Glamis Castle, near Forfar in Angus is undoubtedly one of Scotland’s most beautiful castles. The home of the Earl and Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne, it stands in stunning surroundings of parkland and both formal and agricultural gardens. It is also the home of some particularly important and historically significant yew trees, which we will come to later, after looking at some intriguing links the yew has with Glamis.
In contrast to its great aesthetic appeal, perhaps Glamis is better known not for its beauty, but the well-known connection with one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Macbeth – where Glamis castle is the brooding, stormy setting for dark and macabre deeds. The historical king Macbeth of Scotland who died in 1057 had no connection with Glamis but a king was murdered there in 1034, when Malcolm II was slain.
The roles the stereotypical witches have in the play are celebrated in wooden statues standing in the grounds of the castle depicting the brewing of a toxic stew in a cauldron. In Act 4, Scene 2 page 2 of the play the ingredients are listed and as well as plants such as ‘root of hemlock digged i’th’ dark’ it includes:
“Gall of goat and slips of yew
Slivered in the moon’s eclipse.”
If the cutting of the slips of yew took place ‘in the moon’s eclipse’ that would not have been in the normal silvery light of the moon but bathed in the ominous blood red colour the moon becomes when eclipsed. Saying the slips were ‘slivered’ also implies a finer and deliberate cutting than with an axe or saw, rather the slips were shaved off with a sharp knife. The cutting of a yew branch by any means can also often result in a yew ‘bleeding’ from the wound. It is a startling and shocking sight and visually identical to blood oozing from a wound, and this vision cannot help but heighten the perception of the pain the yew has suffered – almost as if we can hear its scream of pain when it happened.
The sap the yew produces in this way not only resembles human blood but also the blood found in animals, birds, reptiles and fish which is a compelling fact to ponder. In the yew’s mythical and symbolic role as the uber-sacred Tree of Life, a central point connecting all other life aligned to the centre of the galaxy, then sharing ‘blood’ with so much other life forms on the planet, including us, seems the most essential material quality for a Tree of Life to have in common. Yews can also exhibit a reddish liquid often found running down the trunk, but this is water stained by heartwood and is not the same as the sap produced as if a vein or artery in a limb has been cut.
There are stories in many traditions of sacred trees – often the most sacred of trees – bleeding when cut. The yew shows that a tree ‘bleeding’ is not fable or myth but true, also implying the yew is the sacred tree referred to in many of these stories. It is one way the yew brings many legends to life by being a living example of what those stories claimed to be true and often in the most part disbelieved as pagan superstitious nonsense.
However, in the Gaelic culture which spread branches from Ireland to take root in Scotland, there is a recurring theme in the mythical cycles of Ireland of the yew’s association with monarchies, the families involved in their rise and fall and their own familial royal, special and sacred places. Glamis is one such place.
The castle seen today has roots traceable at least to the 11th century when it was a Royal hunting lodge where King Malcolm II was murdered. In 1372, by which time a castle had been built, King Robert II – the first of the Stewart royal line – granted Glamis to the husband of the king’s daughter Sir John Lyon and it has remained in the hands of the Lyon family (later the Bowes-Lyon) ever since. Clan Lyon was established at Glamis at this time. The clan chief’s shield features six archers bows, and the best bow an archer could own was always of yew.
The castle was rebuilt as an L-plan tower house in the early 15th century. In 1606 the castle was considerably refurbished by the 9th Lord Glamis after he became the Earl of Kinghorne but by 1670 due to fortunes of war it was uninhabitable. By 1689 restoration work had been completed and almost a century later major improvements were carried out to the grounds by the 9th Earl after he married Mary Eleanor Bowes, heiress to the vast fortunes of the Bowes family accumulated through coal mining.
The historic ‘family chapel’ of the Bowes, at St Cuthbert’s church in the hamlet of Beltingham in Northumberland, England has a famous and exceptional yew tree in the churchyard, with two ancient companions on the other side of the church. Evidence supports this yew is over 1,000 years old and some think could be much older. It was amongst the nominations for the Woodland Trust’s UK Tree of the Year 2020. As a sacred site, Beltingham has a long history dating back at least to the early Christian period in the 6th and 7th centuries. Archaeological evidence also suggests it was used much earlier by pagan Romans in the first century who themselves may well have found it to already be a native holy place.
