I bored my nephew senseless recently when I had my family around to watch four hours of travel photos in a good, old-fashioned ‘slide night’. Many of my images were holy wells and ancient yew trees and I feel fairly certain I was the only interested one in the room after the first few yew tree examples.
So… prepare yourself. I’m about to get all fan-girl on you. I liked these trees and their heritage so much I based a whole book series around them.
Yew Trees are STUNNING trees. They have such unique biology and tenacious survival adaptations and they are so strong and interesting to look at. They have a long and fascinating cultural and religious history and how could you not love a tree whose bark looks and functions more like scales?
The Yew (Taxus baccata) is a conifer, technically, and so I shouldn’t like it because I’m generally not a confier lover. It’s found naturally in western, central and southern Europe (the European Yew) in the north of African and Iran and in the southwest of Asia (Wikipedia)
Pretty much every part of a yew tree is poisonous — a livestock-unfriendly alkaloid called taxine. Yew leaves (dried or fresh), sap, seeds and bark will all kill you if ingested in sufficient quantity. The whole tree even releases taxine as a hallucigenic gas on a really hot day. (Didn’t know that before I got all huggy with them in 30+ degree summer heat). Symptoms seem to progress from an accelerated heart rate, muscle tremors and convulsions to collapse, respiration distress, circulation impairment and finally heart failure.
That’s some defence system!
About the only non-toxic part of them is the deadly looking, ruby-coloured berry which is actually sweet and delicious and irresistible for birds who gobble it up and then disperse the single seed inside it . Their beaks and soft digestive system doesn’t metabolise the seed’s waxy outer and so they are not poisoned by it before depositing it along with a rich fertilizer far from where it was eaten.
Yew trees are either male or female, but mounting evidence suggests they can change their gender with time which might explain why the Patriarch tree at Llanerfyl (didn’t quite get there, unfortunately!) can have some male and some female branches. Handy survival tool!
Yews generally grow to around 20/30m in height and have trunks about 2m around. Average lifespan if left unmolested is 400-600years but there are many, many examples of much more ancient yews than that (2000-5000years). So much so that a whole website/register has sprung up to record the most ancient (www.ancient-yew.com). I owe these guys a debt of gratitude for being a primary resource on my research trip around Wales. Go check out their site, it’s completely volunteer run and they’ve catalogued thousands of ancient, veteran and ‘notable’ yew sites.
I saw a heap of ‘younger’ yews in my travels (ie: 500-1000 years) but structured my trip around some of the oldest or most notable. Here’s a selection…
Llansilin – this site was in existence in the earl middle ages and is notable because it has four ancient yews and two veterans. A great first stop to see a lot of yew trees. For the record, I did ask the tree’s permission before boarding it for this photo. It offered no objections.
Llangernyw – up until very recently the oldest known tree in Wales (4000years). This male stands sleepily in an unassuming churchyard in the small town of Llangernyw (North Wales) just being all old and mysterious. One of the ’50 Great British Trees’. Doesn’t get as much traffic as you’d expect for the oldest in Wales and will probably get less now that it’s technically the second oldest. I don’t think it cares, really. It’s just doing what it’s been doing since Neolithic man was pottering around making burial mounds… Tradition tells of a 5th century saint who founded a church on the round site where (given its age) the tree had already been standing a long time, possibly with others. There are eight other male trees on the site none of them quite as old or impressive but, somehow, this site left me thinking of Arthur and his round table of knights.
Mynyddislwyn – Five yews, significant both for their advanced age but also as examples of rare yews with formalised/protected mounds. They sit in an ancient/circular configuration perched on a hillside 1000m above sea level, peering out over Monmouth. One in particular was so massive I can’t imagine how it could not be one of the oldest in Britain but smarter people than me know about it and aren’t as excited so I have to trust their science. But it was—without question—the most abundantly ALIVE yew I saw, just exploding with life.
Capel y Ffin – another high site significant for the number of very old yews in a semi-circle, suggesting the site might originally have been pagan/round. Eight in total and all veteran or ancient. Some great examples here of how yew hollows could provide shelter for people and wildlife back in the day (great inspiration for story settings!). I could easily have curled up and had a nap in there, and it looks like I wouldn’t have been the first…
The beautiful Pennant Melangell is most striking from above where the veteran and ancient yew trees line the circular churchyard believed to be built above a pagan worship site. The trees outdate the church by a millennia.
