Imagine standing in the presence of a living being at whose feet Pontius Pilate played as a child. Local legend says that Pilate was born at Fortingall when his father visited the Roman Legions in the north. Imagine standing in the presence of a being already ancient long before Christianity came to its birth, perhaps long before Stonehenge was built. A being that may have already been old before Doggerland, the country that joined ancient Britain to Europe, sank beneath the waves… That is how it feels to stand in the presence of the Fortingall Yew.
We had wanted to visit the yew for what seems to us a very long time, but which, to the tree, must seem of no more account than a passing zephyr in its branches. Looking at the map the night before and seeing how close the village of Fortingall was, we had decided against the direct route south and instead, headed cross-country. The direct route would have been far quicker and taken us down the motorways… the back roads, we thought, would allow us to see a little more of Scotland. How much more, we had, at that point, no real idea.
With such a long drive ahead, we were trying to be good and not stop at every tantalising stone and circle… there are a lot in the area apparently, attesting to mankind’s presence here for over five thousand years. It was never going to work, though, not completely. Especially not when the morning was set against a backdrop of mountains just beginning to be revealed by the mists. We stopped whenever the narrow lanes allowed, even if it was only to look and take pictures from the roadside. Mounds, cairns, circles… just those few miles could easily have taken us all day, had we the time to spare.
But we were heading for Fortingall to see the ancient yew. There is no accurate way to date the tree… its heartwood is long gone, returned to the earth from whence it came… and estimates of its age vary, source to source. Some suggest it is three thousand years old.. Others believe it to be as much as nine thousand years old, but most sources give its age as somewhere in the middle, which means that the tree has watched over this valley for around five thousand years.
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