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Monarch of Antiquity – The Sacred Yew Tree in the Heart of Scotland

Monarch of Antiquity – The Sacred Yew Tree in the Heart of Scotland

Located close to the geographical centre of Celtic Scotland is to be found a remarkable yew tree which is currently believed to be around 5,000 years of age, thus dating its origins to about 3,000 B.C. This yew is to be found in Fortingall, Perthshire, which lies at the entrance to Glenlyon, the longest and arguably the most spectacular glen in Scotland. When the 18th century traveller and naturalist Thomas Pennant (1726 – 1798) visited Fortingall, he reported that the girth of this age old yew was fifty six and a half feet. One can but wonder what is giving life force to this extraordinary aged yew tree which can still be seen to be thriving at the present time, and is reputedly the oldest tree in Europe.

In a land which is permeated with an ancient Celtic mythos relating to fairy realms and other worldly devic entities, such an elderly yew tree would have been highly venerated during the remote ages of past antiquity. Indeed, it has been said that Beltane fires celebrating the old Mayday festival were at one time lit at this site. Moreover, this ancient yew may have been 3,000 years old when, according to a local oral tradition, Pontius Pilate was born at Fortingall, which translates from the gaelic placename ‘Feart-nan-Gall’ as the ‘Stronghold of the Strangers’. Nowhere else in Scotland, or for that matter in the British Isles, has an oral tradition and association with the birth of Pontius Pilate; so why should the tiny and obscure hamlet of Fortingall lay claim to this tradition, unless there is an intrinsic element of truth in what would otherwise be deemed as an audacious presupposition.

The yew is a primordial tree, believed to date back for at least two hundred million years, which considerably antedates the era of the human race. It is no wonder that from time immemorial the eternal yew appears to have been seen as the immortal tree of life and held with sacred reverence throughout the ages. According to ancient lore it would appear that the yew was seen as an arcane repository, i.e. a tree of knowledge. It has also been noted that yew trees were often associated with ancient hill forts and, true to form, on an elevated position close by the Fortingall Yew is to be found the remains of an old hill fort called Dun Geal which translates from the gaelic as ‘the white fort’. At the time of Christ, Dun Geal was the residence of the Caledonian King, Metallanus, of whom local tradition claims Pontius Pilate was a relative.

Aerial photographs of Fortingall reveal a marking in the landscape which is believed to indicate the enclosure or vallum of an early Christian monastic site. This monastic settlement appears to have been centered around the Fortingall Yew tree. Such is the reputation of this remarkable Yew that in 1993 a sapling from this archaic tree was planted in Glastonbury Abbey, while concurrently monks from the Tibetan Buddhist monastery, Samye Ling, in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, planted another sapling on Holy Island, off the coast of Arran, Scotland. More recently cuttings were taken from the Fortingall Yew to be grown by the Forestry Commission at Roslin, another historical sacred site in Scotland. These yew cuttings will eventually be planted around the country at such places as the arboretum at Scone Palace. Interestingly, Scone was at one time home to the famous “Stone of Destiny” which was central to the Coronation ceremony of the old Scottish Kings.

There has been a traditional association with the mythos of the sacred yew and the natural philosophy of the Celtic Druid Magi. “Without doubt the yew stood for sacred mystery in the Druid tradition.” (The Book of Druidry by Ross Nichols). In both the Druidic tradition of reincarnation, and the later Christian doctrine of the resurrection, the yew was viewed as a natural emblem of everlasting life.

There is a tradition that the Cross of Christ was a yew tree probably because of its symbolism of immortality. This may explain the following observation: “Although the Yew was planted on temple sites, and was a survival of cultus arborum (tree worship) yet, strange to say, it was never damaged, but was adopted by the Christians as a holy symbol.” (The Church Yew & Immortality by Vaughan Cornish). Furthermore, the yew also figures in the folklore of the gypsies who believe that the planting of a yew near one’s home provides protection. Interestingly, about a century ago gypsies were found to be living in the hollow churchyard yew at Leeds in the English county of Kent.

It is known that the yew was often used as a landmark. Writing about straight tracks or leylines on the landscape, Alfred Watkins in his classic work The Old Straight Track (1925) makes an interesting observation: “There is every reason to surmise that trees were planted in prehistoric times as sighting marks….trees are joined with stones, water [wells], mountain-tops, mounds, and fire as objects of ancient reverence and even worship; all these are found as sighting points on the ley.” Notably, a number of telluric leylines or earth energy currents have been dowsed as passing through Fortingall, thus indicating that a major earth energy vortex may be located here. Could this account for the specific placement and perhaps longevity of what is reputed to be the oldest tree in Europe?