Whittinghame has an ancient history. In the vicinity of Whittinghame church, St Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne and ‘Apostle of the Lothians’ is said to have set up a mission here in the 7th century, in an area known today as Kirkfields. Perhaps significant is St Cuthbert may have been a native of the area as some sources state he was born at Dunbar c. 634 and of Bernician royal stock. Whittinghame’s name is thought to stem from a Northumbrian Angle named something like Witta who created the ‘place of Witta’s people’ here in the 6th or 7th century. If the settlement pre-dates the mission perhaps it was ‘Witta’s folk’ who invited the monks here.
Whittinghame became the possession of the Dunbar Earls of March family and it is recorded that they held baronial courts there. In 1372, via the daughter of the 10th Earl of March, the manor of Whittinghame and its church passed to the Douglas family and they held it for over 200 years. In 1564 Mary Queen of Scots confirmed the barony of Whittinghame and the church to William Douglas. It is at this time that the great yew at Whittinghame is said to have witnessed something which led to a tumultuous event in Scottish history. A plot was hatched under the yew by Lord Morton and has co-conspirators to murder Lord Darnley, husband of Mary Queen of Scots and which was attempted in 1566.
The Whittinghame yew, a female, particularly came to public attention when included in Thomas Pakenham’s best-selling book Meetings with Remarkable Trees (1996). He states how when Arthur Balfour of Whittinghame (UK Prime Minister from 1902 – 1905) was asked if the story of the plot was true he replied “that it had more historical plausibility about it than many legends.” Thomas Pakenham describes accessing the yew as “You enter this arboreal folly as you would enter an igloo, crawling down a tunnel on hands and knees.” Fortunately that is no longer the case as a tunnel has been created by the estate management which allows walking upright to reach the yew.
Moving slowly uphill through the tunnel for a distance of over 25 metres is quite an experience because everything around the visitor is the same tree! This living being imbues a sense of awe even before even meeting the main part of it. Passing from the tunnel and entering the central space there appears a towering yew tree with branches tumbling to the ground and is truly a jaw- dropping sight.
All around this space is a dense tangle of branches which have bent to reach the ground and then layered, mostly by creating ground runner branches. This process has created a serpentine weave of form and colour at the perimeter of the space which is simply stunning to the senses.
The yew’s girth is 330 cm @ 100 cm high (SYTHI 2017) and as a rough guide would suggest it is between 300 – 350 years old. That is obviously nonsense as the yew was living, and allegedly large enough to host a group of people conspiring in secret, almost 500 years ago. This shows that by only taking a girth measurement into account and ignoring all the other aspects of the location can sometimes cause wildly inaccurate age estimates. Medieval baronial courts are known to have taken place under yew trees and if such took place at Whittinghame, perhaps this yew played a part in them over 700 years ago.
This is not the only yew at Whittinghame, juvenile yews are found in and around the burial ground. There is another layering yew too near to the famous yew which is rarely mentioned as significant but is a magnificent yew in its own right.