Inchlonaig

Inchlonaig as seen from the mainland at Luss
Inchlonaig as seen from the mainland at Luss

Inchlonaig, also known as the ‘Island of Yews’, is the northernmost of the main islands on Loch Lomond in Argyll and Bute and is privately owned. This place has a long association with people as archaeological signs of human habitation were found here stretching back to 8,000 years ago (6,000 BC). It has been famous as a natural wonder for some time and was visited by Samuel Johnson and James Boswell in the late summer of 1773 and mentioned in Boswell’s subsequent book, A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland published in 1775.

Today the island is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) but curiously this designation was not granted for its yews but because the island is also a large area of ancient oak woodland. However, yew protection against grazing by deer and regeneration schemes by natural seeding or propagating seeds and cuttings are included in the long term site management plans. It is thought there are between 800 – 900 yews on the island and they grow in various habitats from the rocky loch shores to the higher interior, which is often very boggy ground and covered in sphagnum moss. Bluebells flowers abound in this habitat in May, and grow under the canopy of yews as do most of the local plants. Some yews have trunks which are entirely covered in mosses and lichens.

A moss covered yew with exposed sapwood.
A moss covered yew with exposed sapwood.

Tradition states Inchlonaig was planted with yews by the Scottish king Robert the Bruce in the early 14th century to supply longbows for the battle of Bannockburn fought in 1314. This seems highly unlikely as military quality longbows able to match the English Great War bow could not be harvested from yews so young. The best and most powerful longbows came from staves cut from trunks of mature yews, and preferably from continental supplies in mountainous areas e.g. Spain, where the climate was dry. England also had a monopoly on this trade and by the end of the 16th century in almost all of western continental Europe the yew had disappeared.

As we do not know if the island was associated with yews before the early 14th century, nevertheless it seems that old and ancient yews were harvested for longbows for use at Bannockburn, and King Robert replaced them, anticipating their potential military usefulness in the future of Scotland. This seems to be the likely scenario to fit the tradition. Although longbows and archery are mainly associated with medieval English armies, archers were an important feature of Scottish armies also, though not to as great an extent, yet they did indeed play a crucial part in the victory at Bannockburn (see the article Tree of the Bow).

However, there could be another reason why so many yews were planted here as Inchlonaig is a sacred isle in the traditions of the Colquhoun clan who had a burial place on the island. In the early 1300’s leading up to Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce had already suffered grievous losses of many people close to him in fighting his campaign. Hence there could have been a spiritual reason, rather than a merely military one, for so many yews being planted and perhaps his losses were in his thoughts when that took place.

An ancient yew growing on the shore of the island
An ancient yew growing on the shore of the island

There was also yew planting carried out in the 17th century, when the island was a deer park for the Colquhouns. Many of these yews survive dotted across the island but their population was severely affected by goats which had been introduced to the island. Fortunately the goats were removed and many yews then had fences erected around them to further protect them from deer predation, and their rusty but trusty remains are still there around many of the juvenile yews. However, in 1890 Robert Hutchison wrote that in 1814 during the Napoleonic Wars at least 300 ‘large and well grown trees’ were harvested and that ‘yet a sufficient crop was left’, so it seems not all of the yews Robert the Bruce planted fell to the axe (1).

Many survive today, some with girths over 5 metres (17 feet). They exhibit various marvellous and mesmerising shapes and forms as a result of growing in what is an extreme habitat for yews trees – being so wet, exposed and experiencing many harsh winters and cold winds. Ideally yews prefer light, well- drained soils.

Hollowed yew in the interior of the island
Hollowed yew in the interior of the island

All of these habitat factors on Inchlonaig mitigate growth rates and this environment could not be further away in climate and habitat compared to famous yew woodlands in southern England such as Kingley Vale or Druid’s Grove. We also see that the plants of this island grow right to the trunks of the yews, there is no bare ground under the canopies – all is a lush green carpet. What was most curious from field research here is no yews were identified as having layered branches and only one hollowed yew was noted. In fact their morphology seems to tacitly avoid any branch layering and this has also been noted in the Borrowdale valley in Cumbria, England where yews in damp mountain environments do not layer either. By creating a flatter ‘mushroom’ shaped canopy the resulting flexibility gives better defence against winds and any accumulation of snow weight on branches.

Inchlonaig is a genuinely extraordinary, exceptional and challenging environment for yews by being on an island with such a damp climate and environment. It is consequently unique in Scotland, the UK and western Atlantic Europe. This remarkable place of such immense botanical, historical and cultural significance shows us the versatility of growth in ancient yews and their individual reactions in adapting to precise circumstances in order to survive and thrive here.

Another growth variation on Inchlonaig, a yew with a twisted trunk
Another growth variation on Inchlonaig, a yew with a twisted trunk

Whether Robert the Bruce ever imagined any of these yews planted at his behest would still be living 700 years later is obviously something we do not know. But what these yews have become – apart from being such living witnesses to his life – is an inadvertent memorial over 700 years old to the man himself. Without his planting of yews here,  Inchlonaig would not be the priceless treasure of yews and nature it is today. Scotland is fortunate to have such a jewel in the crown of its yew heritage, a jewel with such a royal provenance too which also helps to keep such a king’s name immortal.