The Lyon family are of Norman descent (de Leonne) and came north with Edgar, a son of Malcolm II, at the end of the 11th century to assist his struggles against his relative Donald Bane. Edgar was successful and rewarded the Lyon family with extensive land grants in Perthshire, including what became known as Glen Lyon. In this land grant was the ancient sacred site of Fortingall where stood a yew perhaps already a thousand years old when the Lyons became lords of the glen. Only the fragmented remains of a yew, with a girth measured at over 50 feet (15 metres) in the 18th century can be seen today. Despite it not being the yew it was once was what is left continues to thrive although its condition appears poor to us. It is a salutary example of yew resilience.
The story of the Lyon/Bowes-Lyon family has historically revolved around royal affairs for almost a thousand years and particularly so today due to the association between Glamis castle, the late Queen Mother and her daughters the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. It was the childhood home of hte Princesses, Margaret being born there, and it is recorded that they enjoyed playing in and around three yews in particular, two of which are large yews, growing near to the castle. Not only that, both Princesses planted a yew each in 1937 when they were young children, and these yews have almost identical girths of 166 cm and 167 cm measured at 50 cm high (SYTHI, 2020). Due to low branches this was the optimum girth measurement height.
The link between yews and the late Princess Margaret does not end there, as her memorial at Glamis stands at the end of an extensive avenue of yew hedging leading from the castle.
It is easy to appreciate how the two large yews, both are female, created a special and no doubt magical playground for the young Princesses. They possess canopies in fine condition, despite being in such an exposed location, creating sheltered and secluded chambers underneath, supported by delicately coloured and undulating fluted trunks of fascinating and mesmerising visual appeal.
One of the yews has a tear in the trunk probably caused by storm damage but is not seriously affecting the yew. It has affected the girth as it swells from 449 cm at 50 cm high to 681cm at 150 cm high, an increase of 232 cm in 100 cm of height. In contrast its intact companion measures 409 cm at 50 cm and 484 cm at 150 cm, a difference of 75 cm. As part of its innate healing abilities, inside the split the yew is forming aerial roots. Their purpose is to thicken and swell over time and fill the void. It is a phenomenon often found in hollowing or fully hollowed yews and is just one example of the multiple strategies a yew possesses for healing and regeneration.
Apart from the two large yews another with an estimated girth over 300 cm, girth stands in a private garden nearby and provides a beautiful atmospheric oasis of shade and shelter. Yews of this girth size across the estate are thought to have an origin in the 1670’s making them around 350 years old. There is another small grove of three juvenile yews on lawns near the castle which are early 20th century plantings.
By their size, the two large yews are obviously considered the oldest but how old are they? The girth of the yew with the tear of 681 cm at 150 cm gives a false picture due to its circumstances so a more reliable indicator may be the size of the other yew (484 cm at 150 cm) or considering their sizes at the same height. If we assume these two yews were planted at the same time and take an average girth size measured at 50 cm, where there is a 40 cm difference between the two, this average of 429 cm suggests they are 400 – 500 years old with origins in the 16th century or early 17th century. This could pinpoint the date of 1606 when the 9th Lord of Glamis became the Earl of Kinghorne and refurbished the estate. Perhaps these yews were planted as a commemoration for this momentous event in the fortunes of the Lyon family at Glamis. However, they could be older.
As these yews have no competition from other trees nearby for water, nutrients and sunlight, unlike other yews on the estate, it could mean they have been able to thrive and grow at a faster rate than yews with competitors in the woodlands of Glamis. As their girths apparently confirm an age of over 400 years, these yews are classified by SYTHI (Scotland’s Yew Tree Heritage Initiative) as ancient (see article on age classification. But not only are they ancient, their historical importance and cultural significance in the history of Scotland is as important as their biological age.
Here at Glamis we see the yew in the modern era connected to a tradition linking yews trees and monarchy going back far into prehistory and has remained unbroken ever since. The yews at Glamis have provided a playground for princesses, been planted by princesses and involved significantly in the memorial to one of those princesses. As well as being significant in the life of two queens, the Late Queen Mother and Elizabeth II.
Whether there were any yews at Glamis when it was a Royal hunting lodge almost a thousand years ago, we will never know. But Glamis Castle today does have ancient yews and the deep and meaningful links between yew trees and the Lyon/Bowes-Lyon family which have certainly existed here for at least four centuries and maybe more, should speak for themselves in compelling ways.