The Phoenix Yews of Inchlonaig

The village of Luss lies on the western shore of Loch Lomond. It is an ancient place with links to St Kessog (born 460, died 520) an early Irish Christian missionary of the late fifth to early sixth centuries who became the patron saint of Scotland before being replaced by St Andrew (1). Due east across the loch from Luss is the island of Inchlonaig.

Looking north-west from Inchlonaig and across Loch Lomond to the distant village of Luss.

It is worth speculating if St Kessog ever visited Inchlonaig and used it as a personal retreat, as evidence we will come later suggests there could have been an ancient and extensive yew population during St Kessog’s lifetime. Other early Irish Christian saints such as St Columba, particularly sought out yew tree places when seeking solitude. Inchloniag has been known as the Isle of Yews or Yew Island for centuries and was visited by the famous Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, who authored The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson published in 1785.

It is thought Inchlonaig may contain over 800 yews. Many of them date to the early fourteenth century when multiple sources claim they were planted on the order of Robert Bruce (2). These replaced ancient yews felled to provide military quality longbows for his archers, who subsequently played a crucial part in the victory at Bannockburn in 1314 (3).

Given there are hundreds of yews on Inchlonaig which may date to just over 700 years ago, if these are one for one replacement plantings, the harvest of yews by Robert Bruce must have been considerable and probably taken all the oldest yews at that time. It is fair to speculate that there were some exceptional ancient yews here which fell to axe and saw and were living during the lifetime of St Kessog. It was not only people and animals giving their lives in the cause of Scottish independence in the Middle Ages, as hundreds of ancient yew trees on Inchlonaig – as well as countless trees other than Taxus throughout Scotland – did as well. The ancient yews on the island today are therefore a living testament and poignant memorial to those that were felled in the fourteenth century.

It is also said that hundreds of yews were taken from Inchlonaig for military purposes during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century – presumably the largest and oldest yews.  There are many juvenile yews on the island which appear to be around 200 – 300 years old and suggests some replanting may have taken place after the early 19th century harvesting, though many of these yews could be natural seedings occurring in recent centuries.

Having given some details about Inchlonaig, as the purpose here is to look at a particular phenomenon which has astounding examples on Inchlonaig – phoenix yews.

The term phoenix alludes to the ancient legend of the Phoenix bird being periodically reborn. It is used to describe trees in general toppled by storms or snow weight for example and considerably uprooted, yet have survived the trauma, damage and resiliently regenerated to live on.

Inchlonaig is a harsh environment for trees, exposed constantly to strong winds which can blow from any direction but are particularly powerful and cold when funnelled by the surrounding mountains to the north. Consequently the overall population of trees has experienced individuals being toppled, partially uprooted and becoming phoenix trees, an example being the phoenix crab apples (Malus sylvestris) found on the island. Inevitably, some of the yew population has experienced extensive storm damage over the centuries, resulting in torn root plates and prone trunks, especially yews on the north facing section of the island.

Emerging from a fallen, rotted trunk of yew hidden by ferns and colonised by bilberries, two small branches have survived ensuring this yew lives on

Given the severity of disruption seen in many examples this suggests a high percentage may have been caused in a single weather event, rather than gradually leaning until eventually falling, as yews with leaning morphology, as a result of partial toppling, can also be seen on the island.

Clearly showing how small a remnant of yew originally survived almost total uprooting. It is remarkable how such substantial stems have regenerated, especially the largest adjacent the root plate (also hosting an epiphyte of young birch) and its size suggesting the toppling may have occurred centuries ago.
The same yew showing the incredible and mesmerising extent of root plate morbidity and survival

An example showing how a fraction of connected root seen at the top of the root plate has swelled over time and partially engulfed the dead remnants to establish a new stem.

An example of a partially toppled and regenerating yew tree with no root plate exposure.
An example of plant colonisation of a phoenix yew creating a new microhabitat.
A root plate in the island’s comparatively sheltered interior being slowly subsumed by a variety of woodland plants
This natural entanglement of exposed yew roots could almost be an abstract sculptural art exhibit in a formal garden such is its compelling form and composition.

There is also evidence in the way some of the root plates have weathered, that they were exposed many centuries ago and may belong to the period of Robert Bruce’s replanting.

Detail of a heavily weathered exposed root plate of a phoenix yew.
Yew roots decay slowly, indicating that this root plate in particular may have been exposed to the elements many centuries ago.

What is clearly apparent in the areas of the island explored so far by Scotland’s Yew Tree Heritage Initiative (SYTHI) is that despite severe weather events, the death toll of toppled yews appears to be non-existent. The only dead yew noted was a small yew, more a bush than a tree, which had naturally seeded probably by bird dispersion and been drowned by wet ground.

This noticeable lack of morbidity means phoenix yews are the norm here rather than the exception. Consequently there are many astonishing and compelling examples on Inchlonaig, which genuinely take the breath away when experiencing and contemplating the incredible ‘zest for life’ and resilience needed to patiently overcome such traumatic circumstances. In many instances these phoenix yews have also become microhabitats by their exposed root places becoming colonised by plants such as lichens, mosses, ferns and bilberries, and young trees, such as holly, ash and birch. Many examples also show that their recovery has suffered from young epicormic shoots of foliage being eaten by the deer population of the island.

