The yews of Esragan

An old Gaelic poem reads:
“Bow of yew from Esragin (sic)
Eagle feather from Loch Treig
Yellow wax from Galway Town
And arrow-head made by Mac Phederan”
A copy of this poem is in Blarcreen House, a late Victorian mansion house at Inveresragan near Ardchattan in Argyll. In a paddock north of the house stands a considerably storm damaged male yew however, despite its battered appearance, there is plenty of healthy foliage in the regenerating canopy as seen in the eastern side. Access to the site is strictly by arranging prior permission from the residents of the property.
This yew is believed to be the last survivor of the ancient yews of Esragan, and as the poem shows, from an area long celebrated as a centre of excellence for medieval longbow manufacturing. For more information about the longbow in the history of Scotland please see https://scotlands-yew-trees.org/hist…/the-tree-of-the-bow/
The yew at easragan

The trunk of the yew divides into two stems at 50 cm high and both are a mixture of exposed decaying sapwood and fluted bark. The smaller stem is hollowed at the base. The yew was fenced off about ten years ago by the current occupiers of the house to protect ponies and horses from grazing on it as the yew is mortally toxic to them. Consequently a dense extent of brambles and nettles and other plants have established themselves around the base of the yew making a full girth measurement impossible at present. The fencing is now no longer needed, and the area will be gradually cleared to the base of the trunk in the coming months. After clearing away some of the undergrowth only a partial girth measure of 290 cm was possible at the time of the visit and was taken at 50 cm high below the bifurcation. This approximates to 50% of the girth and suggests the full girth at 50 cm high is 500 – 600 cm or slightly more.

Yews on Inchlonaig, an island in Loch Lomond subject to wet, exposed, rainforest climatic conditions similar to Esragan, are known to have girths of 500 cm (measured at 50 – 150 cm high) and are 700 years old. They were planted in the early 14th century on the orders of King Robert the Bruce to replace those he had harvested to make longbows for use at Bannockburn. When the king harvested yews upon the lands of Ardchattan priory for the same purpose 700 years ago, this happened in Esragan, which is still on the priory’s lands. No doubt his harvest probably included yews which may well have been ancient or exceptional at that time. Unlike his replanting programme on Inchlonaig, there is no evidence he did the same to any extent at Esragan.
Thanks to the generosity of the residents a sample of yew wood was obtained from a branch which had been badly damaged in a storm around five years ago and was removed to preserve the further stability of the yew and been stored under the yew ever since. It had not seasoned and was damp when sampled revealing interesting fungal growth patterns which may have affected the structural integrity of the branch enough to cause it to fail the way it did.
Investigation of the branch by Toby Hindson of the Ancient Yew Group found:
“This is, as far as I can tell, the first Scottish West coast yew ever to be analysed using dendro [chronology]. It’s the most northerly for sure….250+ rings…is a pretty good sign of a very old yew. The branch grew to the sampling point in the latter half of the 1700s….taking onto account the sample point the yew itself is certain to date to earlier than 1650.”
The yew at Easragan

An origin pre-1650 would confirm this yew is older than the largest girth yew recorded at Ardchattan priory (300cm @ 150 cm high) and is indeed the oldest so far found remaining in the Esragan area and outside the grounds of the priory. It is, as local traditions claim, the last known survivor of the celebrated yew population of the ‘Esragan’ area.

How old it is exactly is not known at present but what is known is that there has been some type of dwelling here on this site for at least 400 years meaning the yew is likely to be ancient, i.e. over 400 years old. For more information on SYTHI’s age categorisation of yew trees, please see https://scotlands-yew-trees.org/…/how-old-is-that-yew…/
We will never know how many yews there were at Esragan area before longbow manufacturing began and took its toll but there must have been very many for the area to have become what it did. If King Robert’s harvest in Easragan just over 700 years ago was anything like the one on Inchlonaig it implies hundreds of yews were felled, decimating a population which seemingly never recovered and was certainly never replaced. A population of yew which played a crucial part in contributing to the victory at Bannockburn because Scottish archers armed with the best quality yew longbows were so crucial in achieving that victory.
Therefore this yew at Blarcreen House indeed stands as a living testament – and a unique monument – to the ancient yew population which once graced Easragan and made it famous and celebrated in the history, culture and poetry of Scotland.
With grateful thanks to Sian and Garry Davies formerly of Blarcreen House for all their enthusiasm, information, assistance and generosity.