The darkness of the yew

“Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse”

‘Macbeth’, Act IV, Scene I

It’s time once again for another in my series on British trees.  This time I’m taking a look at the yew, whose roots seem to be planted firmly in the underworld…

Yew Berries 2Three conifers are native to Britain:  the Scots pine, the juniper and the yew.  There are between eight and 10 species of yew worldwide (scientists are still debating about their classification).  Ours is the European yew, Taxus baccata, but it’s not exclusive to the UK, extending eastwards as far as Turkey and Northern Iran.

Preferring dry, shallow soils, the yew flourishes on chalky downlands and coastal cliffs. However, it can tolerate a wide range of temperatures, soils and climates.

Athelstaneford, East LothianAthelstaneford, East Lothian

When they are mature, yew trees can assume chunky shapes that are conical, triangular or cylindrical – but they can also be relatively shapeless, flattening out with a wide spread.   They can grow as tall as 80 feet, but if they are close to a building they are sometimes lopped before they reach that height.

The evergreen leaves are long and narrow, up to an inch and a half in length.  Dark green, with a waxy texture, they grow in a spiral arrangement around the stem.  The bark is brown and scaly, quite thin, and the trunk can become deeply furrowed with age.

Yew tree trunkA dead yew tree near Harewood in Yorkshire

“When present it usually dominates a woodland, although occasionally in Britain it is accompanied by common ash, beech and holly.  Dog’s mercury is one of the few vascular plants that seem able to survive on a yew forest floor.”  (‘The New Sylva’)

The yew is dioecious, meaning that it has both male and female forms.  Cones on the male trees shed pollen in early spring.  From early September, the female tree bears bright red cup-like berries or ‘arils’, each containing a single seed.  These are eaten by birds such as thrushes and waxwings, which distribute the seeds via their droppings.

Red 'arils' on a female yew

Cones on a male yew tree at Dunfermline PalaceTop:  Red ‘arils’ on a female yew tree (Drumlanrig Castle);  Above:  Tiny immature cones on a male yew tree (Dunfermline Palace)

Don’t ever eat the leaves of a yew tree – they are poisonous, particularly when dried.  Even the sawdust is toxic!   The aril is the only part that isn’t harmful, although the seed inside it certainly is.  However, it can pass through a bird’s digestive system intact, without causing any harm.

The yew’s toxicity comes from a natural alkaloid called taxane.  This is a constituent of the chemotherapy drug Taxol, and in fact clippings of yew are still taken for this purpose.

Because it’s so resistant to repeated pruning, the yew is traditionally popular for hedges and topiary.  As a softwood timber it’s harder and heavier than most hardwoods, polishing to beautiful shades of golden brown and orange through to rich red.

Yew is slow-growing, and some trees live to an immense age.  It can be impossible to date them, because ancient specimens develop a hollow trunk.  Writing in The New Sylva, Gabriel Hemery suggests that “Trees with a stem diameter of more than four metres [13 feet] are at least two thousand years old.”

YEW TREES IN CHURCHYARDS

Fowlis Wester, PerthshireFowlis Wester, Perthshire

No graveyard seems complete without at least one old yew tree, either growing by the lych gate or overshadowing the church door.   What we tend to forget is that many of these trees may well have been there before the church was built, perhaps marking a sacred shrine or well.  It has been shown that some churchyard yew trees are planted on blind springs – at Painswick in Gloucestershire, 99 yews in a churchyard were discovered to be sited on nodes or springs;   and some churches may once have been encircled by yews.

Why should yew trees be planted around a sacred site, whether it’s a church or a shrine?  There are many possible answers to this question.  Even if it appears to be dying, a yew tree that is thousands of years old is still capable of creating fresh life, because new trees will take root where its branches touch the ground.  Not surprisingly, it has become the symbol of re-birth, a life after death.

Dunkeld CathedralDunkeld Cathedral

And there are specific links with Christianity:  some stories say that the cross of the crucifixion was made of yew, and it has been linked with the Tree of Life in the garden of Eden.  On Easter Sunday, the altar would be decked with its branches, and fronds of yew were carried on Palm Sunday.  More prosaically, yews may have been planted in graveyards to discourage farmers from grazing their livestock in there!

