I had travelled a long way to see the tree, an ancient yew in a remote Scottish churchyard. Some say it is the oldest living item on the planet. Yet when I saw it, my mind was only thinking breakfast.
It had been that morning, and the waitress in my hotel’s restaurant had been face masked. There was a pandemic underway, indoor faces no longer existed, and I was busy placing my order. Yet in that rural part of Scotland, you do not just request breakfast, you must also have a conversation.
“Why a yew?” the waitress asked, as we talked not only about porridge, eggs, and marmalade, but why I was in Scotland at all.
I was visiting the Perthshire village of Fortingall, nearly 500 miles from London, and not an easy journey.
“It is said to have changed gender,” I replied. “Male yews sometimes do that, especially before they perish.”
“My mother always told me to keep away from yews,” the waitress said. “They’re spooky.” With that she scribbled illegibly in her notebook and hastened towards the kitchen to move the chef into life.
If there is ever a tree steeped in mythology, it is the yew. The one at Fortingall has been given age estimates from two to nine thousand years old, although yew-ageing is an unreliable art. What is certain is that the Fortingall Yew predates Christianity, the Roman Empire, Stonehenge, and the Great Pyramids of Giza. Indeed, legend states that Pontius Pilate was born beneath it and played there as a child.
There is a parish church, once a monastery, beside the yew. The church looks old and homely, but was built in the grounds of the yew, not the other way round.
The yew is a softwood, which is nevertheless hard and close-grained. This has made it excellent for making furniture, musical instruments, and for the manufacture of longbows. Yew bows were used to devastating effect in many famous battles during the Middle Ages, including Bannockburn and the Hundred Years’ War. Perhaps that reinforces why the yew has long been known as the Tree of Death, which was why my breakfast waitress was wary. Celtic culture certainly saw the yew as symbolising death and resurrection, while druids regarded the tree as sacred.
The yew has remarkable qualities of longevity and regeneration. Its drooping branches, should they touch the ground, can form new trunks and this is shown perfectly at Fortingall. The tree, which is male, once had a massive girth of 16 metres, when that was recorded in 1769. It is now much narrower, thanks to the passage of time, and the thieving of bark, twigs, and needles by visitors.
A wall with gated entrance now surrounds the yew, for some chance of protection. Yet just outside the wall is something different. Another trunk, younger, partly covered by ivy, its bark pale brown and vigorous, its branches steady and its needles fresh. This is evidence of yew resurrection, just as the Celts believed.
The branches of this younger trunk show many arils. These are the red berries that surround the yew seed and are only shown by the female. There are none on the greying and deformed yew within the wall but plenty on the newer trunk outside. Male within has given rise to female without. Boy and girl could not be closer. The arils have nicknames, too – red snot, slobberygob, and the name I like best, snotgobble.
Apart from the red flesh of an aril, all parts of a yew tree are toxic. I was not about to taste a piece of Fortingall.
The Fortingall Yew is much visited by travellers from throughout the world. Few spend much time there, choosing to place the tree on a voyager’s tick-list before moving on. Yet for me the tree was different, a place to ponder, and worth spending time, even if I was thinking about breakfast. Visiting the yew also allowed me to see the Càrn na Marbh, which is barely 200 metres distant.
This, the Cairn of the Dead, is in an adjacent field and not viewed by many, despite being nearby. That is a shame, as the cairn commemorates an era when society was turned upside down as plague decimated the country. The words on the cairn say all, are in full view, and this is how they read: “Here lie victims of the Great Plague of the 14th Century, taken here on a sledge, drawn by a white horse, led by an old woman.”
If only trees could talk, the yew and I would have a long conversation.
If you go…
(Do look at rome2rio.com)
There is limited, but free, parking right outside the churchyard
London (480 miles)
Manchester (281 miles)
Edinburgh (83 miles)
Perth (39 miles)
Bristol (438 miles)
Glasgow (79 miles)
There are railway stations at Pitlochry (23 miles), Perth (28 miles) and Dunkeld & Birnam (26 miles). From Pitlochry (https://www.rome2rio.com/s/Pitlochry/Fortingall), there are bus (line 83, change at Aberfeldy to lines 91 or 91A), car hire (30 mins), taxi (£45-60) or hotel pick-up available.
Fortingall is served by two bus routes (https://www.geopunk.co.uk/locality/ES001442). There is a bus stop very near to the yew.
You could manage a wheelchair (with helper) between car park and yew quite easily, unless your wheelchair handling is as bad as mine
PLACES TO STAY
• Fortingall Hotel
As near to the yew as you will get
Address: Fortingall, Aberfeldy, PH15 2NQ
Tel: 01887 830367
• Kenmore Hotel
Scotland’s oldest hotel, which opened in 1572. Rabbie Burns wrote a poem on the bar wall. The hotel is 6 miles, by road, from the yew.
Address: The Square, Kenmore, Aberfeldy, PH15 2NU
Tel: 01887 830205
• Ardeonaig Hotel
On the south side of Loch Tay, between Killin and Kenmore. The hotel opened in 1649.
Address: Ardeonaig, FK21 8SU
Tel.: 01567 546006
PLACES TO EAT
• Fortingall Hotel – restaurant
Address: Fortingall, Aberfeldy, PH15 2NQ
Tel: 01887 830367
• Waterfront Restaurant within the Kenmore Club
Address: Kenmore, Aberfeldy, PH15 2HN
Tel: 01887 830829
• Three Lemons
Address: 28. Dunkeld Street, Aberfeldy, PH15 2AB
Tel.: 01887 820057
OTHER THINGS TO SEE
• Dewar’s Aberfeldy Distillery
For some reason, I cannot visit Scotland without drinking whisky
Address: Dewar’s Aberfeldy Distillery, Aberfeldy, PH15 2EB
Tel.: 01887 822010
• Keltneyburn Smithy Gallery
Brilliant scrap metal sculpture
Address: Keltneyburn Smithy, Keltneyburn, Aberfeldy, PH15 2LF
Tel.: 01887 830267
• Highland Safaris
Offers Land Rover Safaris, boat trips on Loch Tay, a Red Deer Centre, walking and biking activities, and a Gold and Gem Panning Centre.
Address: B846, Aberfeldy, PH15 2JQ
Tel.: 01887 820071
• Visit Scotland – https://www.visitscotland.com/info/towns-villages/fortingall-p242031
• Travel Scotland – https://www.scotland.org.uk/guide/places/fortingall-visitor-guide