Sandy’s Garden ... The Fortingall Yew

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson
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I have written before on my liking for trees.

I have more than once mentioned a charming book by Donald Rodger, Jon Stokes and James Ogilvie entitled Heritage Trees of Scotland, in which the authors give brief accounts of exactly one hundred of Scotland’s most notable trees, including the Fortingall yew which stands in the churchyard at Fortingall, eight miles from Aberfeldy. For many years this tree was thought to be about five thousand years old: but more recent estimates make it rather less than this at an age of a mere three thousand years, which is still a pretty fair lifetime by most folks’ reckoning.

It is the age of the Fortingall yew that is usually quoted as the reason for its fame in the world of forestry: but recently it has established what I think deserves to be counted as another reason for its fame, for it is still fertile and still produces seed. A recent press release from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) has this to say: “Young plants propagated from ancient and threatened yew trees and collected from around the world are being used to create a unique heritage hedge and important conservation resource in Scotland at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

The hedge will be created using 2,000 small trees from the common yew (Taxus baccata). Planted around the perimeter of the Garden, it will cover a kilometre in length and take an estimated 10 years to complete.

At the heart of the project are progenies of the most ancient of all, the Fortingall yew which stands in Aberfeldy, Perthshire. Estimated to be 3,000 years old, it is thought to be the oldest living tree in the UK, if not in Europe.”

I like that. Seeds from a three-thousand-year-old Perthshire tree are to be planted in Edinburgh as a conservation resource, for these seed will grow into trees which will produce seed in turn, ensuring the continued genetic survival of a species of tree which was around before the Romans came here as would-be conquerors, before the last walrus was seen on a Scottish beach and when wolves were a common sight. Indeed, there is a distinct possibility … I might say a probability … that the tree was used as a territorial marker by wolves, which survived in Scotland until the eighteenth century and which might well have found a kirkyard an appealing place in times of hardship with the appetising scent of death in the air.

“The common yew has always played an important part in the culture of mankind through folklore, medicine, warfare and religion and represents a powerful symbol of resurrection,” states the RBGE press release with commendable brevity to explain why many of the yew trees which are contributing seed to the conservation project are found in churchyards. And an organisation called Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) added these words of explanation and commendation of the Edinburgh project:

“Adding to the impressive conifer conservation work already carried out by RBGE, including the International Conifer Conservation Programme and the iCONic project, this additional programme generates both public engagement and interest in conifer conservation and provides an important conservation resource for threatened and historic Yew trees.” I used to write that the RBGE is a jewel on our doorstep. Oh yes, it most assuredly is!