in British Archaeology, also wrote that “Loudon gives us a woodcut representing the tree as it appeared in 1837”. Here is it, taken from John Claudius Loudon’s Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum, which was originally issued in sixty-three monthly parts from January 1835 until July 1838. Loudon’s illustration matches up nicely with Strutt’s.
Loudon gives our best insight yet into the appalling fate of the Yew:
The Fortingal Yew (fig. 1989) stands in the churchyard of Fortingal, or the Fort of the Strangers, so called from its being in the vicinity of a small Roman camp, lying in the wild romantic district at the entrance to Glen Lyon, in Perthshire. Its age is unknown, but it has long been a mere shell, forming an arch, through which the funeral processions of the highlanders were accustomed to pass. It was first described in the Philosophical Transactions (vol. lix.), in 1769, by the Honourable Daines Barrington, who found it 52 ft. in circumference; and some years afterwards, by Mr. Pennant, when the circumference had increased to 56 ft. 6 in. Dr. Neill visited the tree in July, 1833; and a notice of it by him will be found in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal for that year, from which we make the following extract; premising that, when Daines Barrington measured the tree, he found one side of the trunk a mere shell of bark, all the interior having decayed. “Considerable spoliations,” Dr. Neill observes, “have evidently been committed on the tree since 1769; large arms have been removed, and masses of the trunk itself carried off by the country people, with the view of forming quechs, or drinking-cups, and other relics, which visitors were in the habit of purchasing. What still exists of the trunk now (1833) presents the appearance of a semicircular wall, exclusive of the remains of some decayed portions of it, which scarcely rise above the ground. Great quantities of new spray have issued from the firmer parts of the bark, and a few young branches spring upwards to the height, perhaps, of 30 ft. The side of the trunk now existing gives a diameter of more than 15 ft., so that it is easy to conceive that the circumference of the bole, when entire, should have exceeded 50 ft. Happily, further depredations have been prevented by means of an iron rail, which now surrounds the sacred spot; and this venerable yew, which, in all probability, was a flourishing tree at the commencement of the Christian era, may yet survive for centuries to come.”
This is the larger of the two fragments of trunk still surviving today.
According to Undiscovered Scotland, a wall was first built around the Fortingall Yew in 1785, “though as already noted this seems to have done little to prevent further damage. The wall was rebuilt with gaps for viewing protected by railings in 1842…” This protective enclosure still surrounds the tree, and without it I sincerely doubt that there would be anything left of the yew today. Fortunately, the regenerative abilities of the ‘immortal’ yew have allowed the pathetic remains of this once-gargantuan tree to flourish within their sanctuary, and today they could pass as two healthy but entirely separate trees, five metres apart. A ring of wooden pegs on the ground marking out the extent of the old trunk connect the two fragments, and the twin crowns blend together as one.
This is an old postcard of the Yew and the church from my collection. I’m not sure of the date it was taken. It is unused postally, which doesn’t give any clues, but the church is clearly the one built after 1900. The Fortingall Yew itself had a much smaller crown then, when its previous appalling treatment was a less distant memory. The gravestones are our best bet at fixing a date for this photograph. The bright white one on the right must have been erected only recently here: in my present-day photo below, it has been discoloured by the passage of time. There are other changes to the graves too.
A familiar scene, April 2013.
…So after bidding the yew a fond farewell I took the picturesque Glen Lyon road as far as the Bridge of Balgie, where I’d hoped to enjoy a birthday scone. Unfortunately, as I had very little cash on me and the wee post office / tearoom didn’t accept card payments… I had to settle for a tin of Irn Bru and a Double Decker instead!
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