Sometimes, the yew trees in a churchyard were planted according to the route taken by a funeral procession.  There would be one beside the path leading from the gateway to the main door of the church;  another would guard the path to the second or lesser doorway.  The priest and his clergymen would stand under the first yew to greet the coffin-bearers.

The Fortingall Yew in Fortingall churchyard, PerthshireFortingall, Perthshire

But the yew has a longer memory than man, and this is just the beginning.  Revered by the Druids, it was one of nine sacred trees used for kindling Beltane fires.  In Irish mythology the yew was known as the Tree of Ross, ‘the offspring of the tree that is in Paradise’, and legendary battles were fought over its ownership.

Likewise, the Greeks associated the yew tree with the goddess Hecate, multi-faced guardian of the underworld.  Shrines to her were placed by doorways, offering protection to those within.  This may be the real truth behind all those overgrown yew trees standing sentinel by the church door.

USES OF YEW

Ardchattan Priory

Ardchattan Priory

Bowls, tankards, barrel hoops, tool handles, combs, relic boxes, dowsing rods… the wood of the yew tree has been shaped into a wealth of different items, at least some of them ceremonial.  Yew staffs were carried by royalty and judges, and the Druids believed that wands of yew would banish evil spirits, bringing purity and peace.

However, some of the implements made from yew didn’t bring much peace at all.   Whole plantations of yew were once cultivated for the manufacture of longbows, a formidable weapon carried by English and Welsh archers during the Hundred Years War in the 14th and 15th centuries.  The woodlands were carefully tended to ensure that the trees grew with a straight grain and were free from knots.

According to historical sources, Robert the Bruce ordered wood from the sacred yews of Ardchattan Priory to be made into longbows that were used at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

The tradition of making longbows from yew persisted at least until Tudor times.  When the Mary Rose, the famous warship of Henry VIII, was lifted from the bed of the Solent in 1971, several yew bows were recovered from the wreck.  Measuring six and a half feet long, they would have had a draw length of nearly 30 inches and a draw weight of up to 185 lb (84 kg), which would be a serious challenge for most modern archers.

And the oldest… In 1911 a spear made from yew was discovered at Clacton-on-Sea in Essex.  At 450,000 years old, this is by far the oldest wooden implement ever found in the British Isles.

THE YEW TREE IN PLACE NAMES

Loch Iubhair

Loch Iubhair

The Gaelic word for yews is ‘iubhair’ (which I believe is pronounced ‘YOO-ar’) and it occurs in some Scottish place names.    Abhainn Coire an Iubhair, ‘river of the yew tree corrie’, and Sgorr an Iubhair, ‘rocky peak of the yew’, can be found above Loch Linnhe;  and Loch Iubhair, ‘loch of the yew trees’ is a lovely tranquil loch near Crianlarich.   A sacred yew once stood by Tobar na h-iu, a healing well in Easter Ross.

Some historians have speculated that yews were planted to mark a hermit’s cell, as described in a medieval Irish poem:

“There is here above the brotherhood
A bright tall glossy yew;
The melodious bell sends out a
clear keen note
In Saint Columba’s church…”

It’s believed there could be a link here with Iona, St Columba’s sacred isle, the name of which may come from the same Gaelic root.

ANCIENT YEWS

Today, the majority of the world’s ancient yews are in the British Isles, and of these, over 80% are in churchyards.  Each one is uniquely fascinating.  I’m sure you could devote a good few years to travelling around them all!  Here are just a few…

The Fortingall Yew in Fortingall Churchyard, Perthshire.   I have visited this beautiful old tree myself, and you can read about it here on The Hazel Tree.  Believed to be at least 5,000 years old, it’s linked in folklore with Pontius Pilate;  at one time, funeral processions were carried through the natural arch made by its hollow trunk.

