See Yew Soon!

Yesterday I arranged to have day out with my good friend Nicky, and it is very rare that we both have a day off together when I don’t have to look after children. We were originally going to take a trip to Aberdour to ‘The Green Witch’, a shop run by a lady called Chris who concocts herbal lotions and potions. I was really excited, as I thought I could ask her about her uses of plants and folklore etc. Unfortunately, her shop was closed for a fortnight due to roadworks, so I reverted to plan B.

I decided to go and see the Fortingall Yew. Thought to be one of the oldest (if not theoldest) tree(s) in Europe, it is believed to date back to about 3000 BC. Legend has it that Pontius Pilate was born at Fortingall, which was a Roman station, and that as a child he played under the Yew, which was already a very mature tree.

Legend also claims that the Fortingall Yew marks the heart of Scotland or ‘axis mundi’, however some claim that instead this is  Schiehallion (“the fairy hill of the Caledonians”) which also lies nearby, a few miles to the north of Fortingall.

Traditional Beltane fires which were lit on May Day took place close to the Yew, and are said to have damaged parts of the tree, although I would question the safety of this, as apparently smoke from a Yew tree is poisonous, indeed according to Amy Stewart (in her book ‘Wicked Plants: The A-Z of Plants that Kill, Maim, Intoxicate or Otherwise Offend’) all parts of the tree are deadly poisonous.

The Yew was revered by the Druids and was thought to be a symbol of everlasting life, despite its poisonous properties. Yews tended to be planted close to sacred places, and are often found in churchyards, perhaps due to churches being built on sacred pagan sites to try to convert the worshippers to Christianity.

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When we arrived at Fortingall it was raining heavily, so we hastily made our way through the peaceful churchyard towards the Yew.

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We weren’t actually able to get near the trunk of the tree, as it was surrounded by a wall and an iron gate which was locked. The trunk looks like a combination of several trees, which have combined together, and splayed apart over the years. It is truly a remarkable tree of character, and I couldn’t help but wondering what events it had witnessed over the years.

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Inside the enclosure we could see that wooden pegs had been hammered into the ground, and these mark the original size of the tree, before it was damaged by the Beltane fires. We noticed a couple of small stones on the ground near the tree, and on closer inspection saw that they had symbols drawn on them. Also, ribbons had been hung on many of the overhead branches of the tree.

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Could these be signs of a recent ritual which has taken place here?

ImageThe yellowish stone looked like a square divided into four, but I couldn’t quite make out the small symbol within the square.The symbols on the white stone look like small drawings of standing stones and a mountain. We saw that there were standing stones nearby on Nicky’s Ordnance Survey map, so we decided we would head there next.

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The Fortingall Hotel Bar- a welcome shelter from the cold wet weather outside

We called into the nearby Fortingall Hotel for a quick drink and to see if we could find out anything more about the tree or the stones and ribbons. The barmaid was very dismissive, and said that the place freaked her out, and that she didn’t think that it was a good idea to walk through the graveyard as it is a place of rest. She did, however, give us directions to the nearby standing stones, which was a two minute drive to the east of the village.

I drove along the road a couple of miles until I spotted the stones in the middle of a field. I parked the car up on a grass verge, and clad in wellies and waterproofs, we climbed over the gate and walked across the field towards the stones.

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The stones did not form complete circles, although two of the groups seemed to have a semicircular arrangement, whilst the third group was more of a line of stones. The misty, damp conditions seemed to add to the atmosphere and the mystery of the place and I wondered, as I had at the yew, what had taken place here in ancient times?

When I arrived home, I wanted to learn more about the stones, so I used my good friend Google, where I discovered the Megalithic Portal website :  http://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=920

The link above took me to an interesting article about the stones, which detailed the findings of an excavation in 1970 by archaeologists from Leicester University. It seems that the stones had originally been placed in circles, with the larger stones forming four corners, with smaller stones placed in between. The missing stones had been buried over the years, and were discovered among with other artefacts such as an iron age jet ring and also cremated bone, although whether it was human bone or not was not mentioned!

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Having visited these two mystical sites, we were on a roll, and felt that we wanted to see more.  We looked at the map and found that there were more stone circles near Killin, so that would be our next stop. We both agreed that the day had been very interesting so far, and that we wanted to return to Fortingall again, perhaps on a sacred day of the calendar to see if we could spot any ceremonies around the Yew.

For more information on the Yew see the following website article by Barry Dunford :http://www.sacredconnections.co.uk/holyland/fortingallyew.htm

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