On the banks of the river Gryffe at Craigends, Houston in Renfrewshire, Scotland and standing in the middle of a housing estate, is one of the largest layered yews in Scotland, indeed in western Europe.
This immense male yew tree has a canopy measuring 100 metres in circumference and its trunk had a girth of 868 cm measured at 30 cm high in 2016 (1). Taking girth measurements any higher than this is not practical or relevant because the main trunk becomes a spreading explosion of snapped and fractures stems above 30 cm.
In his 1897 book Yew-Trees of Great Britain and Ireland, Dr John Lowe quotes the findings of Robert Hutchison published in 1890 which had measured the yew as 21 ft (640 cm) in girth at 1 ft (30 cm) high. He also noted the yew had a canopy circumference of 80 yards (74 metres) and describes the yew as:
“Breaks at 2 ft (60 cm) into fourteen limbs of upright growth, and from 9 ft (180 cm) at 3 ft (90cm) in girth.” (2)
Since this observation was recorded 131 years ago the appearance of the yew has drastically altered. Most of the upright limbs noted by Robert Hutchison are now wholly or partially broken off the trunk and lying almost prone. Despite this the yew has produced new vertical branches on some of these limbs showing the vitality is intact despite the damage.
Ascertaining an average annual increase in girth over 126 years by comparing girth measurements made in 1890 and 2016 at 30 cm high may seem an obvious thing to do. However, this would have to bear in mind the possibility that the splitting and tearing of the trunk by the displacement of various upright limbs since 1890 may have widened the girth to some extent due to these natural stresses, but by how much, if at all, we do not know. Apart from the natural stresses the yew has endured in recent decades it has also suffered from wanton vandalism and being partially burnt.
Even so, based on these girth measurements, the annual average increase calculated by dividing the increase in girth at 30 cm high by the number of years (228 cm/126) is a mere 1.8 cm, just over ¾ inch. This can only reflect a possible average annual growth rate for the last 126 years and cannot be extrapolated as an average applying to the girth measured in 2016, which would give an age of 462 years (868 cm/1.8 cm) which seems unlikely. Nevertheless, an average rate of 1.8 cm is almost imperceptible year on year without continuous and accurate measurement being carried out for many years. Annually, this yew would not be seen to change in girth size, yet still grow foliage and flowers as it gradually and consistently extended its canopy. Between Hutchison’s measurement of 74 metres and the 100 metres it is today, the girth of the canopy circumference has increased by 26 metres which is only an average rate of 20.6 cm per year in the last 126 years. Again, year on year this increase would be imperceptible without it being accumulated by accurate measuring over a considerable period.
The slow growth habit of the ancient Craigends Yew makes it easier to understand the literal and metaphysical leanings of meaning in the Old Welsh (Brythonic) word for the yew of ‘ywen’ meaning ‘it is’, and in a language once spoken extensively in northern Britain. Time does not seem to age the ancient yew; it is seen as always ‘being’- ever present and never ‘changing -’ and hence is easily perceived as having ‘eternal’ life, as if the somehow yew ‘exists’ in a different space time continuum to that which we generally experience. If we also take into account an average shorter life expectancy of the population of Britain in past centuries, then experiencing and perceiving the yew as ‘never changing’ and always being what ‘it is’ in their lifetimes is understandable and justifiable. Given the Craigends Yew has layered so extensively and remarkably then ultimately as a whole its canopy structure is secure. Increasing the trunk girth to support a canopy is not a necessity as such.
Estimates for how old this yew may be can vary from over 500 to over 700 years old, but perhaps it may be older – as there are clues in the history of Houston which suggest a possible planting date in the mid -12th century. Originally known as Kilpeter (church of Peter) at that time the lands of Kilpeter were granted to Sir Hugh of Paduinan which gave rise to the manor becoming known as “Hugh’s tun” – modern Houston.
Sir Hugh de Paduinan (1140–1189) was of Anglo-Norman ancestry, a baron and founder of the Clan Houston. He is said to have married into Scottish nobility and was associated with Sir Walter Fitzalan, who was steward to the kings David I, Malcolm IV and William I. He was also a Knight Templar who died in the Holy Land, possibly at the disastrous battle of the Horns of Hattin which was a calamitous defeat for Crusader forces and the Knights Templar in particular. Sir Hugh’s surname has been subject to different spellings and include Paduinan, Padinan and Padvinan (4) This explains the confusion that he is sometimes identified as Hughes de Payen, the first Grandmaster of the Knights Templar and of Moorish descent, who did visit Scotland and met with king David I; who gave the Templars extensive land grants to establish preceptories and churches, but Hughes de Payen did not settle in Scotland.
