A popular saying of the High Middle Ages in Scotland was:
“England would be but a fling
If not for the eugh
And the grey goose wing.”
If not for the battlefield supremacy of the military standard longbow made of yew, England would not be what it is today. Nor for that matter would Scotland, Wales, Ireland or France.
For almost 600 years from the late eleventh century to the beginning of the seventeenth century, the fates of these countries were heavily determined by the archery component in medieval military strategy. As in any arms race, those with the ability to shoot deadly missiles at their enemies at a greater range than their opponents could retaliate, stood the greatest chance of success in warfare. In Western Europe, only yew wood provided the most powerful longbows, also known as war bows which highlights the difference in power between a hunting bow and a military weapon. It took ten years of constant training from boyhood, before a man had the necessary muscles and strength to pull a yew stave to its fully flexed draw.
Archers never carried bent bows, they were strung immediately before use and un-strung immediately afterwards and strings were made from woven hemp. A heavy yew stave 6 feet or 2 metres long, with its sharpened points at each end could also be employed as an emergency weapon by archers in hand to hand fighting. The best staves were cut from the trunk of a yew, they did not simply come from branches as most people assume, which are prone to have knots and would create weaker bows. Obtaining the best staves inevitably meant felling a yew.
Although archery is mostly associated in popular British history with the historical traditions and medieval armies of England and the legendary tales of Robin Hood, similar connections are very overlooked within Scottish history. Not only was archery part of Scottish as well as English battle tactics, Scotland had a particular hero who was an archer, but he is not a myth like Robin Hood, he was the historic figure of William Wallace and we will explore his role as an archer later.
In the meantime, the use of yew longbows in Scotland stretches far back into prehistory. This was established via a discovery made in 1990 between Moffat and Tweedsmuir in the Scottish Borders. The ‘Rotten Bottom’ bow was found in a peat bog, an excellent preservation medium for wood and has been scientifically dated to be 6,000 years old, with an origin between 4040 – 3640 BC. It is the oldest wooden bow so far found in Britain and is celebrated on display at the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Curiously, pollen records from 6,000 years ago for the area show that:
“The mix of trees had been dictated by pollen records from core sampling and includes alder, ash, elm, cherry, birch, hazel, holly, oak, thorn, rowan, willow and juniper. You will note that yew is not included in this list – where did the hunter acquire the yew stave for his bow and where did he, or maybe a she, plan to get a new stave?” (1)
This is an intriguing question concerning yews in the modern Scottish Borders region. Were there any naturally growing yews there 6,000 years ago or were staves being traded over long distances. Perhaps local supplies of suitable wood may even have even been exhausted by then though this seems unlikely. The reasonable assumption, despite the pollen record, is yew trees may have been either local to, or comparatively local to, the modern Scottish Borders six millennia ago.
The Carrifan Valley is the specific area where the bow was found. In the book The Carrifan Wildwood Story which relates the project of reforesting the valley it states:
“Planting yew at Carrifan was obviously an interesting idea, since the Rotten Bottom bow was made of yew. However, that piece of yew may have been traded from elsewhere and although a single grain of yew pollen about 6,000 years old was found in the pollen core from Talla Moss, a few miles from Carrifan, pollen archaeologists are extremely wary of drawing conclusions from isolated grains. The question of whether yew is native in Scotland is still a matter of discussion, but George Peterken, in his contribution to our 1997 conference, pointed out that the yew is a highly characteristic crag species on limestone in northern England and suggested it might be worth including other lime-loving species on suitable calcareous outcrops at Carrifan. Since yew is still found wild in Cumbria within 25km of the Scottish border, we decided with some hesitation to plant small numbers in the valley.” (2)
Whether the yew is native to Scotland is perhaps a moot point. The fossil record shows that in the last 200 million years Taxus as a species has always occupied the area of the planet where Scotland is now except when it was inhospitable to trees. The yew was widespread throughout geographical Scotland millennia before any political boundaries created the modern nations of the UK. Worth also bearing in mind is that only a male yew produces pollen, females do not. A female yew tree can occupy a place on a landscape and leave no pollen record in the vicinity because not only does it not produce pollen, it also may have used up most of any pollen in the area for fertilisation. Due to the lightness and tiny size of yew pollen, females could be fertilised by the nearest male yews being located tens or even hundreds of miles away.
