The distinctive yew berries, photo by Adél Grőber on Unsplash

Like visiting a castle, making a trip to see an ancient tree is a rewarding experience. Scotland is home to some of the oldest oaks and yews in the UK and each and every one of them is a worthwhile sight. Because we’re in the midst of winter now and in nature it symbolises death (to make way for regeneration), it is a good time to discuss the yew tree. While its poisonous properties quite literally mean death – its wood and the berry seeds are highly toxic to humans and animals – yew is an evergreen conifer, meaning it doesn’t shed its leaves (needles) every winter like most deciduous trees do. This makes it an ideal tree to visit now when most other seniors, such as our ancient oaks and elms, are bare of their beautiful leaves.

We will begin our journey in Fortingall, a small village with a massive claim to house ‘possibly the oldest living organism in Europe at 4,000 years of age’ (https://www.ancienttreeforum.org.uk). This fantastically gnarly and elaborate yew has split its trunk into several stems hundreds of years ago, giving an impression of a very generous girth. Yews are dioecious (can be either male or female) and while this one is male (i.e. producing pollen rather than berries) it has been observed that one of the branches started bearing berries, which means it is changing its sex. Its unclear why this happened and what that means for the whole of the tree but some scientists have suggested that this was due to environmental stress. For more info on this rare occurrence see: https://inhabitat.com/5000-year-old-tree-in-scotland-is-changing-from-male-to-female/

This makes the Fortingall Yew not only special because of its age but also because of the possibility that it is changing sex, a phenomenon that we can witness as it happens. Berries have been taken to be investigated and clippings have been collected and propagated for a “Yew Conservation Hedge Project” which aims to preserve the ancient DNA of yew trees in the UK. Housed in a quiet churchyard this tree is well worth a visit and exploration.

Next we head to East Lothian to see the Great Yew of Ormiston, a grand spider-like creature that is awe-inspiring in its webs! This is a fantastic example of a layering tree where the branches sprout from the main trunk in a pendulous fashion and towards the ground, once reaching the soil they sprout new growths, i.e. new trees. This can happen time and again meaning that if allowed the layering tree can spread indefinitely across the ground, claiming more and more land every century.

This yew stands in what was once the grounds of the Great Ormiston Hall, in a picturesque wooded surrounding. It is said that the Reformation leader John Knox has preached under this tree and it was considered a major landmark as early as the 15th century. The trunk of Ormiston Yew measures around 7m in girth and is believed to be around a 1000 years old. Just like the Fortingall Yew, the definite sex of this yew is also questionable; while it is generally described as a female, 22 stems growing from the main trunk are male.

Unfortunately this yew is considered vulnerable, so much so that the landowner has requested that it be pulled from Woodland Trust’s UK Tree of the Year competition entry back in 2020. It is essential that the greatest care is taken when visiting this old soul, and admiring from afar as much as possible. Trees can be adaptable and persevering but humans, animals and the environment need to allow them to recover and flourish.

We conclude our ancient yew journey with the Craigends Yew in Houston, Renfrewshire, possibly the largest example of a layering yew. Easily accessible by a public pathway this yew stands among no less magnificent Atlas cedars and is a popular attraction among the visitors in the area. Perhaps its popularity and location is unfortunate as it has been subjected to vandalism on numerous occasions. While it is readily regenerating due to its layering nature one only needs to look and imagine how much more of a beast this yew could be if only allowed to… The council have made efforts by clearing some surrounding trees and vegetation in order to give this yew more light.

It is estimated that Craigends Yew is 500 – 700 years old and was shortlisted for Woodland’s Trust Scotland’s Tree of the Year in 2016, a well deserved inclusion. Its location right by the River Gryffe makes it an ideal spot for a family picnic, and its multifaceted, gnarly, twisted stems an ideal sight to admire.