On the private lawn outside Finlaystone House, overlooking the Firth of Clyde near Langbank in Renfrewshire stands an ancient, forked yew known for centuries as John Knox’s Yew.
The origins of this yew are uncertain. Some claim John Knox planted it in the middle of the 16th century and others that there was already a noticeable yew at Finlaystone during his lifetime (c.1514 – 1572) and he preached underneath it. What makes the latter more likely is that John Knox allegedly performed “the world’s first Protestant Reformed communion service” under the yew in 1556 for the Earl of Glencairn and his family (1).
There may have been no special reason for John Knox to use the yew as the location to perform such a major historical event, as yews provide ideal and practical shade and shelter, something animals such as sheep and deer know well. Given that churches were barring their doors to John Knox, alternative venues to press forward the Reformation took place at locations other than on officially consecrated ground. For safety reasons, acting in the open air also meant a watch could be kept during any activities and there was no chance of being trapped in a building if any unwelcome officialdom turned up.
However, that John Knox may have been well-aware of the yew’s ancient status as a sacred tree in Scottish history and culture cannot be disregarded out of hand. Moreover this esteem spanned pre and post Christian Scotland. It involved the early Christian evangelists such as St Columba, stemming from Gaelic roots mainly in Ireland, which were intertwined with both Druid and early Christian beliefs not involved with Roman Christianity which ultimately prevailed in Britain and what John Knox was striving to reform.
One thing the Druids, Gaelic/Celtic, Roman and later Protestant Christians all have in common is they often either settled at places with yew trees which were ancient pagan sacred sites or planted them at newly established Christian sites next to churches, abbeys and in burial enclosures. Moreover, many rectories, manses and bishop’s palaces had yews planted around them. Yews were not only a feature within consecrated ground for diverse believers in Christianity as yews also served an extra function by being planted on un-consecrated ground. Yews planted outside homes to protect a place against various manifestations of ‘evil’, either of natural or perceived supernatural origin, is a multicultural tradition spanning Eurasia from prehistory to the present. Young, old and ancient examples of yews stand outside cottages and farmhouses and the grandest of houses and castles in Scotland, a tradition crossing all the social levels of society.
Planting yews on consecrated or otherwise significant ground is something the various forms of mainstream early to modern Christianity have continuously done in Scotland for over 1,000 years. That is a rare consensus in the history of Christianity and not involving a particular dominant doctrine or dogma – having yews at their most special places, holy ground or otherwise, is materially and no doubt esoterically important to them; something which cannot be easily dismissed as a mere religious superstition. Moreover, the tradition predates Christianity by millennia – it was a tradition Christianity upheld and did not invent or introduce to the population and by carrying it on evidently shows that there must be something to it beyond the material.
Moreover, with the availability of the Irish yew (Taxus baccata fastigiata) being made commercially available since 1820, in the last 200 years the number of Irish Yews planted in remodelled or new churchyards and burial sites runs into thousands in Scotland alone. The ancient tradition continues to this day that yews play a part in enhancing holy or other special places in something more than a material way. Another compelling aspect to this is all Irish yews have a unique story of their own as to why all of them are extraordinary yew trees and why they deserve more respect, recognition and protection than they currently receive. For more information on Irish yews, please see here.
Whether John Knox had more than shade and shelter in his mind, when he wrote history on that day in 1556 under the yew which bears his name today, we will never know, but it is not the only yew to feature in his life in a major way. Although not all agree he preached under the ancient yew at Ormiston Hall, East Lothian his fellow pioneer in leading the Reformation George Wishart (c.1516 – 1546) almost certainly did. There is justifiable speculation that the two may have discussed aspects of the Reformation under its boughs and, even in their day 500 years ago, this yew was known as a local landmark. It was at Ormiston where Bishop George Wishart was arrested and ultimately suffered the appalling fate of being burnt at the stake. That was 10 years before his colleague John Knox made world influencing history by doing what he did under the boughs of the yew standing at Finlaystone today.