It was in Scandinavia where the marriage of the sapwood and hardwood combined in a single yew stave – using the opposing forces of tension and compression – created a longbow with unrivalled power and range. It was used to dire effect in the ninth century in marine combat tactics by Vikings. In 911 a band of ‘Northmen’ (Vikings) from the modern region of Trondheim in Norway led by a chieftain named Rollo (also Hrollo) settled in north western France. Via a treaty with the French king they created the kingdom of the Northmen, Normandy. An arrow from a Norman longbow is said to have killed the English king Harold in 1066 and, as a result of this Norman (Viking) conquest, the military quality longbow soon became the most feared weapon in western Europe when in English hands. It was only the exhaustion of supplies of continental yew wood, providing the most reliable and superior quality longbows necessary for military use, which urged Queen Elizabeth I to rapidly develop the firearms industry and re-equip her army in 1595 with guns, instead of longbows (3)
Even the deadly crossbow which often used yew as a crucial component in the construction, could not match the rate of fire of a company of archers using yew longbows. At the Anglo-French battle of Agincourt in 1415, at one point an average of around 80,000 arrows per minute were launched against the French forces, from the yew longbows of 7,000 archers – a terrifying and astonishing rate of shooting. But it was not just ‘English’ archers who were feared. By the thirteenth century archers from Gwent in Wales serving in English armies had the most renowned and deadly skills. These included specialising in pinning a mounted enemy to his mount; penetrating both the rider’s armoured thigh, the saddle, and deep into the body of the horse.
Tragically yews throughout Britain, Ireland and Europe truly paid an enormously high price for England to be ‘more than a fling’. Due to the demands from the English war machine upon the longbow trade, yews were exterminated in their millions in many areas of western and central Europe – and in most of these areas have never returned. We do not know how this extinction affected the local people’s ancient spiritual associations with yew trees, but it surely must have left deeply traumatic wounds, witnessing this slaughter which must have included sacred yews. The fact that Scotland, unlike most every other country in Europe, has a heritage of ancient yews, means that Scotland is a ‘Noah’s Ark’ of the remaining ancient yew population of the UK and western Europe. In effect Scotland contains yew trees which are the very last of their kind – ancient yews which have avoided the fate of millions of their kin in the 1,000 years.
When the Scandinavian longbow arrived en masse with the Normans it gave the yew a new and inherent place in centuries of ensuing British military history. It is an essential place in that history too, given archery underpinned the English victories in crucial battles won in the Anglo-French (e.g. Poitiers, Crecy and Agincourt) and Anglo-Scottish (e.g. Homildon Hill) conflicts. Most every English victory over Scots forces, where the longbow was a crucial element in it, occurred in northern Britain. But the most crucial battle of all was the Scottish victory at Bannockburn.
Prior to the battle taking place Robert the Bruce harvested ancient yew trees to equip his contingent of archers, as their place in his tactics was crucial and played a vital part in the victory. Two locations where yews gave their lives in the cause of Scottish independence were Ardchattan Priory in Argyll and Inchlonaig, the Island of Yews, the northernmost island on Loch Lomond which has revealed signs of human habitation dating back to 8,000 years ago.
Many sources state that Robert the Bruce planted yews here which were used at Bannockburn. If he did, they would only be small bushes by the time when the battle was looming and impossible to be of use. What is more likely is he harvested ancient yews and any planting involved replacing them for long term logistical military reasons. Out of the 800 – 900 yews estimated to occupy the island today many are planting from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and their sizes reflect this. But there are others obviously older and their size and condition clearly indicates they are ancient and probably around 700 years old. These are the yews Robert the Bruce is said to have planted. There is no other yew site to compare to it today in Britain or Europe. Unfortunately, not all the yews he is said to have planted have survived as harvesting later took place during the Napoleonic Wars, though not for longbows.
Not only are the ancient yews of Inchlonaig botanically significant due to age, but they live in what are typically extreme conditions for yews, a very damp and exposed environment. Ideally the yew is said to prefer light, well drained soils which are abundant in southern Britain so conditions in this habitat are not ideal for a yew. What this demonstrates is the resolve these yews need to grow, adapt and thrive in exceptional conditions. The yews Robert the Bruce harvested implies that a natural population of yews could have been established on Inchlonaig which was then somewhat managed by humans and perhaps with prehistoric origins from 2,000 years ago or much more. Perhaps Inchlonaig has always been harvested for making longbows since humans first inhabited it. Perhaps at the time the Rottom Bottom longbow was being used 6,000 years ago, sources of yew could be found to the north of the Forth – Clyde isthmus.
When William Wallace was fighting against the English in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, he was already renowned for his archery skills, later celebrating them in a personal seal found on letters to merchants in Lubeck, Germany.
He is also said to have planted a yew at Elcho castle in Perthshire after becoming Guardian of the Realm. The only trace of possibly an ancient yew there today is a stump covered in dense growth, in the garden of a private house next to the grounds of the castle covered by bushy growth.