The Fortingall YewThe Fortingall Yew

The Bleeding Yew of Nevern:    In the graveyard of the 6th century St Brynach’s church at Nevern in Pembrokeshire stands ‘the bleeding yew’, which oozes blood-red sap from a wound on its trunk.  A number of myths have grown up to explain it, among them the story of a monk hanged for a crime he didn’t commit;  and there’s a prophecy that says the tree won’t stop bleeding until a Welsh Prince is crowned at Nevern.

Llangernyw Yew, credit Stemonitis

Llangernyw Yew, credit Stemonitis via Wikimedia

The Llangernyw Yew:   At St Digain’s Church in Llangernyw, North Wales, is a yew tree believed to be between 4,000 and 5,000 years old;  the hollow trunk has a girth of over 35 feet.  According to local tradition, the church is inhabited by an ancient spirit known as the Angelystor or ‘Recording Angel’.  Every year at Hallowe’en, a mysterious booming voice is said to intone the names of parishioners who will die the following year.  Folklore tells of a local man, Siôn Ap Rhobert, who heard his own name and challenged the spirit, but he still died within 12 months.  Certainly, the site was sacred long before Christianity:  two standing stones in the graveyard may at one time have formed an ancient altar.

For a more comprehensive list of ancient yew trees, take a look at The Ancient Yew Group.

It’s quite appropriate that the wisdom and lore of the yew tree just keeps appearing and multiplying – however much you read, you never seem to reach the end.  It’s like pulling on a very, very long root.  I’ve tended to overlook yew trees, because when I’m in a churchyard I’m usually concentrating on the ancient buildings or gravestones.  I’ll be paying them more attention from now on!

Yew tree in snow outside St Michael's Church, LinlithgowSt Michael’s Church, Linlithgow

Loch Spelve - cemetery and yew treesFootnote, 27th November 2014:   When I first published this article, I included a photo of some trees by Loch Spelve on the Isle of Mull, which I had assumed were yews.   I have now had it confirmed by the Ancient Yew Group that they are, in fact, Monterey cypress.   This is the photo in question!   My thanks to Norma Dowling for first drawing my attention to this.

Sources:

Photos copyright © Jo Woolf 


British trees

Scots Pine 18Here are some more of the features in this series.  To see them all, go to ‘Features by category’ in the right hand-margin of the home page, and click on ‘British Trees’.

Comments

  1. Thank you for that comprehensive treatise. Jock likes to work with yew, when he can get it, and has made some lovely things with it. I hadn’t realised that the sawdust is toxic (not that we eat sawdust!)

  2. Susan Abernethy says:

    Beautiful trees and your photos are great. I must look into Dunkeld Cathedral. 🙂

  3. Very interesting! I used to live with some yews that were kept carefully pruned. I had no idea they had such a rich history. I will have to do some more reading on this. And I do appreciate your links.

    • Really glad to know you enjoyed it! Thank you. Yes, I was fascinated to read about them. There is something otherworldly and magical about ancient yews.

  4. Wonderful post, Jo! Wonderful trees, the yews. We have the Pacific yew in The States. They are rare here, sadly due to poaching for their valuable bark. I know of a few locations in the wild, and visit these wonderful trees from time to time.

    • Thank you, Julie! 🙂 That’s a shame that the Pacific yew is scarce. It seems that Britain is the last bastion of the European variety, at least the very ancient ones. I would like to go and seek out some more of these old trees, now that I’ve read about them.

  5. Lovely interesting post, I’m not sure that I like Yew trees so close to the church itself, in the the middle of the churchyard is fine, but they sometimes make play havoc with taking exterior shots, as some of they get massive🙂

  6. Thank you for this wonderful post. I have been longing to make a return visit to the Fortingall Yew. When I do, I will reread this, because there’s a lot here I didn’t know about yews! Do you suppose the name ‘yew’ comes directly from ‘iubhar’ (which is pronounced as you say)?

    • You’re welcome, Christine, and I’m really glad you enjoyed it. I loved finding out about the yew. I think you are right – under ‘yew’, the Oxford Dictionary gives the Old English ‘iw’ or ‘eow’ as origins, and the Old Saxon/German/Norse words are very similar, as are the Welsh ‘ywen’ and Old Irish ‘ibar’. This must be a very old word, and I would imagine all these variations stem from the same ‘root’. 🙂

    • Whoa!!!!!….Can we truly truly please realize HOW POWERFUL AND PROFOUND that statement is given by Jo Woolf ?

