Mythology and folklore of yew

At the approximate centre of Scotland grows what is Scotland’s, and possibly Europe’s, oldest tree. Estimates suggest the Fortingall yew in Glen Lyon could be anything from over two thousand to nine thousand years old. A popular legend relates how Pontius Pilate was born under this tree or played as a child in its branches. This suggests that it was already a landmark over two thousand years ago. Though the Romans did not invade Britain until 43 AD, several expeditions had visited from 55 BC onwards. Some interpretations suggest that Pilate’s father was on a diplomatic mission to a Pictish King. News reached him at Fortingall of the birth of his son. Another version suggests his wife had been travelling with him and gave birth at Fortingall.

The yew tree is another of our native trees which the Druids held sacred in pre-Christian times. They no doubt observed the tree’s qualities of longevity and regeneration. Drooping branches of old yew trees can root and form new trunks where they touch the ground. Thus the yew came to symbolise death and resurrection in Celtic culture.

The Celts will also have been familiar with the toxicity of the tree’s needles in particular. This may have further contributed to its connections with death. Shakespeare was familiar with these qualities when he had Macbeth concoct a poisonous brew. The deadly drink included “slips of yew, silvered in the moon’s eclipse”.

The themes of death and resurrection continued into the Christian era. People buried yew shoots with the deceased, and used boughs of yew as ‘Palms’ in church at Easter. Yew trees have established a popular association with old churches in Britain. In fact very old specimens of yew trees are now rare outside of church grounds. According to Richard Mabey in his Flora Britannica “… no other type of ancient tree occurs so frequently inside church grounds …”.  This relationship between places of worship and a single tree species is unique in the Western world. In some cases people have planted yew trees beside churches. In other cases it seems that very old yews were already growing on a site before the church was built there. Some, such as the one beside Fortingall’s church may even predate Christianity itself. Several other yews growing by churches have become famous in their own right. These include the Bleeding Yews of Nevern in Pembrokeshire.

The yew’s toxicity has somewhat limited its practical uses to humans, though a homoeopathic tincture is made of young shoots. The berry flesh has been used by herbalists to treat a variety of ailments including cystitis, headache and neuralgia. In more recent times scientists have discovered that extracts of yew have anti-cancer properties.

The very hard, close-grained wood was used in furniture making. But yew wood is perhaps best known as the material from which the medieval English longbows were made. Archers used these to devastating effect during the Hundred Years War. The Scots too used yew longbows and Robert the Bruce ordered bows to be made from the sacred yews at Ardchattan Priory in Argyll. These were then used during the Scots’ victorious battle at Bannockburn in 1314.

The tree seems to have been rare in the Highlands for a long time. Even so Clan Fraser adopted a sprig of yew as their clan badge.

Yew’s Gaelic name is iubhair or euair. Gaelic place names can often tell us about the past distribution of different tree species. However, making deductions about yew’s distribution from place names bearing its name is difficult. This is because these words can also refer to juniper, which was sometimes known as mountain yew. The name of the island of Iona probably derived from Ioua, the Pictish word for yew. This island, along with Kilneuair (Church of the Yew) are religious and spiritual places, so it is almost certain that the names are a reflection of such places’ affinity with yew trees. Tomnahurich in Inverness would also be a likely candidate for an association with yews rather than junipers. This small steep hill was reputed to be the place where Thomas the Rhymer, the Scottish mystic, disappeared into the Underworld or Faery realms.  Today a large cemetery remains at the foot of this hill.

 

Sources

  • Cooper, M.R., Johnson, A.W. & Dauncey, E.A. (2003) Poisonous Plants and Fungi. The Stationery Office: Norwich.
  • Darwin, T. (1996) The Scots Herbal: the plant lore of Scotland. Mercat Press.
  • Fife H. (1994) Warriors and Guardians: native highland trees.  Argyll Publishing.
  • Frazer, J. (1993) The Golden Bough: a study in magic and religion. Wordsworth.
  • Mabey, R. (1996) Flora Britannica. Sinclair-Stevenson: London.
  • Milliken, W & Bridgewater, S (2004) Flora Celtica: plants and people in Scotland. Birlinn: Edinburgh.
  • Paterson, J.M. (1996) Tree Wisdom. Thorsons: London.
  • Vickery, R. (1995) A Dictionary of Plant Lore. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

     

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