The way William Wallace fought his campaigns meant that the area of the Ettrick Forest in the Scottish Borders was ideal for his purposes. Neidpath Castle, a Norman stronghold, was in this area and the home of his compatriot Simon Fraser, who died with Wallace when both were gruesomely executed by the English. Neidpath castle had a population of yews in the locality which are said to have provided yew staves for Edward I of England’s forces in his failed participation in the ‘Last Crusade’ and no doubt later supplied Wallace’s forces too. These yews at Neidpath were unusual in that they were fastigiate in appearance, creating long straight upright branches rather like young Irish Yew do today. In fact, they were later discovered to be botanically unique and named Taxus baccata Neidpathensis. Some still survive and can be found in an avenue leading to the privately owned castle.
Many members of the Fraser clan left the Neidpath area following Sir Simon’s fate and settled around Inverness. Not only is the yew the clan badge of the Frasers, an ancient yew grove in a remote part of hills above the eastern shores of Loch Ness is sacred to the clan. It is where they have gathered before battle and where important decisions were made including judicial matters. It is not known whether a yew was planted here which has layered itself creating a grove or the Frasers found a natural yew which would serve their purposes. If natural, when the Frasers arrived 700 years ago and a noticeable yew was already here to be enough of a landmark, would suggest the origin of this grove could be more than 1,000 years.
Clearly the yew has played a vital part in the events which gained independence for Scotland from England, as did of course the archers who used the longbows. This ancient tradition of Scottish archery is still celebrated today in the guise of the Royal Company of Archers, who were chartered in 1703. They are possibly linked to a planting of a yew in the grounds of the world famous Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian. Their connections here are highlighted in a pamphlet called The Guilds, the Masons and the Rosy Cross by Robert Brydon.
When any reigning monarch of the UK visits Scotland, the formal bodyguard is made up from members of the Company. These members and the archery tradition they uphold would not be ‘archers’ without the best bow of all, a yew longbow. It is the life and power of the yew longbow which makes the archer, not the archer who makes the life and power of the yew.
Here in this modern tradition is arguably a subtlety, namely that the presence of the yew, albeit in wood around the monarch, serves as a symbolic representation of the yew as a protector of kings and queens in a metaphysical sense. Yews are used to protect churchyards in this way, including the spirits of the deceased buried under and around them in the sacred ground. It is a popular conception that the yew’s place in a nation’s history is usually found in churchyards and burial places. While that is a tradition in Scotland, the yew overseeing the departure of the spirit, there is another dimension of the yew in Scottish history – the yew as the tree of the bow.
Once again this demonstrates the yew’s overlooked significance in the weft, weave and fabric of both Scottish history and culture. However, the special qualities of yew wood, being turned from a hunting tool into such an efficient weapon of mass destruction and death, cannot be associated with the yew itself. It has had no choice in the matter of being used as a weapon to inflict such appalling carnage upon countless people – and animals – in so many conflicts and wars. A carnage in which, let us not forget, the yews suffered too, at a cost measured in the destruction of millions of yews because it was the one and only, the very best ‘tree of the bow’. And not only in Scotland and greater Britain.
Another collection of islands off the coast of mainland Eurasia make up Japan. The oldest indigenous Japanese people, the Ainu, of the northernmost island Hokkaido, call the yew Onco. This word has the dual meaning of Tree of God and Tree of the Bow. In the story of the Ainus’ origin they claim to have been taken to Hokkaido by the gods, arriving from the sky, settling there and then the gods left. Considering the dual meaning of their name for the yew, could it be that the gods not only gifted the Ainu a new place to settle, complete with the Divine Tree but also that the technology of the bow created from it was a gift of knowledge from their gods too. If so, a bow made from a divine tree would be regarded as much more than a hunting tool and would primarily have a sacred quality attributed to it, the obvious practical quality being secondary.
Whether or not the yew was ever regarded in a similar sacred sense in prehistoric Britain so far away from prehistoric Japan we will never know, but that it seems likely cannot be dismissed out of hand. If it was the case, then it strongly implies the yew may once have been also regarded as the ‘Divine Tree’ in the cosmology of the people of prehistoric Scotland. Bearing this in mind, perhaps Scotland too, would be but a fling, if not for the yew and the grey goose wing.
(1) Rotten Bottom Longbow at:
(2) Ashmole, Myrtle and Philip, with Members of the Wildwood Group 2009: The Carrifan Wildwood Story, Foreword by Professor Aubrey Manning OBE, Borders Forest Trust, pp. 115-116
(3) Wakefield, Sir Humphry Bt., 2018: A Guide to Chillingham Castle, Chillingham Estate