Original article published by the Ancient Yew Group 2011, now revised and updated.
Elderslie is a small village in Renfrewshire, and traditionally celebrated to be the birthplace (c. 1270) and childhood home of Sir William Wallace. Near to the ruins of an ancient house, and the monument dedicated to him, stands the Wallace Yew.
Before exploring the history and traditions concerning the yew, known as Wallace’s Yew for at least 200 years, it is worth considering some brief history of the man himself.
There is no absolute historical consensus about William Wallace’s ancestry, but many accept he was the son of Malcolm Wallace of Edersley (sic) in Ayrshire and great grandson of the Welshman Richard Walays. He in turn had arranged the marriage of James Stewart’s ancestor, Alan of Lochaber, and Adelina of Oswestry. Richard accompanied Alan to Scotland and was granted lands in Ayrshire.
William Wallace was no lover of King Edward I’s English government as both his father and brother had been killed by the English. Some sources say his wife was too and his mother was obliged to travel the country in disguise for fear of seizure or worse. When he inherited his father’s estates in Ayrshire, he became a knight soon gaining a fine reputation by serving with great distinction. His personal history is far removed from the character who stars in the film Braveheart; but despite this historically inaccurate portrayal, it did increase international interest in his life at such a crucial period in Scottish history.
Worth noting is that one aspect to Sir William Wallace – of which he was personally proud – was his skill as an archer and he depicted a bow on his personal seal. Of course, the best archers also had the best bows, and the best bows were made from yew. For more information please see the article ‘The Tree of the Bow’.
Sir William Wallace worried the English so much that they offered to pardon him if he would lay down his arms, but he refused. After the successful Battle of Stirling in 1297 he pursued the English and took castles as far south as Carlisle and Newcastle. This saw Sir William proclaimed as Warden of Scotland and Guardian of the Realm. However, this was to be a short-lived success. In 1305 he suffered an appalling death after being captured by the English who executed him in London by the hideous method of hanging, drawing and quartering. His body parts were hung at various towns in both Scotland and England.
Such examples of barbarism and cruelty were tragically the norm rather than the exception during the medieval Anglo-Scottish conflicts and atrocities were committed by all parties concerned. However, rather than demoralising the Scots into ceasing further resistance, as the English expected, Sir William Wallace’s appalling suffering and death unexpectedly galvanised their determination to fight for a Free Scotland with military success coming at Bannockburn in 1314, nine years after Sir William Wallace’s demise.
Returning to the yew at Elderslie today, expert investigation points to it being planted around 300 years ago. This could be in the 1760’s when the Wallace estate was sold to the Speirs family by a direct descendant of Sir William Wallace (1). If so, it means this not yet 300 years old. It is clear there was a potential reason for the Speirs to commemorate what is believed to be Sir William’s birthplace when the estate passed into their ownership, and to reasonably conclude this tree was perhaps planted then.
However, there are curious historical factors worth looking at as they suggest this tree may be more than it appears to be today – a small, ravaged yew slowly regenerating itself as best it can in severely compromised circumstances.
The Scots Gazetteer cites parish records from the 1700’s referring to it as “this ancient tree” (2). But, if planted in the 1760’s or around 300 years ago in the 1720’s, this is impossible and supports the possibility, as local traditions record, that Sir William played as a child under, and in, a yew outside his home which was still in existence in the 1700’s. There is more; another historic tree at Elderslie, an oak known as Wallace’s Oak, was said to have been contemporary with Sir William over 700 years ago; because it enabled him and many of his followers to hide from the English in its branches. It fell in a storm in 1856. An extract from the Statistical Account for Scotland 1845 states:
“It is also worthy of notice, that, in the garden of Wallace’s house, there is seen to be a fine specimen of our Scottish yew, said to be co-eval with, some say older than, the celebrated oak. But be this as it may, it is certainly of ancient date, and tradition has assigned to it the name of “Wallace’s Yew” *
A yew planted in 1769 or decades earlier would not look anything like an ancient yew by 1845. By the mid-19th century ancient yews in Scotland and their typical appearance were well-known. They had been celebrated for thousands of years in the Gaelic cultures of what became Ireland and Scotland – and by renowned botanists of the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Augustin de Candolle and John Loudon. As well as the botanists, yews were also placed in the public psyche by poets such as Robert Louis Stevenson and William Wordsworth who wrote Yew-Trees, celebrating ancient yews in Cumbria, England in 1803. Today, the yew Wordsworth eulogised at Lorton Vale has been torn apart by many storms since he saw it and is estimated to be only 25% of the size it was over 200 years ago.
