Stephen McGinty: Barking up the wrong tree

The yew tree in the Perthshire village of Fortingall, which is believed to be between 3,000 and 9,000 years old. Picture: Perthshire Picture Agency
The yew tree in the Perthshire village of Fortingall, which is believed to be between 3,000 and 9,000 years old. Picture: Perthshire Picture Agency
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AN ATTENTIVE listener may have heard the distressed creak, groan and agonising splinter of a Scots legend toppling to the ground this week.

Or was I the only one to read about the emergence of an “old pretender” to our nation’s claim to be home to the oldest tree in Britain and quite possibly Europe? Earlier in the week it was reported that a yew tree in a churchyard in Defynnog in Wales was more than 5,000 years old and that a “tree ageing expert”, according to one newspaper, had declared: “I’m convinced this is the oldest tree in Europe.”

For those with little interest in the age or otherwise of any tree, Scottish or Welsh, then this would be of no concern. “Let the Welsh have the oldest tree in Britain” they may declare with a shrug of their shoulders before returning to more meaningful matters. Yet can anyone who has stood under the spindly branches of the yew tree in the Perthshire village of Fortingall and pondered exactly how old this living organism was at the time of Christ’s Crucifixion react with the same level of calm?

I certainly can’t. The oldest living tree in Britain, possibly Europe is and has been for, oh ages and ages, the Fortingall yew tree. Everyone knows that, well, everyone who has an interest in knowing the location of the oldest living tree in Britain knows that, or, at least, anyone who has visited Fortingall as a child with their parents and when not kicking their heels and wondering if the bodies in the nearby plague pit do actually come back to life at Hallowe’en, heard their parents say ‘Do you know this is the oldest living tree in Britain?’ knows that.

It is a verifiable fact. Why, the National Trust mentioned in one of their tweets that: “The oldest tree in the UK is the Fortingall yew at Fortingall which is about 5,000 years old.” Not good enough for you? Then how about VisitScotland who, admittedly, hedge their bets a little by saying that it is “thought to be” between 3,000 and 9,000 years old.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve bored over the years with the “fact” that the Fortingall yew tree is the oldest tree in Britain, possibly Europe. I can’t tell you, because I haven’t counted, but I had assumed that someone had carefully counted the age of this tree.

Now I’m not so sure. It may be the case that the tree falls into the category of “stories too good to check”, stories that we wish to be true but aren’t, like “Irn-Bru outsells Coca-Cola in Scotland” or “Lance Armstrong beat cancer and won seven Tour de Frances drug-free”.

The Fortingall yew certainly has a longer, richer history than this Welsh upstart. Back in 1744 the Fortingall yew appeared in an engraving in Pennant’s Tour of Scotland when its girth was measured at 52 feet and it was already a popular tourist attraction, too popular unfortunately as, despite a low wall erected around it in 1785, by 1833 it was reported that “large arms had been removed and even masses of the trunk carried off, to make drinking cups and other curiosities”.

By comparison, no-one had even paid the slightest attention to the yew tree at Defynnog until the mid 1990s. Up until then the local church used the centre of the tree as a place to store an oil tank. In Scotland, for at least 300 years, when not actually hacking off branches to make sacred soup ladles or making bonfires inside the hollow, we Scots have been treating the Fortingall yew with due reverence, unlike the Welsh. We Scots have a solemn religious myth around the Fortingall yew that Pontius Pilate, long before rising to rule Judea, slept under the tree as a young soldier. Yes, of course the dates don’t tally – he sentenced Jesus Christ to death in AD 33 and the Roman conquest of Britain didn’t occur until 40 years later – but it’s a great story, again one too good to check.

Tell me what literary tale do the Welsh entertain their visitors with? Tish-tosh about a spirit in the tree that each Hallowe’en boomed out the name of a parishioner who would die in the coming year. Given the low average life-span at the time, the spirit would have even odds on anyone over the age of 40.

And yet you don’t have to guess which of these trees now has a certificate signed by David Bellamy – DAVID BELLAMY! – declaring that “according to all the data we have to hand” this tree is the oldest in Britain and dated between 4,000 and 5,000 years old. Reading this yesterday I had a small insight into what it feels like to be a Brazilian. (In this analogy Scotland is Brazil and Wales is Germany – clear?) So if I’m understanding this correctly the Fortingall yew is no longer the oldest tree in Europe, and is not even the oldest tree in Britain. I trust that it remains the oldest tree in Scotland, but really, where are the bragging rights in that? If utilised appropriately this could be used as a cunning nationalist wedge among Scots tree-huggers – if we can’t have the oldest tree in Britain, let’s scrap Britain.

My one hope is that the “tree ageing expert” quoted in the Daily Express is wrong. She is Janis Fry, the co-author of a book entitled The God Tree which examines the idea that Britain’s yew trees were grown from the wooden staffs of mystics who had cut them from the original Tree of Life then roamed from Egypt to Britain, which has the greatest concentration of yew trees in Europe.

As Ms Fry explains: “It may be that those who instructed the planting knew Britain to be Albion, the White Island, the most holy site in the world.” This may well be the case, but I have my doubts. What is unquestioned is the yew tree has long been respected, if not revered, for its longevity and ability to regenerate. Over centuries yew trees have sprung back to life, regardless of how severely they have been cut back. There are even stories of wooden beams sprouting inside the homes with which they have been built.

The yew tree is believed to have been sacred to the pagans in pre-Christian Britain and, as a result, early Christian leaders built the earliest churches on the site of such trees.

There are even those who claim that Robert the Bruce won Bannockburn because his archers had longbows made from the yew trees at Ardchattan Priory in Argyll, although this ignores the fact that the English army had similar longbows made from similar yew trees.

The question is what is to be done about this reversal in status? It seems to me we can either seek to have the age of the Fortingall yew re-tested and abide by the most respected result. If that means accepting that the Fortingall yew was only 1,000 years old instead of 3,000 years old at the birth of Christ, then accept it we shall.

It may smart a little, but I’m sure all this will be washed away the next time I pay a visit to Fortingall and look up at the greenery that has shaded men and women for so many centuries.

In the end, that is what makes it so special, the idea that for thousands of years, as our ancestors rose and fell, this tree has carried on. (There is also the suggestion that, like the old broom kept for decades with the handle replaced four times and the head five, the tree now has little connection to the tree then. As Jill Butler of the Woodland Trust said this week: “Yews sucker. It could be that we are looking at suckers from an earlier tree, now disappeared, which is genetically identical to the original but not truly to be called the same tree.” An idea that no true romantic could accept.)

The other option, of course, is that we don’t tell anyone. Yes, indeed. “This summer you should visit the Fortingall yew tree – it’s the oldest in Britain, maybe even Europe. Trust me.”