Sandy’s Garden ... Queen Mary’s Thorn

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Recently, my wife and I visited St. Andrews, the university town where we first met an almost-unbelievable sixty years ago – sixty very happy years, I should add.

We were both undergraduate students in that year … 1958 … and, while my lectures were all in lecture theatres around St Salvator’s College Quad, Ailsa’s Geography lectures were held in Bute House, which forms part of St Mary’s College Quad. This Quad contains a thorn tree said to have been planted by Mary, Queen of Scots, during her many visits to St Andrews. If ever there was any form of plaque recording the planting of this particular hawthorn tree, it has long since disappeared. But, in a public lecture delivered in 2004, Professor John Guy, an Honorary Professor of the University of St Andrews, told of Mary, Queen of Scots, learning of the assassination of her favourite uncle, Francis Duke of Guise, in 1563. “According to legend,” Professor Guy continued, “it was in that year that she planted a hawthorn tree (now known as Queen Mary’s Hawthorn) in the Quadrangle at St Mary’s College, perhaps in memory of her late uncle.”

And yes, that thorn tree is still there, 454 years later, crooked, supported by props and showing many of the signs of age but still flowering annually. Now let Messrs. Donald Rodger, Jon Stokes and James Ogilvie, the authors of ‘Heritage Trees of Scotland,’ first published by the Tree Council in 2003, take up the story. “All that remains of the original tree is a decayed stump that is disintegrating badly. Judging by the size of this remnant, the tree must have had a considerable girth for its species. However, this veteran is still very much alive, three relatively young stems arising, phoenix style, from the base of the old stump to form a full and healthy crown.”

Well, on the occasion of our visit, recalling old memories close to an older tree, we sat in gloriously warm sunshine wholly protected by the embrace of historic academic buildings from the chill north-easterly wind which was cooling much of the town. Small wonder that Queen Mary’s Thorn enjoys its location, chosen four-and-a-half centuries ago by wise and knowledgeable gardeners who knew full well that Crataegus monogyna … ‘the tree with hard wood’, from the Greek word ‘kratos’ meaning ‘strength’, with just a single pistil (monogyna) … grows best in full sun, is fully hardy and is tolerant of most soils and conditions, being very happy in the salty air of a coastal town. In point of fact, the sheltered precincts of the Quadrangle of St Mary’s College are unnecessary, for the hawthorn … sometimes known as ‘snow in May’ … is an ideal tree for planting to form a shelterbelt to protect other, less strong plants in both seaside and inland gardens exposed to biting winds.

The so-called ‘common’ name of ‘snow in May’ is, I think, very much less commonly used than ‘hawthorn’: but it does explain the saying, “Ne’er cast a clout ‘til may be out,” (don’t discard your winter clothes until the may-tree is in blossom”), for the old adage refers not to the month of May but to the hawthorn, otherwise called the ‘may-tree’. As it happens, the hawthorn’s delicate white flowers, with their attractive scent … provided one is not too close to the source of the smell … do appear during the fifth month of the year, marking the natural transition from spring to summer. The hawthorn also has a long history of being regarded, by poets, as a tree for lovers; and it is by no means impossible that the choice of a hawthorn tree for Queen Mary to plant was influenced by her fondness for her uncle Francis. So, gentle reader, when next you stroll along South Street in St Andrews enjoying your ice cream from Jannetta’s, amble in to St Mary’s Quad and admire Queen Mary’s Thorn.