Therefore, it seems wrong to automatically assume that the above statement for this yew being “of ancient date” is erroneous and instead that indeed there was a noticeably ancient yew at Elderslie in 1845. This is further confirmed in 1857 from a description of the yew as bearing “the mark of great age” and its “many spreading branches”. A yew planted in the 18th century could not exhibit any signs of “great age” by the middle of the 19th century and typically would have a girth of between 100 – 150 cm.
It would certainly bear no resemblance to a depiction of the tree drawn in 1839 in the top right corner of the information board as seen earlier. This image is entitled Wallace’s Tree and is thought to mean the yew rather than the oak and, if so, shows a tree apparently with a damaged canopy, torn branches, and a split in the upper trunk. If the drawing does not suffer too much from artistic licence, and is the yew, the girth depicted then looks little different to what it was 50 years ago before the damage in recent decades, implying the girth may not have changed much in almost 200 years. After storm damage causing canopy reduction due to broken branches and the death of portions of the trunk, yews will not prioritise a consistent annual girth increase as branch and canopy restoration is the necessary priority to replace sudden and reduced photosynthesis capability.
So, what happened to this yew described as ancient just over 150 years ago? Is it what is seen today? A yew which has suffered and recuperated from storm damage and vandalism for over 200 years at least and could perhaps be well over twice its perceived age? Or was an elder yew felled or lost to storm and this tree was seeded from it?
However, there are no records to the “yew certainly of ancient date” at Elderslie in 1845 ever being lost, whereas the demise of the ancient oak was well recorded. Furthermore, it seems that over 150 years ago these trees were regarded as a pair of trees of similar minimum ages of over 600 years old at that time. Therefore, this yew must have looked like a yew over 600 years old in 1845. If the Victorian descriptions of the yew are accurate then today the yew would be at least 750 years old and well over 800 if a young or juvenile yew when William Wallace was born. If this is so, perhaps this yew is linked to when these lands were granted to the Walays which was before 1250.
In the New Shell Guide to Scotland (Ed. Donald Lamond Macnie and Moray McLaren, 1977, p.184, it states:
“A dense yew tree near the house is seeded from an ancient tree known as Wallace’s Yew.”
It does not state which yew was (or perhaps still is) Wallace’s Yew, nor where it is – but there was another ancient yew allegedly “planted by the hand of William Wallace himself” at Elcho Castle in Perthshire (3). It is no longer there as such, but some think a large stump now covered in bushy growth in the garden of a nearby private bungalow could be the yew he allegedly planted.
Planting trees to mark significant events is a long-practised custom and this includes yew trees – no doubt with their typical longevity in mind. Yews used as trees under which to swear or commemorate oaths or agree to legal arrangements is also a proven historical phenomenon in the U.K. A Scottish example can be found at Whittinghame, East Lothian. It is said that here, in the 16th century, Lord Morton and his co-conspirators swore oaths to carry out a plan to murder Lord Darnley the husband of Mary Queen of Scots under the canopy of the yew still there today (4).
“Fast forward two decades, and it was probably at Crookston Castle, still in the hands of the Darnley branch of the Stewart family, that Mary, Queen of Scots agreed to marry Lord Darnley. The yew tree under which they were said to have concluded their agreement was chopped down in 1816, and a model of Crookston Castle made from it is on display in Pollok House” (5)
At the wishes of Mary Queen of Scots and Lord Darnley, the yew was depicted on a coin issued to celebrate the betrothal.
Therefore is it possible that on becoming Guardian of the Realm, Sir William Wallace planted a yew at Elcho Castle to witness his oath which later produced seed. If so, this could have sourced a later 18th century tree at Elderslie because the historical association with Sir William Wallace and Elcho Castle was known by then.
As per the above quote from the New Shell Guide to Scotland, in 1977 the yew is described as “dense” implying it was flourishing almost 50 years ago. Unfortunately since then it has been subjected to serious acts of wanton vandalism, including being set on fire in 1978, weakening its structure so badly that emergency intervention was necessary to save the yew and safeguard it from any more damage.
In a macabre irony, on 12th January 2005, in the same year as the actual 700th anniversary of Sir William Wallace’s death, a storm ripped the already stricken yew further apart mirroring his own dreadful fate of being torn to pieces. The half of the yew growing best and responding to care was the section torn away and ripped the trunk almost to ground level. The standing remnant consisted mainly of dead branches with a flimsy crown of poor growth. All concerned with the health of the yew were obviously extremely anxious to save it. Numerous solutions were suggested; including trying to reattach the trunk which, unfortunately, was a prohibitively costly exercise for local resources to be expected to meet and with no guarantee of success (6).
However, the best policy naturally, as advised by internationally renowned arborists such as Russell Ball, is to leave a storm damaged yew as it is, if possible, however unsightly this may look. There are many examples of yews being left prone and partially uprooted and still surviving and are called ‘phoenix’ yews, an apt description reflecting they have risen again from apparent destruction. Such survivors simply know best what to do in the long term to recover as best as possible in such drastically changed circumstances.
At the grove of Borrowdale Yews in Cumbria, England massive regeneration had taken place in the 20th century since a hurricane damaged it in the Great Storm of 1883 and soon after it was photographically recorded in Yew-Trees of Great Britain and Ireland by Dr. John Lowe (Macmillan, 1897). A photographic comparison taken 100 years apart showed a full canopy had been restored by the two closest growing trees of the grove, when these yews were brought to national attention again in the mid 1990’s in the bestselling book Meetings with Remarkable Trees by Thomas Pakenham.
Since they were catapulted to national fame, the site has been further affected by severe storms and in early 2005 (ironically in the same storm which further damaged Wallace’s Yew) the largest yew trunk in the grove, a fully hollowed tree, was reduced to a 10ft (300 cm) high shell and riven almost to the ground, with only a few small branches surviving. Sorry a sight it may have been but in the ancient life of a yew it is a survivable incident and new bushy growth has appeared annually since upon what was expected to become a ruin. For more information about the resilience of the yew as a species please see Taxus – sensational survivors
Regarding the Wallace Yew, cuttings (clones) have been taken from it to ensure its genetic survival and as the Sunday Herald of 26th January 2003 reported;
“It is supposed to be the tree that William Wallace played in as a laddie – or a direct descendant of it. Now a cutting from it is to be among the less costly additions to the landscape around the new parliament building in Edinburgh. Supporters of the union with England should be beware in case the Wallace Yew has the magical properties that pagans used to ascribe to such trees…. The yew from which it has been grown is thought to be more than 300 years old. That would still leave it far short of having been a contemporary of Scotland’s Braveheart in the 13th century. But folklore and its location would suggest that it was grown from the seed of the original tree at what is believed to be Wallace’s childhood home.”
Note that here the yew is described as more than 300 years old which, if so, could mean an origin in the very early 1700’s or in the 1600’s – a subtle difference which could involve many decades. The cuttings were planted in the private garden for MSP’s and have been shaped since into a topiary hedge by necessity as the confined space of the garden is too small for a yew tree to freely grow there. Perhaps there is scope for a clone of the Wallace Yew to be planted in a more publicly accessible place at Holyrood with space to grow (7).
Unless some information can be found in contradiction – which has so far eluded research into this subject – the evidence examined so far suggests that perhaps there has been no other Wallace Yew at Elderslie other than the one we see. Between descriptions of it in the 18th and 19th centuries and today it seems impossible that it could have been lost during this period and no one recorded its demise. Hence, could it be that this is indeed the tree which the child who became Guardian of the Realm of Scotland allegedly did play under? Because it has suffered so much damage, has its appearance made it look like a younger yew because it does not have a large girth ‘typical’ of an ancient yew?
A major reappraisal of the possible ages of yews, based on increasing numbers of reliably recorded girth measurements in the UK, began in earnest in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s and has continued since. It soon became apparent that girth measurements cannot be totally relied upon to estimate the age of a yew especially once it has reached a stage of maturity or is ancient. For example, a yew of 600 cm girth at the Borrowdale grove is 1500 years old and confirmed by dendrochronological analysis in 2004 and again in 2011 and 2012. Typically a 600 cm girth would suggest a yew is 600 – 700 years old, not twice that age and more.
There are ancient yews in Scotland, for example at Dryburgh Abbey in the Borders (the burial place of Sir Walter Scott) which at 12ft (350 cm) girth is not ‘large’. In the 19th century the notion that it was planted by monks in 1128 was dismissed by Dr John Lowe based on its appearance over 200 years ago. However, evidence examined in recent years of comparative girth measurements showed a slow growth rate and raised the possibility it could have been planted by monks in 1128 as traditionally claimed. If so, then this yew would have been contemporary with Sir William Wallace’s lifetime.
