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 or portal to Glen Lyon, 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 why this extraordinarily aged yew tree can still be seen to be thriving at the present time.
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 and it is 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.
Commenting on the Fortingall Yew, Vaughan Cornish, D. Sc., in his book The Churchyard Yew & Immortality (1946) remarks: “Of Yew trees in the churchyards of Scotland the most celebrated is that of Fortingall in Perthshire. The tree as measured in A. D. 1771 by Thomas Pennant was 56 1/2 feet in circumference and as measured by Daines Barrington in A. D. 1769, 52 feet, thus being greater than that of any churchyard Yew of England or Wales. This led to the supposition that of all the trees in Britain the Fortingall Yew was monarch of antiquity. Upon this belief legends grew. One of these was embodied in a poem by W. Cowan, from which the following is a quotation:
‘Here Druid priests their altars placed,
And sun and moon adored.
* * * * * * *
A tree – the sacred Yew,
Symbol of immortality –
Beside their altar grew.’
Another legend is of special interest because it links the Yew with the life of Christ, as the Thorn of Glastonbury is linked by the legend of Joseph of Arimathea. Near Fortingall are the remains of a Roman station, where the tradition is that the father of Pontius Pilate was a Roman legionary, and that here his son was born, and that the child played under the Yew, which was already of venerable age.”
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; yews were planted systematically about the places, often wells, that held sacred truths, perhaps to awe votaries as much as because the trees themselves held sacred properties…. In Druid tree language it stood for the Ovate grade, one who specialized in learning concerning the mysteries.” (The Book of Druidry by Ross Nichols, 1990). 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.
The 19th century antiquary, Godfrey Higgins, in his erudite work, The Celtic Druids, published in 1829, makes the following intriguing observation: “Perhaps it may be thought far fetched, but, may not the name of the Yew, the very name of the God Jehovah, have been given it from its supposed almost eternity of life? It is generally believed to be the longest lived tree in the world. If this were the case, when a person spoke of the Yew-tree, it would be nearly the same as to say the Lord’s tree.” Moreover, in the Himalayas the yew was sometimes called deodar which means ‘God’s Tree’. There has even been a revelatory comment made that “the Yew is as pure a manifestation of divine consciousness in our midst, as the presence of a Buddha or Christ is!” (The Tree of Immortality, The-Tree.org.uk)
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.
Legend claims that the Fortingall Yew marks the actual geographic centre of Scotland and its heart or ‘axis mundi’, although it is possible that geographically the real axis mundi is located on Schiehallion (“the fairy hill of the Caledonians”), the holy mountain which lies just five miles north of Fortingall. However, there may be a connective node between this sacred yew and the holy mountain to the north of it.
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