Moreover, these phoenix yews also bring ancient legends to life such as described by the Roman historian Lucan in the first century AD, who records groves in which fallen yews were mysteriously seen to ‘rise again’.  Although he wrote primarily to entertain a Roman audience expecting oratory skills to deliver his accounts, rather than a dry rendering of alleged history, nevertheless he was not speaking fiction but observable fact – fallen yews do ‘mysteriously’ rise again. Moreover ancient yews can fall and rise again. This is proven by multiple examples on Inchlonaig and there is a crucial reason involving why they have risen again – they have been left alone to do so.

A fallen yew on Inchlonaig slowly and surely rising again

This is something which rarely happens when a yew for example in an urban area, parkland or churchyard is toppled by storms, as usually it will be cut up and cleared up for reasons which are understandable such as health and safety concerns. Here on Inchlonaig there are no such concerns. Hence these phoenix yews are irrefutable examples showing that if and wherever possible toppled yews should be left alone – even if only a small fraction of their root system remains attached to the ground. What appears to us as an inevitable mortal event for the yew could not be further from the truth. The survival rate of phoenix yews on Inchloniag given the peace to rebirth themselves over decades and centuries, shows that the probability of a toppled yew surviving is almost inevitable – if left to do what the yew knows best to do in such circumstances, however long that may take.

The varied morphologies as we can see, show all too clearly an example of a well – known proverb ‘where there is a will, there is a way’ – as these yews show the will to do whatever it takes to live on Inchlonaig, despite extreme experiences almost preventing that.  It is not only the often harsh and cold weather which can make life difficult for the yews on Inchloniag. The habitat is very damp, almost rain forest classification, and yews typically prefer well drained soils. There is no soil to speak of here and it is a nutrient poor environment, hence a yew recovering from toppling has these extra challenges to overcome to regain its vitality and thrive again. It may even be that some of the phoenix yews have experienced periods of mini – Ice Ages during their recovery periods which would also considerably mitigate yew recuperation as yews do not photosynthesis at less than – 8 degrees C. These factors also suggest that the whole yew population of Inchloniag would tend to be of slow growth habit.

Various yews with solid, intact, fairly evenly grown trunks given the habitat, have girths measuring over 500 cm at 100 cm and 150 cm height (SYTHI 2019) and if assumed to belong to the early 14th century plantings apparently are just over 700 years old. It also cannot be ruled out that some of these yews may have been young yews of no use for Robert the Bruce and could be a few decades or centuries older. 500 cm girths would typically suggest a yew between 500 – 600 years old and not 700 years old, and therefore shows an apparent slow growth factor inherent in the yew population of Inchlonaig, which is not surprising given the habitat. Hence, many phoenix yews could be far older than their toppled girth size would suggest and considering the time taken to regenerate in an environment full of multiple challenges for storm damaged yew tree survival.

All over Britain countless visitors are attracted to sites which contain the ruins of buildings such as castles, abbeys, grand houses and ancient churches because they are a visible link to history. But without human help none of these ruins can be restored to anything like a former glory. Yet what appears to be a yew ruined by a storm and beyond mortal redemption can restore itself to a new glory and moreover, without human help – other than non-interference wherever possible.

A toppled yew is often aesthetically unpleasant to see for many people and consequently they are often and unnecessarily tidied up. With the benefit of the phoenix yews of Inchlonaig, we can clearly see than a long- term response of non-interference where possible is better than a short term one based on aesthetics. Given time fallen yews can become magnificent versions of their former selves and from the ashes of apparent destruction rise again like the Phoenix to reach for the sky once more.

During the last 200 million years Taxus has survived multiple major and minor planetary catastrophes with the result that the yew is in the 0.1% of all known species to have survived on Earth during that time period (3). What we see at a macrocosmic level of survival regarding the species, we see the same at a microcosmic level when individual yews become phoenix yews after experiencing catastrophic events.

The mystery is how consistently they can do it, if left alone to do so, but given their survival as a species, such resilience and vitality must surely be programmed in their inherited DNA. If we consider the yew as a Tree of Life, as once celebrated as such by so many cultures spanning distance and time – because it was perceived and recognised by them as having a unique vitality – then it is no surprise how almost miraculously resilient yew trees are when faced with overcoming extreme circumstances to become reborn.

The phenomenal phoenix trees yews of Inchlonaig are the seminal proof of such an indomitable spirit and are of priceless, irreplaceable and unique significance in Scotland’s yew tree heritage.

Despite uprooting, toppling, the poor nutrients, harsh weather and being nibbled by deer, a phoenix yew of Inchlonaig continues to thrive.

With thanks to Bryony Smith for organising the visit and Chris Knapman, Donald Rodger, Caireen Todd and Lynn Paterson for being such excellent company on such an unforgettable experience.

References:

  1. https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-d&q=St+Kessog
  2.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inchlonaig
  3.  https://scotlands-yew-trees.org/history-culture-myth/the-tree-of-the-bow/
  4.  https://www.scotlands-yew-trees.org/history-culture-myth/yew-taxus-a-  sensational-survivor/