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William Wallace's Yew

William Wallace's Yew : More than it appears to be?
by Paul Greenwood

This world famous yew at Elderslie, Renfrewshire, Scotland has long been associated with the location of the birthplace and childhood home of the famous Scottish hero Sir William Wallace. As the two are inseparable, before exploring the history and traditions concerning this yew, it is also worth considering some brief history of the great man himself. In His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Albany's book The Forgotten Monarchy of Scotland (Element 1998), it states on pages 55 - 56 :

"He was a colleague and attaché of the prevailing 5th Lord High Steward, Sir James Stewart, and a strong opposer of King Edward's government. William was the son of Malcolm Wallace of Edersley, (sic) Ayrshire, and the great grandson of the Welshman Richard Walays who had arranged the marriage of James Stewart's ancestor, Alan of Lochaber, and Adelina of Oswestry. Richard had left Wales after the marriage, and travelled to Scotland with Alan who granted him lands in Ayrshire. The Walays (Wallace) descendants subsequently became hereditary knights of the elite Household Guard of the High Stewards.

William Wallace was raised at the French Court, and came to Scotland to uphold a military alliance made between John Balliol and Phillippe IV of France in 1295. By this time William had lost both his father and brother against the English, while his mother was obliged to travel the country in disguise for fear of seizure. Duly inheriting his father's Ayrshire estates, William took up his position as a Household Knight of James Stewart, 5th High Steward, and before long he had gained a fine reputation....As can be seen from this, the noble and influential Sir William Wallace was very different from the somewhat uncouth character portrayed by Mel Gibson in the recent film Braveheart. However, whilst full of historical inaccuracies, this very moving film has certainly done much on the world stage to underline the plight of the Scottish nation in those days''.

His Royal Highness also records that Sir William Wallace and his growing support worried the English so much that they offered to pardon him if he would lay down his arms but he refused. After the successful Battle of Stirling in 1297 he pursued the English taking castles as far south as Carlisle and Newcastle and this success saw Sir William proclaimed as Warden of Scotland and Guardian of the Realm. It was to be a short lived success however and he suffered an appalling death in 1305 following his capture by the English. Rather than cow the Scots into submission by his terrible demise it instead fired their determination to carry on their cause for a Free Scotland culminating in success at Bannockburn nine years later.

The origin of the yew seen today at Elderslie has a mixture of opinions. Many tree experts, such as Donald Rodger, agree that the yew was probably planted around the period of 1729 when the Wallace estate was sold to the Speirs family. Therefore it is clear that there was a reason for the Speirs themselves to commemorate what is believed to be Sir William's birthplace when the estate passed into their ownership and to conclude that this tree was planted then. The history, size and growth characteristics when surveyed in recent years all seemed to inevitably point to a yew not yet 300 years old. However there are a number of curious historical anomalies apparently worthy of further investigation which suggest that this tree may not be all that it appears.

The Scots Gazetteer cites parish records from the 1700's referring to it as "this ancient tree" but if planted in 1729 it would surely not be particularly noticeable in size at this time, although possibly by reputed origin. This raises the possibility that, as local traditions record, Sir William played as a child under, and in, a yew outside his home. There is more in that another notable and historic tree at Elderslie, an oak, was actually contemporary with Sir William over 700 years ago; because it enabled him and 300 followers to hide from the English in its branches. This tree fell in a storm in 1856. In an extract from the Statistical Account for Scotland 1845 it states:

''It is also worthy of notice, that, in the garden of Wallace's house, there is seen to be a fine specimen of our Scottish yew, said to be co-eval with, some say older than, the celebrated oak. But be this as it may, it is certainly of ancient date, (all my italics) and tradition has assigned to it the name of Wallaces Yew''.

Again, a yew planted in 1729 would be nowhere near looking anything like an ancient yew by 1845 and by the mid 19th century ancient yews in Scotland and their typical appearance were well known to Scots folk - having been celebrated as such for over 3000 years - and also by renowned botanists of the 18th and 19th centuries such as John Loudon and Augustin de Candolle. Therefore it seems unlikely to automatically assume that the above statement for this yew being ''of ancient date''’ is in error and that there was a noticeably ancient yew at Elderslie in 1845. So what happened to it? Is what is seen today the same tree which has suffered storm damage since and it is in fact over 700 years old? Or was an elder yew felled or lost to storm and this tree was seeded from it? However there are no records to the yew ''of ancient date'' at Elderslie ever being lost, whereas the demise of the oak was well recorded and it seems that these trees over 150 years ago were regarded as a pair of trees with similar minimum ages of over 600 years old. Therefore this yew must have looked like a yew over 600 years old at that time.

In the New Shell Guide to Scotland (Ed. Donald Lamond Macnie and Moray McLaren 1977) p.184 there is quite a definite statement that;

"A dense yew tree near the house is seeded from an ancient tree known as "Wallace's Yew".

It does not state from which yew - but there is another ancient yew that was allegedly "planted by the hand of William Wallace himself" (Woods, Forests and Estates of Perthshire - Hunter, 1883) at Elcho Castle in Perthshire. Yews being used as trees under which to swear oaths or agree to legal arrangements is a proven historical phenomenon in the U.K. and a Scottish example can be found at Loudon Castle, Ayrshire where articles of the Treaty of Union were drawn up under its deep shade. It is therefore possible that on becoming Guardian of the Realm, Sir William Wallace planted a female yew at Elcho Castle to witness his oath’ and that this could have sourced a later 18th century tree by seed at Elderslie because the historical association with Elcho Castle was already established - even if only as a tradition.

There is another point to note however and it is that in 1977 the yew is described as being "dense" implying a flourishing yew. Unfortunately between then and now the tree has been subjected to massive acts of wanton vandalism, including being set on fire, which had so weakened it in recent years that emergency intervention was implemented by local people, Renfrewshire Council and Donald Rodger, both to save the yew and safeguard it from any more damage. Then in an astonishingly macabre irony on 12th January 2005, which is in the same year as the actual 700th anniversary of Sir William Wallace's death, a storm ripped the already stricken tree apart - echoing his own dreadful fate which saw his body torn to pieces before his eyes and, after his death, parts distributed to Newcastle and towns in Scotland. The half of the tree which was growing best and had responded to care is the piece which was blown off and has torn the remaining trunk almost to ground level. The standing remnant is mostly dead branches with a flimsy crown of poor growth. All concerned are obviously extremely anxious to save the yew and a number of solutions have been mooted including trying to reattach the trunk which however is a prohibitively costly exercise for local resources to be expected to meet.

However the best policy naturally, as advised by internationally renowned arborists such as Russell Ball, is to leave it as it is, if at all possible, however unsightly this may look. There are many examples of yews being left prone by the wind and surviving to produce healthy crops of fruit and flowers and gradually adjusting their growth to accommodate their circumstances. They simply know best what to do in the long term. Unfortunately this process involving a century or more is therefore such a long term process it cannot really be witnessed in a single human lifetime. Proof of this is found at the Borrowdale Yew Grove in Cumbria, England where massive regeneration took place naturally after a storm in the 1880's and was photographically recorded soon after in Yew-Trees of Great Britain and Ireland (John Lowe, 1897). It proved a full canopy had been restored by the two closest growing trees in about a century when these yews were brought to national attention again in The Sacred Yew (Chetan and Brueton 1994). This site has sadly been depleted by more storms since and in early 2005 the largest yew of the grove, a hollow tree, was reduced to a 10ft (3 metre) high shell with a few branches left. Sorry a sight it may be but in the ancient life of a yew it is a survivable incident - but in the very long term of a life in a non human time scale.

Cuttings have already been taken from the Sir William Wallace's yew to ensure its survival and the Scottish Sunday Herald of 26 January 2003 reported ;

"It is supposed to be the tree that William Wallace played in as a laddie - or a direct descendant of it. Now a cutting from it is to be among the less costly additions to the landscape around the new parliament building in Edinburgh. Supporters of the union with England should be beware in case the Wallace Yew has the magical properties that pagans used to ascribe to such trees....The yew from which it has been grown is thought to be more than 300 years old. That would still leave it far short of having been a contemporary of Scotland'’s braveheart in the 13th century. But folklore and it's location would suggest that it was grown from the seed of the original tree at what is believed to be Wallace's childhood home".

The above report supports the contention that this yew may not be seeded from another because there is no report of an original yew at Elderslie, the companion of the ancient oak, being in any location other than this one. The author would appreciate being advised to the contrary but no source examined so far suggests that there was any other William Wallace's Yew ever at Elderslie other than this one. Could it be that this is indeed the tree which the child who became Guardian of the Realm of Scotland did play under? And that because it fell prey to ignorance and wanton idiocy in recent decades its appearance made it look like a younger tree when the reappraisal of yews began in earnest in the late 1980's and early 1990's?

There are ancient yews in Scotland, such as at Dryburgh Abbey, Borders, which, at 12 ft (3.65m ) girth, are not "large" (20 ft or 6.00 m plus is taken to typically denote an ancient yew) and yet are contemporary with Sir William's time and sooner, in this case the early 12th century. Based on girth size alone it is becoming increasingly clear at the cutting edge of yew research that the girth to age relationship of a yew is an unreliable process to uniformly apply. It is known that a yew can have a 12 ft girth and be from 300 - 400 to probably over 1000 years old. Its individuality and locational characteristics are the most paramount factors when considering the potential age of a yew in the lack of an analysis via a ring count. It is also becoming clear, and was proven in 2004 at the Borrowdale Yew Grove, that even in a group sharing the very same spot on Earth; yews react individually to annual growth conditions and there is no uniformity amongst the trees as to how they will grow. The largest girth yew of a group may not even be the oldest - it could be the smallest. One tree may decide not to grow a ring at all that year, another say of 2.5 mm. The same conditions but different responses implies an individual degree of control a yew has over its growth which no other tree seems to possess.