Weighing in with the scientists
Another of the survival techniques employed by Taxus baccata is that even very old trees send up suckers (epicormic shoots) from the main tree, which grow thick and strong and, as the original limb hollows and dies, takes over as the primary limb/s. It often splits under weight of its thick, gorgeous canopy but it is resistant to the perishing diseases that other trees would usually get at the fracture site and so can continue to thrive fractured in multiple pieces. Thus the tree just keeps growing outwards and reaches a mighty girth.
Scientists can’t agree amongst themselves if a tree can be considered the same tree if the tree that we see today is the great, great grand-sucker of the original and the site of the original is now just a hollow middle. Personally, I think scientists need to consider the WHOLE tree and not just the emergent part. To my mind, if all of the tree’s activity is coming from the same living root mass then it’s the same tree. It’s just going through its life stages. Human cells are fully replaced multiple times across our lifetimes and no-one would suggest we’re not the same person…
The yew features in some of our oldest human cultures. The oldest known a yew spearhead (or ice pick), found on the coast of Essex that has been carbon dated back 450,000 years.
The celts (all over Europe) revered the yew (which they called eburos) and a Gaullish tribe even named themselves for it (the Eburones). The elderly chieftain of the Eburones elected to poison himself with yew rather than submit to Rome in 53BC. In fact, death-by-yew appears a popular and traditional way to suicide (politically) in the first century.
The oldest yews persist in churchyards where they enjoyed particular protection by connection with the church. In places, religious ceremonies were even held inside the gaping heart of an ancient yew. The yew tree at the Chapel of St Anne (La Haye-de-Routot) in Normandy has even been formalised by the provision of a door into the abundant hollow beyond.
It has been suggested that the Sacred Tree at the Temple at Uppsala was a yew tree, and scholars now believe the legendary Norse Yggdrasill was a Yew and that references to ‘ash’ were a mistranslation (an alternative Old Norse name for the yew in was the Needle Ash). Ancient sources also refer to the tree as ‘evergreen’ which a yew is but an ash is not. Intriguingly, Odin supposedly had a revelation after hanging from Yggdrasill for nine days. Maybe the wisdom of the runes came from a taxine hallucination and not the gods!
Yew timber is the hardest of the softwoods, but has high elasticity making it perfect for bows. The longbow, developed in northern Europe was the basis of medieval war tactics and the best longbows were carved from yew timber. The oldest was radiocarbon dated from between 4000BCand3600BC. The bows are constructed so that the strong heartwood is on the inside of the bow with the elastic sapwood on the outside.
Yew is knotty and twisted and challenging to make something as straight as a bow. Much of a yew trunk would be discarded in the creation of one bow. This led to the extirpation of yews across northern Europe (to feed the demand in Britain) in the 500 years after the Norman invasion of Britain. By the 17th century, there were no more mature yews to be had and focus was now shifting to guns anyhow. Yews were able to recover a little.
The yew was greatly prized amongst medieval, renaissance and baroque luthiers for lutemaking, too. I was lucky enough to bring home a carved yew druid from my Welsh adventure and the wood is so beautiful—a mix of honey and chestnut colours—it would have made a sonorous and gorgeous musical instrument.
Parts of the yew bark have been discovered to be effective anti-cancer compounds and it is used in the Central Himalayas as a treatment for breast and ovarian cancer, particularly. So much so that the Asian sub-species of yew is now on the threatened species list because traditional harvesting techniques required the death of the tree. Happily for the Himalayan yew, scientists have synthesised a much more effective chemo drug from the yews leaves instead of the old timber and bark, which might help slow the rampant over-harvesting of yews for pharmaceutical purposes if handled responsibly.
Finally, I visited the Llandudno workshop of chainsaw artist Dave King and brought home my own yew memory–a gorgeous druid carved from a yew that was felled for housing development (Dave uses fallen timber and purchases a lot of it from landfill). Dave estimated the yew he hauled home on a massive truck was 2000 years old before some developer bowled it over to put up a shopping centre or housing estate. He’d already made hundreds of pieces from it including the two dragons below and dozens of druids like mine.
