Birnam wood tree immortalised in Macbeth ‘may split in half’

Birnham oak tree. Picture Jon Savage
Birnham oak tree. Picture Jon Savage
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ON THE blasted heath of Shakespeare’s “Scottish play” an apparition of a royal child holding a tree tells Macbeth he will not be vanquished until Great Birnam Wood “shall come against him”.

But now conservationists are warning that the celebrated Birnam Oak – a 1,000 year old tree thought to be one of only two survivors from the medieval forest – is itself in danger.

What we are doing is looking at ways of shortening the branches. We believe we can do this without changing the appearance of the tree

Morag Watson, Trust manager

According to tree surgeons, the core of the tree has rotted and its heavy branches are continuing to grow. The resulting leverage is threatening to tear the weakened trunk apart.

A neighbouring medieval tree, the Birnam Sycamore, is also in danger.

The Perth and Kinross Countryside Trust will tomorrow hold a public meeting to set out its plans to try to safeguard the gnarled and ancient oak for future generations.

The trust’s manager Morag Watson said: “Obviously the trees are extremely elderly and we are constantly monitoring them.

READ MORE: Killer weed endangering Birnham Wood ancient oak

“What we have found is that part of the oak’s trunk has rotted out, but its very long branches are continuing to grow.

“This is putting a lot of pressure on the trunk and if we don’t do anything about it now, it could simply split in half.”

She added: “What we are doing is looking at ways of shortening the branches. We believe we can do this without changing the appearance of the tree, but at the same time taking a lot of pressure off the trunk.”

A huge hole has also been found inside the Birnam Sycamore. Ms Watson said: “We carried out an ultrasound scan on the tree and discovered it was hollow inside. Three people, standing up, could actually fit inside it.”

The Trust assessed the trees after the area was flooded during December when Storm Desmond took its toll on the remains of the wood, near Dunkeld. Although the water is not thought to have caused much damage to the trees, it did affect the soil.

Ms Watson said: “We know how important these trees are to people and we want to keep everyone up to speed with our plans.”

Three years ago, Scottish Natural Heritage had to take action to protect the roots of the Birnam Oak from being swamped by invasive Himalayan balsam.

READ MORE: Famous trees battle to become Scottish tree of the year

The Trust will set out its plan for the trees at a meeting in the Birnam Institute tomorrow from 7pm.

It is believed Shakespeare was inspired by Great Birnham Wood during a visit to Perthshire in 1599.

In Macbeth, the branches of the trees in Birnam Wood are used as camouflage by soldiers as they advance on the king in his castle at Dunsinane.

The child wearing a crown is the third of three apparitions shown to Macbeth by the Three Witches.

The child tells the king: “Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until/Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill/Shall come against him.”

The first apparition, a severed head, warns Macbeth to beware Macduff.

The second, a bloodied child, tells the king: “No child of woman born shall harm Macbeth.”

Macduff later tells Macbeth how he was “ripped untimely” from his mother’s womb.