Standing on a vast private estate covering over 6,000 acres and overlooking the Firth of Forth, Hopetoun House at Queensferry, West Lothian, dates from the early 18th century and has been the home of the Hope family since the 17th century.
This magnificent house was built by William Bruce in the Palladian architectural style between 1699 – 1701 and significantly extended by William Adam between 1721-1748, who also laid out the gardens in 1725. The magnificent entrance hall and other interior works were added by his sons John and Robert Adam and completed by 1752 (1). It is said to be Scotland’s finest country house and both the house and beautifully kept grounds are accessible to the public in the open season and admission charges apply and Hopetoun has become a popular venue for conferences and weddings.
In the grounds is the site of what was once Abercorn castle, a manor house dating to the 15th century. It was destroyed completely when in possession of the Douglas family in the mid-16th century as a result of their failed rebellion against the Scottish Crown. Not far from the site of the old castle stands an unusually tall and previously unrecorded ancient male yew tree in fine condition with a girth of 560 cm measured at 100 cm high (SYTHI May 2021).
A basic estimation of its age based on girth size would suggest it is well over 500 years old and may have an association with Abercorn castle, if that is the yew was planted as it could have a natural origin. This could be the case as the area surrounding where Abercorn castle stood was called ‘The Wilderness’ and if an accurate description of the environment, perhaps it was a remnant of untamed ancient woodland.
Given historic habitat conditions at a coastal site, exposed to cold north winds whipping across the Firth of Forth, the frost factor, as well as enduring periodic ‘mini Ice Ages’ which lasted for decades at a time in the last five centuries, may mean this yew has been slow growing for extensive periods in its life. Hence, it being around or over 600 years old is a realistic possibility. However, there is no doubt that this must have been an extant yew at Hopetoun when the grounds were laid out in 1725 and indeed may not be the only yew at Hopetoun to have been incorporated as such.
In an area to the north of the pond and beside what looks to have once been a bowling green, are some yew plantings with girths in excess of 400 cm. This suggests they are around or over 400 years old and planted circa 1620. Even though standing just ten paces apart, two yews of similar girth sizes could not be more different in appearance, as one has a fine, straight fluted trunk reminiscent of the stone columns of a classical temple façade, while the other is twisted and bulbous. It is almost as if they are not the same species of tree, so marked are the differences between them and yet they occupy a virtually identical habitat. This demonstrates the individuality of a yew to adapt to precise habitat conditions and grow accordingly.
Standing near to the yew with the fluted trunk is another of significantly different appearance.
The estate also has many examples of phoenix yews of various ages. These are yews which have severely leaned or toppled due to natural events such as severe storms and been extensively uprooted as seen in the images. However, enough of the root system has survived to allow the yew to ‘rise again’ and be ‘reborn’ in the tradition of the legend of the phoenix bird – and they have in quite spectacular and compelling ways as the images show. Even when fully prone it is truly remarkable how these yews have patiently and resiliently adapted to their enforced circumstances and created dense leader branch growth enabling extensive canopy regeneration.
The grounds also feature an extensive planting of yew hedges on the seaward side, providing a windbreak and resting point for visitors enjoying the stupendous ever-changing vista across the Firth of Forth. The hedge appears to belong to the landscape planting of 1725 and if so, would make this hedge, or at least portions of it, almost 300 years old and a significant part of Scotland’s yew tree heritage.
Hopetoun is a salutary example of an estate where fortunately extant yews were not victims of a redesign or development process which have often been responsible for the loss of old and ancient yews from the 17th to the 21st centuries. How many more estates in Scotland such as Hopetoun may possess hidden gems of ancient and otherwise significant yew trees is not known but the potential for many to do so is self-evident. Of course if any such yews remain unrecognised for what they are, the risks to them are obvious if estates are sold or redeveloped and SYTHI have sadly recorded losses of many yews of ages spanning 400 – 600 years old in recent years due to these circumstances. Such lost yews are, of course, irreplaceable.
Fortunately at Hopetoun this has not been the case. Consequently visitors can experience many magnificent trees here including the yews of all shapes, sizes and conditions – from juvenile and mature pheonix yews to ancient kindred and ponder all the history these yews have witnessed at Hopetoun certainly for at least 500 years.in this stunning location. Moreover with owners and staff who appreciate and cherish what a priceless place the treasure of yews of Hopetoun occupies in the yew tree heritage of Scotland.
With thanks and deep appreciation to Hopetoun Ranger Emma Parker and the Hopetoun Estate for SYTHI being made aware of these yews, the invitation to visit, the wonderful experience which Hopetoun is and the opportunity to record and photograph some truly remarkable and resilient yews – which will hopefully grace the beautiful grounds of Hopetoun House for many centuries to come.