Nestled in the heart of Perthshire, Scotland is what could well be the oldest tree in Europe.
The Fortingall Yew is a tree that has stood the test of time, weathering centuries and witnessing history unfold before it. Its ancient roots run deep, grounding it in the earth and connecting it to the past.
The Fortingall Yew’s exact age is unclear with researchers frequently contradicting one another. The age could be anywhere between 3,000 years old and 9,000 years old. Whatever the age, there is simply no questioning this tree’s resounding resilience.
When I stood before the Fortingall Yew within the churchyard in Fortingall, I found it hard to grasp how this tree had stood here for so long. But there was no denying that its gnarled branches looked almost wise.
In this article I aim to tell you everything you need to know about visiting the Fortingall Yew tree.
Fortingall Yew Map
Fortingall Yew Quick Facts
Operated by: Perth and Kinross Countryside Trust
Best time of day to visit: You can visit at any time of the day. The Fortingall Yew doesn’t get too busy so there is no best time.
Entry costs: Free
Car park costs: Free
Opening times: Open 24/7
Food: The closest eateries are in the town of Kenmore, a 15 minute drive away.
Top Tip: The Fortingall Yew tree is shielded behind a brick wall with windows to preserve it. Even so, branches do overhang the wall. Please be respectful and leave the tree intact. I’d avoid touching the tree at all.
What is The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, Scotland?
The Fortingall Yew is thought to be the oldest tree in the United Kingdom and potentially even Europe.
The tree is a yew tree, a species renowned for its ability to survive thousands of years. As a result, the yew tree is a symbol for immortality. Paradoxically they are also seen as omens of doom, perhaps because all parts of the tree are poisonous.
A mature yew can reach a height of 20 metres. Its bark boasts a reddish-brown hue with a hint of purple, and has a tendency to peel. Upon the yew’s branches are small needle-like leaves which are a rich green in colour.
Yews are unique because they have the ability to split apart into almost separate trees as they grow. This allows them to be more resilient against disease and avoids them getting so big that they splinter under their own weight. It also helps them to regenerate and grow almost anew after experiencing damage.
Why is it Called Fortingall Yew?
The Fortingall Yew is named after the village in which it lives: Fortingall.
The name Fortingall appears to be derived from the Gaelic word Fartairchill which means ‘Escarpment Church’, a church at the foot of an escarpment which perfectly describes the church in the centre of the village.
How Old is Fortingall Yew?
There is much debate about the exact age of the Fortingall Yew tree largely because the official and most accurate methods for establishing the age of a tree cannot be used as the centre of the Fortingall Yew has long since decayed. Therefore no one is able to count the tree’s growth rings.
Opinions have ranged from anywhere between 1,500 years old to 9,000 years old.
In 1831, Swiss botanist Augustin de Candolle, who pioneered counting tree rings to age a tree, estimated that this yew was between 2,500 and 2,600 years old.
The Forestry and Land Scotland currently estimate the Fortingall Yew to be 5,000 years old. When I visited the Fortingall Yew there was a sign in front of it which gave it this age.
However, modern research is now finding that the tree may not be as old as originally thought.
Age predictions had previously been made based on the girth of the tree which unfortunately is no longer present. The wider the girth, the older the tree. Now researchers are questioning whether the tree’s girth was in fact made up of multiple trees. Based on this, predictions are now that the Fortingall Yew is between 2,000 and 3,000 years old, still impressively old.
What we do know is regardless of exactly which millennia the tree was born in, it is still the oldest tree in the United Kingdom and perhaps the whole of Europe.
What Sex is The Fortingal Yew?
If you are not a tree expert, like me, then you may find the concept of trees having different sexes brand new. I was certainly surprised to learn that some species of tree, particularly conifers have sexes, when I was researching my visit to the Fortingall Yew.
The Fortingall Yew tree is a male. You can tell this because it doesn’t produce any berries. Instead male yew trees produce small spherical cones that release pollen.
However, in recent years one branch has changed sex, producing vibrant red berries. Partial sex-changes like this are very unusual but not unheard of. Normally it is only part of the crown of the tree which switches sex.
How Big is the Fortingall Yew?
When the Fortingall Yew was first accurately measured in 1769 it measured an impressive 56 and a half feet wide, the length of 1 and a half buses!
Yew trees are certainly nowhere near the tallest trees that you can find. Instead they can grow incredibly wide, like the Fortingall Yew did. The height of the Fortingall Yew hasn’t been measured.
Since the first measurement was taken all those centuries ago, the Fortingall Yew has undergone many changes, some natural and some sadly as a result of vandalism.
As the yew aged, it began to split apart into what looks like numerous smaller trees. As they all share the same root system, they are still the same tree.
In 1883 it was reported that “large arms had been removed and even masses of the trunk, carried off, to make drinking-cups and other curiosities.”
The tree is notably smaller today than it once was. However despite so much damage, the Fortingall Yew is reportedly in good health.
Fortingall Yew History
Standing in Perthshire for millennia, the Fortingall Yew undoubtedly has a rich history.
As it’s so hard to determine the exact age of the tree, the historical events that the tree witnessed over its lifetime are hard to gauge. Below are some of things that we do know, or at least have a likelihood of being true, about the yew’s life.
There are two theories about how the Fortingall Yew started its existence. The first is that it simply came to be. Yew trees are native to the United Kingdom, after all. However, yew trees are not so common in the Scottish Highlands which leads us to question this theory. Therefore there is a high likelihood that between 2,000 and 3,000 years the yew tree was planted.