      AS YOU SAY…….( and what i feel compelled to add) …. ” IS “.

      Love to ALL ……A cautionary nudge to be careful about what thoughts you think…!

      In other words…..thoughts/ words to me are like decorative embellishments to a Christmas tree…make your thoughts and tree / world

      BEAUTIFUL…:)

      I thank the wisdom of the Yew tree to bringing this knowledge forth and with Christs Love.

      I guess in our homes at Christmas, we bring in the closet thing resembling the yew tree….don’t We? It represents the same connection to

      Christ.

      This is so Magical…

  7. Norma Dowling says:

    Hi Jo,
    I enjoy your ‘Magazine’. I live on Mull, have similar interests and we have a cat!

    I was delighted to see a photo of one of my favourite Mull trees! However I don’t think this is a yew.
    It does not have needles and it does have little cones instead of arils. I think it is a Monterey Cypress; one of the trees that grow better on Mull than in California!
    I am on holiday in south of England but on Mull I have a twig and cones from this tree that I could photograph for you.
    Best wishes, Norma

    • Hi Norma, So glad you enjoy The Hazel Tree, and Purdey sends her regards to your pusscat! That’s an interesting thought about the trees by Loch Spelve – how did a Monterey Cypress come to be there? (There looked to be several of them when I visited). I can understand how they may have been planted in the gardens of stately homes, but this is a bit more remote! What are the leaves like? I would be very interested to see the twig and cones whenever you have time. Looking forward to hearing from you! With kind regards, Jo

    • Hello again Norma, You might be interested to know that I sent the photo of the ‘yews’ by Loch Spelve to the Ancient Yew Group, who confirmed that they were, as you suspected, Monterey cypress. Thank you for alerting me to this! I’ll know them again when I see them now! 🙂 Kind regards, Jo

      • Norma Dowling says:

        Thanks Jo. Apologies for delay. My samples have been woven in a willow circle outside the kitchen door for a couple of years, so when I looked I decided they were not good enough to photograph for ID purposes. Had hoped to find more details about this tree for you but not much yet. The Burial ground is on the Loch Buie estate land so perhaps in the C19th it is the sort of tree that the estate owner would plant if giving the land. I spoke to the wife of the present owner but though she agreed the tree was not a yew she had no knowledge of its history. I’ll try the museum records again. In Aros Park, near Tobermory, there is an amazing Western Red Cedar, well worth a visit if you are over here! Let me know if you are coming and I can introduce you! Tobermory has at least four Chilean Pines too and there is even one next to our Spa car park! All these trees thrive in our relatively mild Maritime climate. Loved your rocks. I picked them up whenever I visited Mull on holiday, now I have brought them back! Happy collecting. Norma

      • Hi Norma, and thank you for getting back to me! Thank you also for your efforts to find out what trees they are. Tim Hills at the Ancient Yew Group has confirmed that they are Monterey Cypress. Next time we are on Mull we will go and have another look and take some better photos! Thank you for your offer and suggestions regarding the other trees, which sound magnificent. I will keep my eyes open for those too. That’s if I’m not looking for rocks!! 🙂 Glad to hear that you love them too!

  8. What a great profile of the Yew in the UK! Excellent article, Jo!

  9. shiningbearheart says:

    I didn’t notice references to the Yews in the church yard at Ulcombe in Kent (you’ll need to read to the bottom of the page) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_Saints_Church,_Ulcombe or to the Kingley Vale National Trust in West Sussex –some references say it it is the largest yew forest in Europe. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingley_Vale_National_Nature_Reserve So I thought I’d add these references. Hope they are of interest.

    • Thank you very much for those links – I will check them out! We are so lucky to have these ancient trees and forests. Much appreciated! 🙂

  10. shiningbearheart says:

    You’re so welcome. I love what you are doing here..Kingley Vale is a truly mystical experience…timeless and magical.

Leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: