The Great Yew of Glen Lyon in the churchyard at Fortingall is a world famous yew. It was first described in 1789 by Daines Barrington in Philosophical Transactions. In 1831 Augustin de Candolle, the Swiss botanist who pioneered counting tree rings to age a tree, and referring to details published in 1770, thought this yew was between 2500 to 2600 years old. Thomas Pennant measured the yew in 1771 and found it had an astonishing girth of 56 feet (1680 cm), although Barrington had recorded 52 feet (1560 cm).
It is impossible to take a girth measurement today as all that remains of the yew are a series of fragments dotted around the circumference of marker pegs which mark a girth in excess of 1500 cm. Some fragments are considerable, however, they cannot mask that this yew is only a shadow of what it was when seen by Barrington and Pennant. By 1833, it was noted that the yew had suffered “considerable spoliations” since 1789. This was mainly due to a cottage industry of carving trinkets for visitors by sawing lumps of wood from the tree. This was especially disrespectful as the yew was on a ‘coffin road’ and the custom was that the funeral entourage would pass through a gap in this sacred yew.
How old is the Fortingall Yew? Since de Candolle’s estimate until now, opinions have ranged from 1500 to 9000 years old with points in between at 2500, 3000, 4000, 5000 and 6000 years. Most opinions assume that in fact the yew was a single tree, however, Sir Robert Christison, the Scottish toxicologist and physician questioned this long ago in the 19th century saying “It is not easy to satisfy one-self merely from the superannuated remains as they now stand that they belong to what was one tree only.”
Modern research is increasingly regarding this observation could be true and that the assumed girth measurement applying to a single tree has majorly influenced age estimates over the years and understandably led to extreme age estimates being made. However, there is a major consensus now that the yew is probably over 2000 years old and at the very, very most 3000. It is interesting that Christison thought it was a maximum of 3000 years old. Any more than that does not seem likely at all. More research is clearly needed to investigate if Christison was right. (For further information on age classification of trees visit the article on the age categories used by SYTHI.)
In recent years the yew hit the headlines as it was reported that a branch on what was classified as a male yew was changing sex. This had been noted in the 1990’s but received no publicity at the time. It is not that unusual for a yew tree to change part or all of its gender between the flower bearing ‘male’ and the fruit bearing ‘female’ and do so for however long the yew chooses to do so. There are many examples of yews doing this.
The Great Yew is not the only yew in the churchyard. There are two others with girths of 220 and 240 cm. One is in a private memorial garden with a prehistoric cup marked stone placed before it, the other the opposite side of the churchyard. They are around 200 – 250 years old but, nevertheless, they are sacred yews because they are in a sacred place and as significant to the spirit of the churchyard as the Great Yew.
Near to the churchyard stands the Fortingall Hotel and in the garden is another yew with a girth of 374 cm at 100 cm high (SYTHI 2017) which means it must be older than the two juvenile yews in the churchyard mentioned above and potentially almost double their ages.