Long after the Fortingall Yew was planted it was decided to build a church which encompassed the magnificent tree within its churchyard. Yew trees were sacred to pagans and early Christians as they were seen as vessels for immortality.
It is thought that the first building here was a monastery dating back to somewhere between AD 679 and 704. The only evidence that his monastery existed was in the form of an ancient bell that until 2017 was hung within the church. Unfortunately the bell was stolen and to this day its whereabouts is unknown.
At one end of the church interior lies three remnants of Pictish cross-slabs, dating back to around 800 AD. Despite their small size, the carvings are remarkably well-preserved and likely originated from the 7th-century monastery.
Within the 10th-century the monastery was replaced with a stone church. Then in 1895 the church was rebuilt and still stands proudly today.
It was around this time that vandalism of the tree began to occur with huge chunks cut out of both its branches and thick trunk.
In order to preserve the tree, a high stone wall was built around it with a few windows so you can still lay your eyes on the majestic yew tree.
South-west of the church lies a farm field, home to the ‘Cairn of the Dead’. This marks the final resting place of villagers who perished during the Great Plague of the 16th century. Legend has it that the death toll was so high that there was no room left in the churchyard to bury the bodies.
One elderly woman, still in good health, carted the deceased to the field and dumped them into a shared grave. In honour of the departed, she erected the cairn that still stands today.
Fortingall Yew & Pontius Pilate
Local folklore states that Pontius Pilate, the man who oversaw the crucifixion of Jesus, was born and spent his childhood playing under the shade of the Fortingall Yew.
However, Dr. Paul S. Philippou, an honorary research fellow in history at the University of Dundee, disputes this legend and believes it to be an embellished myth with no historical basis.
Planning Your Visit to Fortingall Yew in the Pershire, Scotland
Below are details so that you can plan your trip to the Fortingall Yew.
Where is Fortingall Yew Located?
The Fortingall Yew is located in the Fortingall Parish Churchyard in the village of Fortingall within Glen Lyon in the Scottish highlands.
The closest large settlements are Kenmore and Aberfeldy which are both around a 15 minute drive away.
The address and postcode for the Fortingall Yew is: Fortingall, Aberfeldy PH15 2NQ
How to Get to Fortingall Yew
Below are details on how to get to the Fortingall Yew from the nearest towns.
Getting to the Fortingall Yew From Aberfeldy
Take the main road to the north of the town, the B846 which crosses over the River Tay. When you reach a junction, turn left towards Weem. You will pass the majestic Castle Menzies before passing through the small village of Dull.
Keep travelling west until you reach a large junction on your left with signage for Fortingall. Follow this road until you reach Fortingall village.
Getting to the Fortingall Yew From Kenmore
Follow the A827 which takes you north through Kenmore and then west, journeying alongside Loch Tay. Take the first noticeable right which appears just before a row of modern cottages which are facing a small wooden pier jutting into Loch Tay, after around 8 minutes following the road.
This narrow road will take you over the River Lyon before bringing you to Fortingall which will appear on your left.
Is There Parking at The Fortingall Yew?
There are a couple of unmarked parking spaces just in front of the church. Alternatively, there are also some parking spaces outside the Fortingall Hotel which is just opposite the church.
Do You Have to Pay to Visit the Fortingall Yew?
No, both parking and actually visiting the Fortingall Yew are free of charge.
How To Get to The Fortingall Yew From the Carpark
Parking is incredibly close to the Fortingall Yew which is a short walk away through the churchyard. In fact you can actually see the yew tree from the carpark.
Simply walk through the church gates and follow the designated path which will take you to the front of the church. Turn left just before the church and you will find the Fortingall Yew tree standing within a stone enclosure.
Important! The Fortingall Yew tree is incredibly fragile so please don’t touch the tree or take any part of it away as a souvenir.
What’s the Best Time of Year to Visit The Fortingall Yew?
The Fortingall Yew can be visited at any time of year. Visiting in the summer allows for the best weather as there are more dry and sunny days.
However a visit in the winter or spring allows a glimpse at the Fortingall Yew when it is flowering. Between mid-February and April male yew trees, such as the Fortingall Yew, flower. If you’re lucky you may even see some of its bright red berries which will appear on the female part of the tree in the middle of winter.
The Fortingall Yew tree undoubtedly has an interesting history. When I stood before the tree I found it so hard to fathom just how old this living thing was – it’s simply mind-boggling!
However, if you are expecting a gigantic tree then you may be slightly disappointed. The Fortingall Yew sadly isn’t in the best shape. I was a little shocked at how little of it appeared to be left. It’s such a shame that over the years the tree has been vandalised so much. But at least the tree still stands proud, despite suffering such hardships over the millennia.
In saying that, I’d definitely recommend visiting the Fortingall Yew tree if you are in the Loch Tay area. Visiting the tree doesn’t take long so you could combine your visit with other wonderful activities such as a walk through the Tay Forest Park or visit to the magnificent Castle Menzies, both just a short drive away.
Have you visited the Fortingall Yew before? Let me know in the comments!
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Birks of Aberfeldy & the Falls of Moness: A Visitors Guide
Falls of Acharn and the Hermit’s Cave: The Ultimate Guide
Falls of Bruar: A Walker’s Guide
The Best of Loch Tay: 6 Activities You Won’t Want To Miss!
Tay Forest Park: A Complete Visitor’s Guide
Pitlochry Dam & Fish Ladder: Everything You Need to Know
Castle Menzies: A Complete Room By Room Tour
The Fortingall Yew: A Complete Visitor’s Guide