The scientist Daines Barrington measured the circumference of the Fortingall yew for the first time in 1770, and it measured fifty-two feet. It is difficult to measure these large beasts properly, as evidenced by the tape measure of his friend Thomas Pennant, which measured fifty-six feet six inches two years later. The two men were Gilbert White’s correspondents, and White’s inquiries into the tree in his own Selborne churchyard had either inspired White to do so or White had been inspired to do so.

The good Christian in him may not have been prepared for the implications of the yew’s even older age, but he was aware that it was a seasoned tree and believed it to be “coeval with the church,” which dates from the late twelfth century. With his typical naturalist’s diligence, White compiled the reasons why such trees may exist in churchyards. He speculated that they might be there to shade “the most respectable parishioners,” act as a windbreak, provide faux palm for Eastertide, deter cattle from entering the churchyard due to their poisonous foliage, or, most likely, serve “as an emblem of mortality for their funereal appearance.”

The most common tale, with its whimsical and patriotic undertone, was that they had been planted as longbow timber. This omitted two significant details: first, bows were carved from yew trunks, usually three or four at most per trunk; second, the less brittle wood of Spanish and Italian yews was favored for bows. The designated tree vanishes from the churchyard as a result.

In Fortingall, the popularization of yews had repercussions. Dr. Patrick Neill, an antiquarian, documented the emergence of a nefarious trade in Great Yew souvenirs in 1833. “The country people, with the view to forming quechs or drinking cups and other relics, which visitors were in the habit of purchasing” had chopped off portions of the tree. An intellectual appropriation, or alternative form of filching, occurred with the nineteenth-century craze for Druidism.

Druid revivalists asserted that yews had been sacred to the cult, that they had been planted methodically around wells and other sacred sites, and that Christian churchyards connected with yews had been constructed on the grounds of Druidic temples, all without any objective proof. In 1829, Godfrey Higgins published The Celtic Druids, which contained the first assertion that yews were Jehovah’s own trees.

The 1940s presentation of the geographer Vaughan Cornish offered an alternative perspective on the Druidic doctrine. Cornish was a polymath whose interests included the aesthetics and human history of landscapes, as well as the impact of waves on the creation of seashores. In his seminal work The Churchyard Yew and Immortality (1946), he concedes that yew trees might have been revered by prehistoric British peoples, but he contends that, contrary to what White had believed, their evergreen leaves made them symbols of immortality. They were taken up by the Christian Church as representations of eternal life. Though he is unsure of the exact origins of this ritual, he proposes that the Normans, who saw yew as a northern counterpart to cypress, carried the practice of planting yew in churchyards throughout rural England.

Cornish, in contrast to past authors, had conducted his fieldwork. He visited many of the dioceses to chart their locations and correspondances, and he wrote to each diocese in the nation regarding their yews. His theory appeared to be supported by the results. The majority of the extremely old yews seemed to be located in areas of southern England and Wales that were impacted by the post-Norman Conquest church construction boom. Furthermore, their placement in relation to the cathedral revealed an unexpected homogeneity. Most of them were near the funeral processional entryway on the south side.

The casket would go past the yew, or maybe go between two of them. The idea that the individual trees were particularly old or that they might be surviving remnants of pre-Christian holy sites was something the Cornish refused to acknowledge. The notion of a tree that was 2,000 years old, older than not only church structures but also one of the religious forefathers of Western civilization, was considered almost sacrilegious and dehumanizing to both Christianity and civilization. “There is no proof that any now standing date back to the time of the Druids, and it is quite unlikely that they do,” the Keeper of the Department of Botany in Cardiff told Cornish emphatically.

Regarding the Fortingall yew, the esteemed Dr. Edward Salisbury, the Director of Kew Gardens, provided Cornish with a brief explanation. The yew was actually the fusion of two or even more trees. It was a common occurrence, and “the wood of two trunks may appear as one, and the barks at the point of fusion may be completely obliterated with age” (a view that has since been refuted by DNA analysis of several trunk sections). That concluded things. The yew had been explained in detail, condensed both historically and physiologically.
If Allen Meredith hadn’t intervened, the situation may have ended there, with all the seasoned yews being swept away like religious flowers placed at a church’s inception.
Mystica trees
It is difficult to think of a man who is not more like the dignified and learned Cornishman. Meredith possessed an air similar to that of a Celtic hedge preacher. At the age of fifteen, he dropped out of school without a diploma, joined the Royal Green Jackets, lived a tough life for a spell, and ran afoul of the police. Then came the series of enigmatic dreams that I started this story with, somewhere in the mid-1970s. He rode over Britain for ten years in pursuit of the yew’s “secret.”

Like Cornish, Meredith developed an infatuation with it and conducted his fieldwork with great care. He measured nearly every surviving ancient tree, explored historical records more thoroughly than anyone else, and experienced more enlightening dreams. And he started to believe that the general consensus regarding their ages was vastly inaccurate. He made a list of about 500 yews that he thought were older than a millennium. He contended that the thirty-one-foot-girth yew at Ankerwycke, near Windsor, was the tree beneath which the Magna Carta was sealed; that a thirty-five-foot yew in Crowhurst, Surrey, was over 2,000 years old; and that a much better-preserved tree in Discoed, Wales, was potentially over 5,000 years old.