Fortingall’s Oldest Resident

Visiting the hamlet of Fortingall, we paid homage to the oldest living thing in Europe: a 5,000-year-old Yew tree. The yew is a primordial tree dating back to at least two hundred million years ago. Known as the tree of eternity, the yew regrows at the age of five hundred when most trees die.

This particular yew we visited is rooted in history, an ancient tree that has ties to early Christianity. Early Christians came to Fortingall in the 7th century and built a church next to the ancient yew. Inside the churchyard in Fortingall, the yew is bordered off and protected because visitors in the past have taken chunks off the tree home as souvenirs.

In 1769, the Fortingall yew had a girth of over 56 feet. In my pictures, you can see the wooden markers to indicate its previous size. It may seem like there are two trees in the picture, but it is just one tree, or what is left of it.

Despite its decrease in size, the Fortingall yew looks like it’s still thriving. We reached our arms through the wrought iron gate and shook limbs with it, wanting to touch something so ancient.

Across from the hamlet, the “Cairn of the Dead” is easily spotted. This mound was the burial site of the 16th century Great Plague. The uncanny sight of the mass grave made me think of all those bodies, once alive, breathing and whole, but now just a pile of bones from the past.

The whole visit to Fortingall was definitely appreciated. The yew and those who died from the Great Plague and buried there remind me of life and death. The yew gets to live a long time and then gets to be reborn after the age of 500, while humans aren’t so lucky: We only live once — short compared to the yew — and are in a constant state of vulnerability and survival.