Estimating ages of older yews on girth size is only applicable as a starting point in the lack of other reliable data such as parish or private estate or family records. It is well known a yew of 12ft (3.5m) girth can be less than 400 to over 600 years old and possibly much more. In the lack of a ring count analysis from a cross section of wood, the individuality of a yew in its specific habitat must recognise and consider the historical environmental changes and climatic conditions. These are paramount factors when considering its potential age and how its growth may have possibly been mitigated over time.
It is also becoming clear and proven in 2004 at the Borrowdale yew grove by pioneering yew dendrologist Andy Moir, that even where a group of yews share the very same site on Earth; each one reacts individually to annual growth conditions. There is no accurate predictive uniformity amongst these trees as to how they will grow over the course of a year. This is further surprising as the two largest trunks are in fact the same yew. One trunk at this grove may grow an annual ring hardly perceptible without microscopy and a companion grow one of 3 or 4mm. Yet these trees on paper have the same habitat conditions, but they annually exhibit entirely different responses to their specific conditions.
This implies an individual yew has extraordinary control over its growth. Clusters of oak, birch and pine for example grown for forestry purposes show these trees grow rather uniformly in any given year and at a predictable rate, depending on good or bad habitat and climatic conditions. In a ‘bad’ year they create a small increase in girth compared to a larger one in a ‘good’ year via mainly concentric rings. Unless they are young yew trees and due to typical lobate morphology developing in cross section as fluted trunks grow, regular circular concentric rings are not found in yews. Again this somewhat undermines the measurement of girths when a tape measure is not in whole contact with the circumference of the trunk and there are voids in the contact.
The ability of an individual yew not to follow a predictable formula implies that the yew applies a choice – to ‘decide’ – to grow whenever it wants to, at whatever size it wants to and in whatever environment that may be. What is a ‘good’ for one yew can be a ‘bad’ year for another and the two are growing ten paces apart. It is also supported by reliable girth measurements on individual yews which have proven that for centuries girth increase has been virtually imperceptible, but still healthy fruit, flowers and foliage are produced each year. Clearly the annual growth of an individual yew is no more or less exactly what the yew knows it needs and patiently puts into practice.
For more information please see the following link How Old Can a Yew Tree Become?
In recent decades and given its less than ideal condition in comparison to historic descriptions, Wallace’s Yew would not have looked like a typically old or ancient yew based on girth size alone. Reduction of the tree’s mass by vandalism, fire and storm had converted it from being a ‘dense yew’ as described in 1977 into a sorry state by 2005. As mentioned in the Royal Forestry Journal of 2019:
“The total quantity of new wood that can be laid down each year is simply determined by crown size and environmental factors, and this is laid down locally in functional units, which has not previously been considered an important factor.” (8)
The above quote demonstrates how a severe loss of crown size would impair the yew from increasing girth via a circumferential layer of new wood and bark. Its remaining vitality after such a loss would be directed to foliage restoration to enable vital photosynthesis by increasing branch size to maximise new foliage growth. Yews can also produce epicormic (also called adventitious) shoots of new foliage directly from anywhere on any living bark, but Wallace’s Yew has not done so, bearing in mind there is little left of any living bark.
The shock and distress to the yew after the damage of 2005 was obviously severe and considerable. Equally so was the shock and distress felt by local residents, historical groups, authorities and Scottish folk in general who have cherished this notable marvel of nature through the ages and celebrated its link with Sir William Wallace. Perhaps a reappraisal of its potential age should be seriously considered in view of the evidence presented here – reliable historical record specifically referring to an ‘ancient yew’ at Elderslie 150 years ago; and of equal fame and age with Sir William Wallace’s oak.
Could it be that there is in fact a ‘lost’ ancient yew at Elderslie? Lost because its history has been obscured by its appearance being so drastically altered and reduced? Any re-evaluation of this yew finding this to be the case is surely in the best interests of all concerned and would certainly cause more and deserved respect for this yew. This could possibly establish secure funding for its future preservation and celebration both as an especial wonder of nature and the traditional connection with Sir William – and further immortalise the links between the man and this yew which commemorates his memory.
