Fact of the week: The Fortingall Yew

The Fortingall Yew. Picture: TSPL
The Fortingall Yew. Picture: TSPL
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SCOTLAND is packed with natural colour and variety, but one piece of Scottish foliage is unique to all the others - the Fortingall Yew, widely thought to be the oldest living thing in Europe.

The European yew stands in the churchyard in the Perthshire village of Fortingall, a short distance from Aberfeldy. A legend on the path alerts walkers to the tree, if they haven’t seen it already. It reads: ‘Up ahead stands Fortingall’s oldest resident, a 5,000-year-old yew tree; Imagine those who have passed this way before.”

Scientists now agree that the tree probably isn’t quite that old - it is widely thought to be between 1,500 and 3,000 years old. Even this lower estimate would see the Fortingall Yew recognised as Europe’s oldest tree.

The tree itself is ringed by a stone wall whose purpose soon becomes apparent when the series of pegs marking the Yew’s previous size come into view.

When first noted by botanists, the Yew had a circumference of 16 metres, or over 50 feet. As the importance of the yew became apparent, locals began hacking pieces off the tree in order to make souvenirs to sell to interested tourists, with the shrinking girth of the tree the most obvious consequence.

The tree is now seen as an important natural monument, with clippings from the Yew taken to Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens as part of a conservation project to preserve the species. It also holds another claim to fame, albeit one that is slightly more difficult to prove.

Locals claim that Pontius Pilate, the man who authorised the crucifixion of Jesus, was born in Fortingall and played within the shadow of the famous tree.

While that claim has failed to stick, the rings through the Fortingall Yew give the Perthshire locals at least one place in the history books.


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