In the quiet churchyard of Fortingall in Perthshire stands a yew tree that is 5,000 years old (according to some sources, at least). In the record books it has a claim to being the oldest tree in the UK, and possibly in Europe.
If this is true, it means that the tree was a seedling when the Bronze Age was still a glimmer on the horizon; Neolithic people had started farming rather than roaming the landscape in pursuit of game; the settlement at Skara Brae on Orkney was occupied, and some very large stones were being hoisted onto a windswept moor at Callanish on the Isle of Lewis.
The church of St Coeddi…
The present church at Fortingall was built in the 1890s but it stands on much earlier foundations, and its origins go back to the earliest Christian times. It is dedicated to St Coeddi or St Cedd, a bishop of Iona who died in 712. One source speculates that the religious settlement at Fortingall may have been founded as a ‘daughter’ monastery of Iona.
Certainly, the graveyard is littered with early carved stones, some with simple crosses etched on them and others with letters made more legible by the infilling growth of velvety moss. But it’s likely that the site itself, with the yew tree growing here, was sacred for thousands of years before that, as the tree would have been ancient at the dawn of Christianity.
The yew tree was revered by the Druids for its longevity and ability to regenerate: where they graze the ground, the branches of old trees will sometimes take root, creating a new tree. To the early Christians the yew became a symbol of the Resurrection, and this is one of the reasons why it is planted in so many churchyards.
An intriguing story links Pontius Pilate to the Fortingall yew. According to folklore, he was the son of a local woman and a Roman diplomat visiting a Pictish king, and he was either born under the tree or played in its branches; when he was older, he was taken back to Rome with his father. This seems such an unlikely story for someone to dream up that I wonder if it has a grain of truth!
When the traveller and writer Thomas Pennant visited Fortingall in 1769 he recorded that the yew had a girth of over 56 feet; today, there are wooden pegs marking the circumference on the ground. This is because the tree has now been reduced to two still quite sizeable remnants, partly as a result of visitors taking pieces as mementoes over the years. A wall was built around the tree in the 18th century in an effort to protect it, but this didn’t deter collectors. In 1854, the tree had grown into an arch through which a coffin was traditionally carried at funerals.
As you stand and look into the darkness of the hollow trunk, you wonder at the generations of children who have played here, the countless people who have flourished and faded like passing shadows in its lifetime; this tree has seen farmers, settlers, warriors, missionaries, kings. It’s difficult to believe that a living thing can survive this long.
Far from dwindling into its twilight years, the Fortingall yew appears vibrantly alive; its foliage is lush and dense, although the lower branches are gnarled into grotesque shapes. Faces of dragons leap out at you – ancient spirits or products of your imagination?
No wonder there are so many early burials here: the ancients viewed this tree as a source of eternal life. I’m tempted to believe them.
Fortingall lies about eight miles to the west of Aberfeldy, in a beautiful rural area. The churchyard is open all year, although the church was locked at the time of our visit. That’s a shame, because inside are some Pictish stones and an early Christian hand bell. All good reasons for me to go back!
- Forestry Commission
- Scotland’s Churches Trust
- Highland Perthshire
- Undiscovered Scotland
- Trees for Life
Photos copyright © Jo Woolf
- ‘The darkness of the yew‘ from my series on British trees
- Fortingall stone circles: In a field near the church at Fortingall are some standing stones, arranged in three groups.
- For another majestic old tree, take a look at the Birnam Oak at Dunkeld.