John Knox uprooted and transplanted many aspects of Christianity into a new place in people’s hearts and minds which have endured to this day. This yew tree bearing his name has also experienced uprooting and transplanting in its lifetime but in its case literally. Extensions to Finlaystone House at the turn of the 20th century resulted in having to transplant the whole yew 30 metres (100 ft) in order to avoid removing such a historically significant yew and part of the living landscape of Finlaystone. Fortunately this delicate and complicated process was successful, and John Knox’s Yew thrives on the private lawn in front of the house. Although its north facing canopy section has suffered storm damage since the transplantation took place 120 years ago, this is not surprising given the exposed position this yew has always occupied. But for how long has this yew been here at Finlaystone?
Currently there are no girth measurements of this twin stemmed yew to suggest a starting point in considering its age. If we accept it was not planted by John Knox and it was big enough to serve his purposes as it did in 1556, then perhaps the yew has an origin at least around a century earlier meaning, if so, it is at least over 550 years old and possibly around 600 or slightly more.
Finlaystone’s history goes back 800 years to the 13th century. In the 14th century King Robert II granted the land to Sir John of Dennistoun. In 1405 via intermarriage with the Cunningham family it later became the family seat of the Clan Cunningham. In 1488 the title of the Earl of Glencairn was created and it was the Earl in the time of John Knox to whom John Knox gave that first Reformation holy communion. Did this yew already enjoy a special place in the family history at Finlaystone and could it have been planted in a commemorative manner concerning events in 1405 or 1488? Either date could mean a yew big enough to provide shade and shelter and perhaps some indescribable ‘something else’ would be suitable for John Knox’s momentous intentions in 1556.
This yew is the only living witness to an event which reverberated around in shockwaves throughout western Christianity and its effects on Christianity in Scotland still reverberate today. Not only is John Knox’s yew ancient, and a remarkable survivor of being totally uprooted and transplanted it clearly is as much a part of Scotland’s historical and living heritage, and as significant a part of the spirit of the place, as the house and all the family history here. It is of course thanks to the people who have occupied Finlaystone for the last 600 years or so that we have such a yew to marvel at today and especially so to whoever planted it and when.
This famous yew is not the only yew presence at Finlaystone as there is old yew topiary here, shaped into battlements and layering yews about 300 years old in a private area of the estate called Paradise, as well as younger yews in a private garden. The lifetime of John Knox’s yew has experienced this increasing of its kindred at Finlaystone estate over a planting period covering recent centuries. Some of its kindred are trimmed into topiary, others such as the sprawling wild looking yews in Paradise are the extremes of yew shapes and forms at Finlaystone and John Knox’s Yew is between these polarities with the shape and form it has today.
Given the effect and influence John Knox has had upon Scotland’s history there is no other memorial to him which is a genuine living witness to what he did, and when he did it. Statues and plaques are understandable methods of commemorating him but how many of those memorials will last as the potential of the yew tree at Finlaystone house has to last, and hopefully that could be for many centuries to come. It has already witnessed many centuries after all, including having to resurrect and regenerate itself during them, which is perhaps what happened in some of the hearts and minds who perceived John Knox’s work as a resurrection and regeneration of their Christian faith.
John Knox’s yew has been fortunate in that it was not simply disposed of by being in the way of architectural work carried out in 1900 – but that decision must have been influenced by it having a ‘story to tell’ and having its place in both the ancient family history of Finlaystone and the national history of Scotland by then.
Increasingly in recent decades, the improvement of long neglected estates or their change from ancestral ownership to corporate business use has involved yews being lost which were planned and deliberate features in the very creation of these estates often many centuries ago. By their very nature as a well-known long-lived tree, yews were planted to be ‘everlasting’ on estates and not disposed of in a few centuries when they would be only juvenile yews anyway. There is no significant legal protection which fully recognises the status of yews which are as old and often older than buildings or archaeology, which are protected and with effective deterrents. If the yew heritage of Scotland is to be properly protected, that legal situation simply has to change, and the yew has an extraordinary case and impeccable evidence to support being treated as a special case. All yews of any age have an extraordinary and genuinely astonishing tale to tell – please see the article Taxus – a sensational survivor.
Many yews go unrecognised that they are living witnesses to everything which has happened at places spanning centuries of time. How many famous people have stood under their boughs, thinking their thoughts or discussing all manner of things with others and coming away inspired to do things which not only wrote, but significantly altered the history of nations in so many ways.
John Knox’s yew is fortunately a famous and protected example because it has been in the many hands of people who knew its story – and what a story it truly is.