Some of Dave’s other works on the day I visited, below. Both dragons are made of yew. The biggest was destined for a primary school. If I didn’t have to get on a plane a few days later I TOTALLY would have purchased the dragon on the right. And check out the massive one further down below–Dave made for the National Trust to sit up in the mountains where the legend of Dinas Emrys reigns.
So there yew go… everything yew never knew yew needed to know about the yew Gorgeous alive, gorgeous immortalised in art. And a fantastic part of my journey through Wales.
Welcome to the Time of Plenty in the fictional 6th century world of y Ddraig.
Following the harvest and a busy month of preserving or storing food, Plenty was about consuming all those perishables that would not last over winter. Humans did it, animals did it. Everyone under the roof basically ate everything that wasn’t stored/preserved and fattened up ahead of a few lean months. The weather was now cold enough that they spent most of their time indoors with the exception of the fire feast on the Winter Solstice midway through the month which got winter off to a warm, gluttonous start.
Locked inside in the cold, industry turns to crafts like weaving or pottery making, repairing the year’s damage and making new materials for the year to come.
[Note: You can read more about how I arrived at ‘Plenty’ here…]
Look up. Tonight you should see the moon in the state that demarks one month from another in the fictional world of y Ddraig – the quarter moon. Half dark, half light (which of course is a quarter of the whole moon).
This night marks the start of the ‘Time of Smoke’ in Dark Age Cymry. Remember that last month was all about gathering the harvest and the livestock in from the forests ready for the onset of winter (the Dark Time of Year) and celebrating the start of a new year? Well, the party is over now and the coming two forten-nights are all about hard core preparation to survive the season to come.
Villagers spent the first part of the (cold but not yet icy) month securing the grain they had harvested (some for consumption some for re-seeding next season’s crops) but they spent most of it smoking (curing, drying) the vast amounts of meat they harvested last month. Up to half their animals. Between the endless smoking (which took days and weeks to achieve given they preserved as much of the animal as they could) and the fact that they were now living indoors most of the day and night where smoke from the fire in their shelter permeated everything, this month is aptly named.
But there was ceremony in this month, too. Those livestock who survived Gathering were walked between ceremonial fires and ritually ‘fumigated’ to protect them against the coming winter.
So… this month was all about smoke in the fictional 6th century world of y Ddraig.
Welcome to the time of Gathering in the y Ddraig world. It begins on the night in (our) ‘October’ when the moon is fully half-dark and half-light in the northern hemisphere sky. The quarter moon. It also contains one of the most significant feast weeks of the entire Sun’s March — when the veil between the living and the dead is finest.
In Dark Age Cymry there are not four seasons as we have today, there is merely the one, long, relatively unchanging season punctuated by one distinguishing, punishing season of a few month’s length. This is why the passage of time is counted in ‘winters’, because they are so marked in their difference. Just as their ‘day’ in y Ddraig begins at sunset (which is why the passage of one and two weeks is counted in nights [‘se’nnight’ or seven nights and ‘forten-night’ or fourteen nights]), so their year or ‘Sun’s March’ begins at the onset of the ‘Dark Time of Year’.
The people of y Ddraig will spend the first se’nnight of Gathering finishing up their harvest and retrieving their livestock from fields and forests. Those animals fit enough to survive winter and breed another generation will be kept, while the young, old and weak will be slaughtered to feed the village through the Dark Time of Year.
Gathering gets its name because this is also the time that work starts to centralise around the home/village and people gather together in celebration and in preparation for winter including visitors from other villages. Travelling bards arrive and begin to tell expansive tales of politics, adventure and intrigue.
On the full moon, a week-long feast begins to celebrate the successful harvest, honour the dead and mark the start of the new year known in the world of y Ddraig as the Old Soul’s Night or the Hag Feast when the barrier between the upper world and the other world is flimsy. Elsewhere this is called Samhain (pron. ‘sow-ween’) and later in Cymry it will be called All Hallow’s Eve (Hallowe’en).
Food is abundant during Gathering and the villagers will never be freer because the work of most of the year is winding up but the work of winter has not yet begun in earnest. The weather is still good enough to move around, friends and neighbours are gathering for celebration, bards are visiting with all the news and important communication from the year. It is essentially a fornight-long ‘weekend’ leading up to a week-long Hag Feast with a week’s go-slow to recover.
