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Saturday, January 16, 2010

3: The Fortingall Yew

The ancient yew that stands in the grounds of Fortingall church, Perthshire, is between 2,000 and 5,000 years old, making it the oldest tree in Europe (even at the most conservative estimate of its age). Local legend has it that Pontius Pilate was born under the shade of its branches, when his father served as Roman ambassador to the Caledonians. It's more likely that Pilate was a Samnite, born in the village of Bisenti in Central Italy, although there are references in Roman literature of him spending time in Gaul and/or Germany after his time as Prefect of Judea. There is certainly evidence that some of his descendants found their way to Britain.
Either way, it's a good story.

Whether or not the Fortingall Yew ever sheltered Pilate (and it's certainly old enough), it holds a special place in Scottish lore; and not only for its sheer grandeur. It is said to lie at the geographic centre of Scotland, at a point where three major ley lines intersect – and was seen by Druids as a sacred tree of life or knowledge.

Today, the old yew isn't quite as imposing as it once was. The natural ageing process, together with the attentions of souvenir hunters over the centuries, has meant its trunk has split into separate stems. However, in 1779, its circumference was recorded by Thomans Pennant as 56 and a half feet, "thus being greater than that of any churchyard Yew of England or Wales."*

*The Churchyard Yew and Immortality, V Cornish

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