Preston Hall, Midlothian

The beautiful private estate of Preston Hall (including the Grade A listed mansion house) is approximately 1 mile (1.5km) north of the village of Pathhead in Midlothian, Scotland on the east side of the Tyne Water, opposite Oxenfoord Castle on the west side. It is accessible to the public except for strictly private areas near to the house and other residential areas within the grounds.
Preston Hall with yew tree
“A house has stood on the site since 1700 and in 1738 Henrietta, the widow of Alexandra Gordon, 2nd Duke of Gordon, bought the estate…After a prosperous career in India with the East India Company, Alexander Callander returned to Scotland to look for a home…acquiring Preston Hall Estate in 1789…A London based architect, Robert Mitchell, was employed to demolish and replace the hall with the foundation stone laid on Friday 18th March 1791. Unfortunately, Alexander Callander never lived to see his home, and the house was passed to his brother, John Callander, who completed the work in 1801.    Complementing the house and stables is the recently restored walled garden.  The original layout was created around the same time as the house and sub sequentially (sic) modernised by Cecilia Margaret Callander, wife of Henry Burn-Callander, in 1888.  A great lover of the outdoors, Cecelia invested a great amount of time and resources in creating beautiful gardens for her family and guests to enjoy.”
Lady Gordon laid out the extensive parkland around the house before her death in 1760 inplying the beginnings of planting out the grounds and parkland of the estate as seen today could not have been before 1738.  However, as the first house was built here in 1700 (there are no records of any earlier buildings on the site) some planting or naturally seeded trees may predate the acqusition of the estate by Lady Gordon.
There are numerous areas of group and individual planting of yew on the estate which all evidence so far found points to having taken place at various times over the last three hundred years. Although these yews are classed as young or juvenile by the standards of the lifetime yews can typically reach, Preston Hall estate includes some compelling examples of already remarkable yews.
Trunk of yew outside walled garden

What may be one of the earliest plantings at Preston Hall is a male yew with noticeably flaky bark, standing in a shaded spot beside the children’s playground just outside the walled garden. Girth measurements were 330 cm @ 50 cm high, 315cm @ 100 and 324cm @ 150 cm (SYTHI 2022). Applying the rough girth to age formula (which is more reliable in yews less than 400 years old) the girth in cm taken at 150 cm high (breast height) equals the age in years, hence in this case it points to the yew being around 324 years old. If so, that would mean an origin circa 1700, when the first house was built here.

No photo description available.
There is a  yew of larger girth @ 150 cm which is found by following a hairpin path west from the cattle grid on the entrance road which descends into a small dene and past various stands of young yew planting. This standalone male yew with pronounced fluting of its trunk measures 387cm @ 50cm, 379 cm @ 100cm and 384cm @ 150 cm (SYTHI 2022). The girth @ 150 cm implies the yew is closer to 400 years old than 300 but there may be a reason why this yew has a higher than ‘typical’ growth rate. It stands directly above a culvert channelling water through this area of the parkland and would survive drought conditions much better than its kindred planted elsewhere. Generally in temperate conditions a reliable supply of sufficient water can create larger than typical annual ring increments in trees, hence creating larger than ‘typical’ or average girths.
Yew with startling morphology at Preston Hall

In huge contrast to the trunks of the yews described so far, there is a young layering yew which is of genuinely mesmerising morphology, visible from the road between the cattle grid and the house. Here we find a small yew with a wild and tangled growth habit of bizarre forms and consequently any girth measurements would not really be relevant in speculating an accurate age for it. Suffice to say the notable qualities of this juvenile yew lie in its fantastical beauty rather than its age, as the images show.

Multi-stemmed yew at Preston Hall

In a private area to the immediate east of Preston Hall itself is a quite stunning example of what resembles an exceptionally ancient and fragmented yew. As seen in the images, an example of an ancient, fragmented yew, thought to be 2,000 years old, can be seen in the extract from The Immortal Yew by Tony Hall (hardback, Kew, 2018) and the resemblance between it and the yew at Preston Hall is uncannily apparent.

However, this collection of 7 stems at Preston Hall, which despite all being female cannot be said without DNA testing to be one yew, is not an exceptionally ancient yew, quite the opposite in fact as it is a juvenile. But it shows how appearances can initially be quite deceptive and rather quicken the pulse. With a circumference of 785 cm at the base, this mound of yew growth is certainly startling in size and appearance and is a mighty presence indeed. That it probably began life as a close group of plantings is seen in many examples of such planting across the estate and as seen in the images. Of the girth measurements available to be taken @ 150 cm, these ranged from 120 cm, 126 cm, 182 cm and 240 cm across four examples (SYTHI2022) clearly showing no evidence for any stems pre-dating the year 1700.
With grateful thanks to the present members of the Callander family currently occupying Preston Hall who kindly gave permission to record yews in the private areas of the estate.
Text and images copyright SYTHI All Rights Reserved except where noted. 🙂