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The Fortingall Yew: Fact and Fiction

Growing up in Killin at the head of Loch Tay in Perthshire it was impossible not to be aware from a young age of the area’s amazing woodland heritage. 

As well as various climbing trees in my parent’s garden and around the village, there was the spooky hanging tree at Finlarig Castle and the giant sequoia at Auchmore, one of many planted by Queen Victoria on her Highland tour in 1842.

But the tree that really blew me away was the daddy of them all, the ancient Fortingall Yew, a short distance away at the other end of the loch. I can remember being taken to visit the Yew by my parents and being staggered that anything could possibly be so big and so old and still be living.

Over the years I learned lots of things about it that everyone knew to be true. That is was the oldest thing in the world, and that Pontius Pilate, the Roman judge, had grown up playing under its branches.

Filming at the Yew

Recently I was offered the chance to be interviewed underneath the Yew for a programme called On Weir's Way with David Hayman, which is following in the footsteps of Tom Weir’s long running series that showcased Scotland’s natural and cultural heritage in the 1970’s and 80’s. The producers were looking to separate the many legends about the Fortingall Yew from the facts.

Filming at the Yew was a special privilege as we had managed to secure access to the inside of a high wall that contains the trees, built in the nineteenth century to protect it from souvenir hunters and fire raisers.

Standing within the tree is an incredible experience. It’s suffered from the ravages of old age and damage from people but its twisted and gnarly branches still speak of millennia of life. Its maximum girth, a massive 19 metres dwarfs its remains, but even in its degraded form the Yew still obviously huge, and even today it is still sending out new shoots of growth.

Putting the myths to bed

As the heartwood is long gone it’s impossible to say how old the Yew is by counting rings or through carbon dating, but the best guesses place it at 2,000-3,000 years old.

Despite that great age however, the Fortingall Yew is certainly not, as many claim, the oldest living thing in the world. The record breaker is a humble patch of seagrass in the Mediterranean which has been dated to a staggering 200,000 years old.

Similarly the Yew isn’t the oldest tree in the world (a grove of aspen in Utah thought to be about 80,000 years old claims that title), or Europe (that’s an 8,000 year old bristlecone pine in Sweden), or even the UK (step forward the 5,000 year old yew at Defynnog).

That tale about Pontius Pilate? Well, if you consider that the Roman’s invaded Britain in 41 AD, and he is likely to have died in 37AD, then it’s not worth dwelling on for too long after that.

Some people even think it marks the exact centre of Scotland. But according to the Ordnance Survey, depending on whether you factor in Shetland to your calculation that’s either a few miles north on the flank of Schiehallion, or high on a loch side near Laggan in the Highlands.

And there’s one mystery which will probably never be resolved. No one really knows for sure if the Fortingall Yew got there naturally, or if it was planted. While yew is a native species in Scotland its heartland in the UK is really in the south of England and Wales. That means it’s an unlikely tree to find in the wild, and maybe its longevity is owed to the fact that it was planted as an important religious symbol, and cared for all the more as a result.

If it was planted then it shows that 2000 or more years ago that people were actively choosing and planting trees. If people brought crops to Britain for farming it is very likely they brought tree seeds after the Ice Age acorns, chestnuts, hazel and juniper provided for food and flavourings.

But whether the yew was planted or not, or if the tales about it are untrue, none of that really matters too much. The value of a legend isn’t in its truth, it’s whether it can move people and make them think, and the myths that are told about the Fortingall Yew just add to its incredible story.

Yew trees are associated with immortality and it’s hard to stand under the branches of the one in Fortingall and not think about the past. Here is a tree that is older than the churchyard it stands, and even Scotland, and which is a living link to a time when the pyramids were still being built. To me that will always be mind-blowing.

The Woodland Trust is calling for a National Register of Scotland’s trees of special interest, to offer them better protection through conservation, and also for their celebration. For me, and I’m sure for many others, the very first tree on the list would be the ancient Fortingall Yew. You can add your voice to our campaign here on our website.