It’s the Autumn Equinox in the northern hemisphere and the ‘Time of Song’ in the world of y Ddraig. The last se’nnights of the Light Time of Year and the end of the full Sun’s March are upon us.
Known as ‘Cantlos’ in the Celtic Coligny Calendar, at this time of year in 6th century Cymry the birds are particularly vocal—busy learning their arias before migrating south or when establishing/defending their territories if they do not leave for the winter. For the people of Cymry, their days are consumed with harvesting crops. Their nights are given over to the songs of the Bards who have travelled all summer and who arrive in readiness for the time of Gathering which begins two fortenights from now.
Happy Equinox, everyone.
Welcome to the most political month of the ancient calendar, Makepeace.
In the fictional world of y Ddraig, Makepeace follows the month in which marriages and trades were accomplished. Thus, the next month is a time for arbitration in which any disputes arising from broken betrothals, trade or unsettled claims are resolved. It is a time in which the lord of the land will be sure to return to his stronghold and make himself available for this arbitration as adjudicator as part of his peace-keeper responsibilities.
This month is well suited to travelling to your Lord’s stronghold, the weather is excellent and the days are long. Plenty of time to be seen and heard by your Lord.
This is also the time that some harvesting begins in your absence, depending on the crops you are raising.
A quick note to wish a very happy birthday to the horses of the world today, August 1.
Although southern-hemisphere horses are born year-round courtesy of modern technology and the agricultural patterns, up in the Northern Hemisphere their births still cluster on either side of this date and so, today, it’s used as a standardised date for the purposes of aging horses. Much like kids are classified into one school year or another based on the relationship to the year-start date.
But, this date has much older origins. Back in the days of the Celts, the date we now know as 1st August was Lughnasadh (‘Lugh’s day’) and a week-long fire festival would be held on the days around that date to honour him. At that gathering, people would trade their most valuable commodities– women (who were bethrothed at this event) and horses (the youngest of which were born in the month just gone). The people of ancient times may well have fallen into the habit of ‘starting the clock’ on the ages of their horses (particularly foals) at that date because it was the first time the animals came into their possession and they could know their age first-hand.
One of two carefully political months, welcome to Claim-time in the fictional 6th century world of y Ddraig.
This month features the much anticipated fire festival mid-way through the month (on 1 August) at which horses were traded and bonds between men and women were brokered.
The name comes from the practice of first ‘claiming’ the personthat you wished to bind to during the fire festival in a kind of extended betrothal (engagement) . The couple concerned lived together as a bonded pair for a year-and-a-day after which they could bind forever or go their separate ways with no recriminations. Those who chose permanence ‘claimed’ their partner formally at the following year’s fire festival and at midnight (the ‘day’ part of ‘a year and a day’) it was done. Bound.
Similarly, horse deals were brokered during the fire-festival in Claim-time. Breeding was negotiated at one year’s festival and then the resulting weaned foals were delivered the following year. Or they were simply offered for sale/trade during the week long festival.
Finally, this month was the time to be undertaking challenges that celebrated skill and prowess. This was true of the men as much as their horses. Showing off, in other words, to attract the mate (or buyer) of your choice.
This is the Time of Horses (or Horse-time) in the fictional 6th century world of y Ddraig.
So named because in the northern hemisphere oestrus (ovulation) is triggered in horses by the longer hours of daylight between June and August. The mares who became pregnant last Horse-time have carried their foals through winter and an eleven month gestation and they have begun giving birth so that, by the time of Horses, the woods are filled with foals leaping about. This moon horses are traded and celebrated and stallions start looking with interest at any mare without a foal at her teat (and some with!).
This is also the time of the summer solstice and so yet another week-long feast is conducted in which all but the most necessary work ceases to mark the height of summer and acknowledge/respect the waning of the year and the approach of winter.
As the moon hits that unmissable half bright/half dark phase of the first quarter of its phase, the time of Brightness begins in the fictional world of y Ddraig.
Days are getting long, now, and the moon and sun are both on their highest arcs which mean shorter, bright nights and long, sunny days.
Work dominates during Brightness, given the abundance of light to work by and the absence of any feasts/observances in this month. But the work can’t dampen the spirits of the people of Cymry, high on the positive effects of sunlight on their skin and happier than they’ll ever be, you can be sure there is a lot of quiet celebrations happening of an evening under the high moon.