Thus by the 1980's and 1990's Sir William Wallace's Yew may not have looked like a typical very old or ancient yew based on girth size alone which was surmised then to be rather more accurate that it has turned out to be. Reduction of the tree's mass by vandalism, fire and storm must have converted it from being a "dense" yew into a sorry state and needing emergency intervention in a matter of little more a decade. The shock, pain and distress to the yew itself must have been considerable and equally to the local residents, their ancestors, historical groups, authorities and Scots folk in general who have cherished this notable marvel of nature through the ages and celebrated its link with Sir William throughout. Prompt action in response to its savage and mindless mutilation, which obviously weakened its defence against strong winds, did see an improvement in condition until this latest tragic event and it must be particularly heartbreaking for all people concerned to witness this now; especially in such a year as 2005 which, as mentioned, includes the 700th anniversary of the Great Patriot's death on August 24th.

As the truly heartfelt efforts are made to preserve this living legend of a yew in its own right - surely a Scottish Ancient Monument if ever there was one - perhaps a reappraisal of its potential age should be considered in view of the evidence presented here which reveals the anomalies within the historical record specifically referring to an ancient yew’ at Elderslie 150 years ago; and of equal fame and age with Sir William Wallace's Oak. Could it be that there is in fact a lost ancient yew at Elderslie? Lost because its history has been obscured by its appearance being so suddenly and drastically altered? Any re-evaluation of this yew finding this to be the case is surely in the best interests of all concerned and would certainly restore a fuller recognition and possibly establish secure funding for its future care, preservation and celebration. Both as a wonder of nature itself, as yews are generally, and by especial connection with Sir William across these many centuries. Improved recognition, both for the yew's true origins in history and the kind of man Sir William really was can only forge a greater and stronger link to immortalise even more why the two were linked in the first place.

Although beyond the scope of this article to explore at any length, Sir William Wallace's association with yews is not accidental. Other world famous Scots such as Robert Bruce had his men wear sprigs of yew into battle at Bannockburn. Prior to that a yew still standing today at Stuc an T’Iobhairt, near Tarbet, Loch Lomond sheltered himself and 200 of his men in the first days of their campaign. Until depleted by storm and pruning in the Victorian era this yew, thought to be 2000 years old, had a girth of "only"’ 13 ft. Another celebrated Scots hero Bonnie Dundee (Viscount Graham of Claverhouse) was buried under the "bushey"’ (sic) yews at Old Urrard after the battle of Killiecrankie in the late 17th century. St Columba went to pray and to preach under a huge yew on the isle of Bernera in the Firth of Lorne which was felled by a Campbell laird in the 18th century - but now it is regenerating. This shows, by a few examples amongst many hundreds in Scotland, that for 1200 years at least from the 6th century to the 18th that the yew is proven to be an especial tree - a sacred tree no less - to some of the most famous Scots of all whom are, to all intents and purposes truly 'immortal', as they are such household names all over the world.

Therefore Sir William Wallace's Yew, whilst being a unique and eminently notable tree, nevertheless has an additional overlooked reputation, whether it is 300 years old or whatever its true age or source, as a nationally important member of a great Scottish cultural tradition involving the yew at all levels of Scots society and embedded in the very founding of the Scots' customs, clanship, religion and spirituality thousands of years ago. Whilst anticipating much disagreement for the suggestion, there is much more evidence for the yews of Scotland actually being more "Scots"’ than the Caledonian or Scot's Pine - fine and noble trees as they are - as it seems that St. Columba, Sir William Wallace, King Robert Bruce I and Bonnie Dundee thought so.

It is hoped that this extra layer of importance to the ancient heritage of Scotland and its connection with yews over so many many centuries will give further support for the regard and esteem both Sir William Wallace and his Yew - Tree receive in the future and especially any saplings grown from it. It would surely be of universal benefit to all concerned with this yew, his memory and Scotland should this occur.

Additional reference sources :

Hills, T. - Private correspondence.
McGeeney, A. - Private correspondence.
Meredith, A. - Private correspondence.
Moir, A., Tree Ring Services UK - Private research and correspondence.
Renfrewshire Council - Historic Wallace Yew will be saved - Press release, 19 Jan 2005.
Rodger, Stokes and Ogilvie - Heritage Trees of Scotland, Tree Council 2003.
Rodger, D. - Private correspondence.
Transactions of the Inverness Society.

Copyright © Paul Greenwood 2005. All Rights Reserved.

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