Scone is one of Scotland’s most treasured sacred locations. It served for centuries as the inaugural site of Scottish kings and from 841 until 1296 was the home of the sacred relic known as the Stone of Destiny (also the Stone of Scone) which featured in the coronation ritual. A replica of the Stone of Destiny stands in front of the 19th century mortuary chapel on Moot Hill where once stood the old parish church of Scone. Around the circumference of the mound stand some yews, two in particular frame the chapel as seen from the foot of the hill.
Whether the real Stone of Destiny was taken as spoils of war by Edward I of England in 1296 and it truly sat under the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey until returned to Scotland in 1996, is still hotly debated (1). What is not a matter of much contention is that a sacred stone was brought here in 841 which allegedly originally came from Ireland. Who exactly brought it to Scone differs in various stories e.g. some say Kenneth mac Alpin, others the Dalriadan king Fergus. It is said to have once belonged to the Biblical Jacob and was his ‘pillow’ when he had his dream known as ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ at Bethel in Palestine, and why sometimes this stone has been called the Bethel Stone. Such am alleged provenance is far from being accepted as true, and appears not be as geological investigation of the stone has shown that it was quarried in Perthshire. However, it is also claimed that the original stone was a portable altar of black basalt carved with decorations and belonged to St. Columba. He took it to Dalriada when he was exiled from Ireland and used it as a seat for the king in the crowning of King Aedan and this may explain the Jacob connection. There is an Irish legend that the Prophet Jeremiah (c. 650 – c. 570 BC) is said to have come to Ireland with sacred relics after fleeing Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, whatever the origin of the stone, what is undeniable is that people for one reason or another regarded it as exceptionally sacred, possessing a unique power and energy they believed was necessary in the sacred ritual of coronation. If that seems primitive or superstitious thinking, let us remember where the stone removed by Edward I was at Westminster Abbey, in a highly significant sacred place, and how many English and British monarchs have been crowned in the last 700 years when seated above it, including the present Queen. Tradition or not, this shows that ‘something’ about that stone infers a legitimacy upon a monarch and that Scone itself was not arbitrarily chosen as a location to house it, shows Scone must have been significant in the 9th century and most probably already a sacred site. There is archaeological evidence the Christian sect known as the Culdees could have been here in the 8th century. They are also associated with Dunkeld, Perthshire where the stone is said to have spent some time before arriving permanently at Scone.
Sometime between 1114 and 1122 a priory was formally established at Scone and a few decades later its status was raised to an abbey by King Malcolm IV. It flourished for 400 years until 1559 when it was attacked by a mob during the Scottish Reformation. Despite this it managed to survive until 1640 when it ceased to function. Prior to this the Ruthven family had rebuilt the Abbot’s Palace of the old abbey in 1580 and it was the beginning of the grand residence of Scone Palace to be seen today. Scone is also quite often overlooked as being the burial place of the first king known as a Stewart, Robert II, son of Robert the Bruce.
There are many yews on this exceptionally beautiful and tranquil estate, and they have a diverse range of both size and form, suggesting various periods of planting. One planting period which is known was in the early 19th century and carried out by the famous botanist (and yew researcher) J C Loudon who was asked to plant major areas of the estate to reflect and highlight its significance in the history of Scotland. The fact that many yews were planted here at that time would not be only for aesthetic reasons as Loudon was well aware of the yew’s place in the history of Scotland due to his research.
Some of these plantings shade and shelter a children’s outdoor playground today. There is also a fine, large avenue of Irish Yew (Taxus bacatta fastigiata) (see article on the Irish Yew) and a prime example showing how Irish Yew revert over time from a tight upright bush to a more bacatta like growth habit, the taller and older they become.
It is obvious that many yews on the estate are older than the 19th century plantings but how much older, and taking into account relative girth sizes, would suggest are around 350 – 400 years old and possibly connected to the time the Ruthven family carried out improvements. We can see yews have been a significant presence at Scone for probably four centuries and perhaps slightly more. We can also see a variety of growth forms in these yews despite them all on paper being in a fairly uniform environment.
Whether or not yews were a feature long ago in the early medieval period, when the Culdees were here or when the Stone of Destiny arrived and Scone definitively became a place of king-making, we will never know, but it is fair speculation that could be a possibility. Certainly yews are both a planned and distinct presence in the ambience of Scone’s environment today. It is fitting that they are present at this sacred royal place, upholding the history, tradition and significance of yews at sacred and/or royal places in Scotland and is a proven phenomenon easily traceable for over 1000 years.
Although there are no exceptionally old yews at Scone, there is one which stands out from all the others. Found in parkland near the Maze in an area adjacent to a small dene and in a stand of yew with seemingly mixed ages, there is a yew which is exhibiting an area of growth of white foliage upon its trunk. This is known as a ‘sport’ and indicates that this section of the yew is isolating an area which has become genetically mutated. In human terms it is the equivalent of a mole on the skin.
What triggers this process is not fully understood. It was not a phenomenon noted upon yews in any historic yew research, such as by John Lowe, Robert Hutchison and others in the 18th and 19th centuries, and nor by others such as Vaughan Cornish in the middle of the 20th century. It would be unusual that if it was seen, it would not have been observed and investigated further by at least one of these figures. That does not mean to say the phenomenon did not exist then, just that it was never recorded on yews these people had observed. However, it has been increasingly noted in recent decades at a few locations in Wales and southern England and monitoring of these growths has seen the foliage turn from white to a golden yellow colour.
In the book The God Tree by Janis Fry (Cappel Bann 2013) the appearance of this growth on ancient yews is claimed to be a manifestation of the legendary ‘Golden Bough’ or ‘Golden Branch’ of Classical mythology. This symbolism is featured especially in Greek myth and legend, involving purification rites before making a metaphysical passage to the Underworld. It also involves involves female spiritual figures known as the Furies. However, the claims and evidence given for this in the book are far too much to enter into any further here. Suffice to say, to people living in prehistoric times a ‘golden branch’ especially if appearing upon a sacred yew dedicated to a particular god or goddess, is easily understood today as being of no doubt amazing mystical importance to those people given their cosmology. Such branches being removed to becoming ritual talismans is also entirely understandable.
However, they did not know that in fact this is not a wondrous and beneficial sign because its golden, but rather the yew is isolating something from spreading unchecked and being a golden colour means the foliage cannot photosynthesise. In fact, it shows that in this particular section of the yew something is not quite ‘right’ and the yew is acting defensively against it. Perhaps in time the foliage may revert to green once more, after a long-term healing process has occurred, but this has not been observed so far. As mentioned, the cause of this reaction by the yew is not known and considering it has only been noted on a handful of yews so far and none in Scotland makes it appearing at Scone a rare phenomenon indeed.
As Scone is such a unique place in Scotland’s history perhaps it is fitting indeed that it should possess what is, so far, the only yew in Scotland to exhibit the golden branch phenomenon which in Classical ancient history is involved so much with the fate of nations, as Scone has been for over 1000 years.
(1): www.en.wikipedia.org/Westminster_ Stone_ theory