Yew Trees and Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott FRSE, FSA (Scot) (1771-1832) was one of Scotland’s greatest literary figures, becoming accomplished as a bestselling novelist, poet, playwright and historian, following his qualification as a lawyer in 1792.

His influence on Scottish culture was, and is, huge. One example is the following:

“Rosslyn Chapel first found fame thanks to Sir Walter Scott …”  (www.rosslynchapel.com/about/sir-walter-scott-and-rosslyn/)

This was mainly due to Rosslyn featuring in Canto VI of his bestselling poem Lay of the Last Minstrel published in 1805:

“O’er Roslin all that dreary night
A wondrous blaze was seen to gleam;
‘Twas broader than the watch-fire’s light,
And redder than the bright moonbeam.
It glar’d on Roslin’s castled rock,
It ruddied all the copse wood glen;
‘Twas seen from Dryden’s groves of oak
And seen from cavern’d Hawthorn-den.
Seem’d all on fire that chapel proud,
Where Roslin’s chiefs uncoffin’d lie,
Each Baron, for a sable shroud,
Sheath’d in his iron panoply.
Seem’d all on fire within, around,
Deep sacristy and altar s pale;
Shone every plllar foliage bound,
And glimmer’d all the dead men’s mail.
Blaz’d battlement and pinnet high,
Blaz’d every rose-carved buttress fair–
So still they blaze when fate is nigh
The lordly line of high St. Clair.
There are twenty of Roslin’s barons bold
Lie buried within that proud chapelle;
Each one the holy vault doth hold–
But the sea holds lovely Rosabelle!
And each St. Clair was buried there,
With candle, with book, and with knell;
But the sea-caves rung, and the wild winds sung
The dirge of lovely Rosabelle.”

However, it was not the only link with Rosslyn as:

 “In his novel, The Talisman, about a Knight Templar, Scott used the interior of Rosslyn Chapel as his bewitching chapel of the Hermit of Engaddi. And so taken was Scott by the carvings at Rosslyn Chapel he had wooden/plasterwork copies made of some of them which can be seen in the library at Abbotsford House, Scott’s home in the Scottish Borders. It has even been said that some of the characters in Scott’s novels were based on members of the St Clair family.”  (www.rosslynchapel.com)

There is a posthumous watercolour painting from 1854 called Sir Walter Scott in Rosslyn Chapel – by Scottish artist John Adam Houston. In the painting Sir Walter is sat beside the most famous feature in the chapel, the ‘Apprentice Pillar’, which is a depiction of the Norse sacred World Tree Yggdrasil and Norse literature identifies specifically as the yew, not the ash. The description of Yggdrasil in Norse cosmology as barr askr for example is translated as ‘evergreen needle ash’, but the ash is not evergreen, nor does it have needles for leaves. Yews to be found today at Rosslyn Chapel, Roslin castle and in Roslin glen are all yews which Sir Walter Scott would have experienced in his lifetime when he visited.

Another lasting example of his influence concerned the late Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral.  Sir Walter was mentioned as the Director of the pageantry surrounding the visit of the first Hanoverian monarch to visit Scotland, George IV, in 1822. These arrangements included creating a tradition that the Royal Company of Archers became the bodyguard of any UK sovereign visiting Scotland and hence why they were the bodyguard for the late Queen’s coffin while it was lying in state in Edinburgh.

Having been raised in the Scottish Borders from a young age, escaping the terrible sanitary and pollution problems prevalent in eighteenth century Edinburgh, Sir Walter would have known of the proud tradition of archers and archery in the Borders region, and which inevitably involves the yew. We now know that the use of yew longbows in southern Scotland can be traced back via archaeology to over 6,000 years ago. For more on this see the article ‘The Tree of the Bow’.

 

 

 

 

 

Due to becoming very wealthy thanks to the success of his works, Sir Walter Scott was able to purchase land where once the monks of Melrose had crossed the river Tweed – Abbotsford.

“Scott was in such a hurry to turn this bare bank into a paradise that he was already planting trees before taking full possession in May 1811.” (www.scottabbotsford.com)

Furthermore:

Walter Scott was inspired beyond words to plant yew trees: All over the Scottish Borders are mature trees planted by Walter Scott.”

https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2022/04/28/the-yew-the-death-tree-that-is-almost-immortal/

There is evidence he planted yews himself at Abbotsford as:

“The next enclosed garden is the Morris Garden, so called because of the fascinating stone sculpture of Mr Morris (a character in Scott’s novel, Rob Roy) which stands in pride of place in this sunken garden. The area is enclosed on three sides by stone walls and still has the sense of being a retreat, which is what Scott wanted it to be. There are two yew trees on either side of the gateway which were probably planted by the author himself.”  (www.gardentravelhub.com/sir-walter-scott-and-his-abbotsford-garden)

However, in contrast for his affection for yew trees at Abbotsford, is this extract from his 1813 poem about the English Civil War Rokeby Canto II describing yew woodland in Teesdale, in north-east England:

 

“But here ‘twixt rock and river grew
A dismal grove of sable yew,
With whose sad tints were mingled seen
The blighted fir’s sepulchral green
Seem’d that the trees their shadows cast
The earth that nourished them to blast,
For never knew that swarthy grove
The verdant hue that faeries love,
Nor wilding green, nor woodland flower,
Arose within its baleful bower.
The dark and sable earth receives
Its only carpet from the leaves
That from the withering branches cast
Bestrewed the ground with every blast.”

 

Despite these sentiments about the yews at Rokeby, and allowing for context within the poem, Abbotsford’s gardens and landscape contain many areas of yew planting, including yew topiary.

Shaded walks along the banks under the main outlook of the house are where some of the largest girthed yews are found, indicating the earliest of plantings. Further out on the estate are areas where the shade and shelter of yews is used for teaching open air classes about bushcraft and other skills. A small woodland entirely of yew and accessible by footpath has also been created south-east of the main house across the B6360, upon on the gentle slope of a hill parallel to the road – it’s a very atmospheric place and full of many variations of juvenile yew growth.

Following Sir Walter’s passing at Abbotsford in 1832, he was buried at Dryburgh Abbey, a place where an ancient yew stands which, despite its size, tradition states and some investigations support (e.g. by the Borders Trust) was planted by monks in the 12th century.

“Thought to be dated back to the 1100s, there is an incredible tree known as the Dryburgh Yew that Historic Scotland attributes it as, “among the most important trees in Scotland”. (www.weewalkingtours.com/post/2019/09/23/dryburgh-abbey-sir-walter-scotts-last-romantic-ruin)

Was it just a coincidence that Sir Walter wished to be buried in the ruins of an abbey with what was in his day considered to be an ancient yew in its grounds? Or is that just a romantic notion about a man whose works were full of romance of one kind or another.

Apart from the copious treasury of his creative genius he left behind him, Sir Walter Scott has also left a living legacy of all the trees he planted in his lifetime. Trees he knew he would never see reach anything like maturity. Many yews were amongst them, yews we are fortunate that, thanks to him, we can experience and appreciate them today and future generations can hopefully do the same in the centuries to come.

Text and images copyright SYTHI/Paul Greenwood All Rights Reserved