Although beyond the scope to explore at any length here, Sir William Wallace’s material association with yews is clear via him being an archer but was there a spiritual element too? There are suggestions of ‘spiritual’ links between the yew and some of the greatest figures who ever fought for a Free Scotland. For example it is said Robert Bruce either had his men wear sprigs of yew or wore cloth badges depicting a yew, before fighting the battle of Bannockburn (9). If so, was it to identify them in the heat of battle or perhaps also equip them with the spiritual guardian aspect of the yew in the event of their death?
Prior to Bannockburn, a yew still standing today at Stuc an T’Iobhairt, near Tarbet, Loch Lomond is said to have sheltered Robert Bruce and 200 of his men. This was after disastrous circumstances in 1306, including a battle at Methven in Perthshire, which almost stopped their campaign in its tracks. Did this experience of being sheltered by a great yew at such a crucial low point in his campaign somehow make a significant mark in Robert Bruce’s life? Some claim he did indeed gain inspiration gleaned from this yew after he and his followers had barely escaped with their lives before it gave them shelter, involving never giving up and trying and trying again. Perhaps this yew showed a resilience in its form of how it had overcome past storm damage in its life to become big enough to shelter so many men.
This historic and exceptional yew has obviously endured incidents of varying extents of weather damage over the centuries in this exposed location. However, perhaps the most serious threat to its survival it has ever faced was not of natural origin and occurred when severe pruning took place in the Victorian period. The effects of this damage can still be seen. Today this yew with a small, stunted canopy, is thought by some perhaps to be as much as 2,000 years old – and it has a girth of less than 20 ft (600 cm). Based on this girth size, age estimation would typically indicate a yew of at least 600 years old as a starting point, with 700 years and more a possibility. Yet we know that 700 years ago this yew was of such a spread it could shelter King Robert and his men. It could have been over a thousand years old even then.
Another celebrated Scots hero Bonnie Dundee (Viscount Graham of Claverhouse) was hastily buried under the “bushey” yews at Old Urrard after the battle of Killiecrankie in the late 17th century. A millennia before this battle St Columba went to pray and to preach under a huge yew on the tiny tidal isle of Bernera, off Lismore in the Firth of Lorne near Oban. It was felled by a Campbell laird in the mid-18th century and its timber used to build a staircase in Lochnell castle – but now it is miraculously regenerating in a ground hugging, creeper like manner. Cuttings have been taken from it by a descendant of the man who felled it and the Earl of Dundonnel and planted on the mainland in an ‘act of atonement’ to the yew because of the ill-luck which has plagued the Campbells since they cut it down.
These few examples, chosen from many other similarly linked sites in Scotland, show that from as early as the 6th century, the yew is proven to be an especial tree to some of the most famous Scots of all. The people, like the yew to all intents and purposes, have become “immortal” as they are such household historical names and recognised all over the world today.
Wallace’s Yew is an astonishing survivor whether around or more than 300 years old or whatever its age or source could otherwise be. It surely stands as a nationally important member of a great Scottish cultural tradition involving esteem and reverence for the yew at all levels of Scots society and embedded in the very founding of customs, clanship, religion and spirituality well over 1,000 years ago. Furthermore, like Robert Bruce’s Yew, and St Columba’s Yew there are other yew trees alive in Scotland, for example at Fortingall in Perthshire, older than the founding of the nation itself.
This connection with the ancient cultural heritage of Scotland and yews over so many centuries can only further support the regard and care Wallace’s Yew has today and receives in future. Hopefully, this will also apply to any saplings grown from this marvellous and resilient yew which have been planted at various sites in the area by the local council to preserve its irreplaceable genetics.
Perhaps the spirit of Sir William Wallace is still tangible at Elderslie and perhaps is still connected to this yew one way or another. And perhaps part of his spirit is also in the yew at Holyrood as the dream of Scotland becoming a truly independent nation once more remains hanging in a precarious balance.
- Hunter, Thomas: Woods, Forests and Estates of Perthshire, Henderson, Robertson and Hunter, Perth,1883
- Pakenham, Thomas: Meetings with Remarkable Trees, Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 1996
- Renfrewshire Council: “Historic Wallace Yew will be saved” Press release, 19 Jan 2005.
Additional reference sources:
Moir, Dr. Andrew: Tree Ring Services UK/ Ancient Yew Group – research and private correspondence.
Rodger, Stokes and Ogilvie: Heritage Trees of Scotland, Tree Council, 2003.
Transactions of the Inverness Society.