Sir Hugh de Paduinan’s descendants refurbished a castle at Houston in the 16th century and it is thought that Lord Darnley, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots lived in the castle for some time. It is claimed that the plot to murder him was hatched by Lord Morton and his associates under a great layering yew on the Whittinghame estate in East Lothian, which is another candidate to be the largest layering yew in Scotland (5).
The remains of Houston castle still stand near to the current Houston House. Sir Hugh’s family remained the Lairds of Houston for over 500 years until 1740 when Alexander Speirs of Elderslie bought the estate. Interestingly the Speirs also bought the Elderslie estate, the home of the Wallace Yew and claimed to be the birthplace of Sir William himself and the yew became increasingly famous as the Wallace Yew after the Speirs became the owners.
It is known that Norman nobility, and the Knights Templar, planted yews at their holdings.
“Hugo Conwentz (1855-1922), the celebrated pioneer in yew research and conservation who dug for fossil and semi-fossil remains of Taxus in many localities in the British Isles and Germany, stated that he never found yew planted in the ramparts of prehistoric forts, but often at the fortifications of the knights of the Middle Ages.” (7)
Could it be that Sir Hugh planted a yew on his newly granted estate to commemorate the event? If so, the Craigends Yew would be closer to 900 than 800 years old. Even if possibly affected by spreading rather than the growing of girth as noted earlier, if the basic guide to estimating the age of a yew is applied (1 cm average girth increase per year) then the girth in 2016 of 868 cm would suggest an age supporting a planting during Sir Hugh’s lifetime i.e. circa 1153.
Whatever age it may be, one thing is certain – experiencing this yew is stunning for the senses. It is not only the sprawling mass of whole and wounded stems which explode from the trunk, but the sheer scale of the total size of this yew. Within the canopy, tangles of branches grow thick along the ground and overhead, some dripping with moss and lichens due to the damp microclimate of being next to a river.
The sense of an almost primeval atmosphere is easily felt under the branches of such an immense and ancient living being. Moreover it is one of the few examples left of what yews should look like if they can layer comparatively unhindered across the centuries.
Yews do not seek to be tall trees, like beech or oak, and have an average height of around 50 ft (15 metres). Indeed, the Craigends Yew has an Atlas Cedar towering above it today. Instead, yews have a natural tendency involving spreading across the land by arching branches into the ground, or ‘running’ them along the ground, to form new stems around the central trunk and create a grove consisting of a single tree. New stems can also spring direct from the root system.
Ancient Classical descriptions of vast sacred groves full of many trunks – the natural pillared ‘temples’ of those days – yet somehow consisting only of a single tree, have often been considered an exaggeration, but the Craigends Yew shows such a grove can be created from a single yew. The Craigends Yew brings such Classical descriptions to life as fact, not fiction, consequently proving there was no exaggeration in at least some of these historic observations. A single yew tree can indeed become a dense grove and be a woodland of itself, around itself, which almost defies description. It is genuinely compelling and extraordinary to experience that no matter where one looks, it is all the same single yew tree.
It cannot be stressed enough that ancient, layered yews trees such as this at Craigends are unknown at present in western Europe outside the UK and are indeed rare within the UK. Yews in the confines of a typical churchyard have little chance to fulfil a life as nature intends and layer to their potential. Hence such yews as the Craigends Yew are in fact the very last of their kind, and obviously irreplaceable.
They show us in the clearest way what yews are meant to become over the long centuries if they have the time and peace to do so, and despite natural setbacks such as storm damage or interference from humans involving cutting off branches for whatever reasons. There are many sites in Scotland outside churchyards and on estates where existing yews have the chance to become what they are supposed to become over the centuries – vast layered yews – which they will if left alone as far as possible and with sufficient space to fulfil their ‘timeless’ lives.
The Craigends Yew proves this – because ‘it is’.
(2) Lowe, John: Yew-Trees of Great Britain and Ireland, Macmillan, 1897, p. 92.
(5) Pakenham, Thomas: Meetings with Remarkable Trees, Cassell, 2001, p 185.
(6) Hageneder, Fred: Yew – A History, History Press, 2011 paperback edition, p 243.