The Antiquities of Fortingall
by Ed Murphy
The village of Fortingall lies in Highland Perthshire in Glen Lyon. This small place stands in the sequestered mountain vale on the lower part of the Lyon River, about 10 miles west of Aberfeldy. Fortingall is the historic center of one of Scotland’s largest civil parishes. Its Gaelic name is Fartairchill, which may be translated as something like: “Escarpment Church”, i.e., “church at the foot of an escarpment or steep slope.” Many archaeological remains have been discovered in the vicinity of the village, testifying to its antiquity.
Yet little Fortingall is famous for two things primarily. The first one along the trail of time is a tired-looking old yew tree which grows behind its protective railings next to the church and which rests its weary limbs on the stone walls there. Its branches overhang the burial place of the Stewarts of Garth. Having an estimated age of between 2,000 and 3,000 years, the “Fortingall Yew” is believed to be one of the oldest living organisms in Europe! It first took root at around the time when David was King of Israel and would already have been a mature tree at the time of the traditional founding of Rome.
Aside from this, the yew remained witness to daily life in the hamlet over the centuries. It is said that in medieval times, many a Stewart clansman went out of his way to cut a branch from it before setting off on some warlike endeavor. There was no better wood for bow-making. And even then, the tree was gnarled with age. By 1725, no more bows were being cut from it because bows were obsolete. But the local tradesmen, the shoemaker, and the blacksmith, knew that there they could get the choicest wood to fashion the handle for a tool or a dirk. And each year, when the month of May began, the village boys followed the ancient pagan custom of lighting the Beltane fire at its roots. Perhaps they did it once too often, for the main trunk split apart. Within forty years the space between them had already widened so much that you could have driven a coach-and-four-through the gap. Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant (1726-1789) recorded its girth in 1769 as still being an astonishing 56 feet.
In time, people were coming from far and near to see it – and cutting off pieces as souvenirs. But it was showing its years all too plainly. By the middle of the last century most of the remaining stem was no more than a shell, thirty-two feet in diameter, with the center wholly decayed. Drastic measures had to be taken to save it. Some of the surviving parts of the trunk were encased in supporting pillars of stone and a high wall was built around the whole tree, to keep the souvenir hunters at bay. So, the ancient yew of Fortingall can be seen to this day, huge, well-guarded and still growing!
The yew was a sacred tree of most of Europe’s pre-Christian religions. It was a symbol of everlasting life as well as valued in bow-making. Indeed, many Christian churches were built on the site of a pagan yew-grove. It is not very surprising that the traditional Scottish music group Battlefield Band paid tribute to one such yew tree in their song, “The Yew Tree” on their 1988 album, “Anthem for the Common Man.”
Going forward down the tunnel of time, we come to the second thing Fortingall is famous for. According to fabricated legend, it was the birthplace of Pontius Pilate, where his father was said to have been posted as a Roman centurion guard at the nearby Roman camp. Other stories say his father was an envoy who was visiting a local king, Metallanus, at his hill fort of Dun Geal. Experts point out several problems with that: the Romans did not establish a presence north of the Tay until around A.D. 80 and the earthworks which for centuries were assumed to be Roman are now understood to be a mediaeval homestead.
Pilate was born well before the Roman conquest and became famous in the biblical account of Jesus’s death thirty years before the Romans first reached this part of Scotland. Although Pilate is the best-attested governor of Judea, few sources about his rule have survived. Nothing is known for certain about his life before he became governor, nor of the circumstances that led to his appointment to the governorship (c. 26 A.D.-36 A.D.). Several other locations, including villages in Spain and Germany, make similar claims as his birthplace.
This gives was to another mystery: how did this legend come about? As writer Jeremy Duncan points out, who linked Pilate and Fortingall in one sentence and with enough conviction to make it stick? Could it simply be an insult dreamed up by a neighboring village and passed down the generations to show what a wicked place Fortingall was? A small postscript to this tale apparently occurred in 1902 when the church was in the process of restoration; workmen digging in the churchyard found a stone slab several feet down with the initials P.P. inscribed on it, and this was taken as proof that Pilate had not only been born in the village but had returned there to die.
Skipping to modern times, apparently knowing the legend, Scottish comedian Billy Connolly is said to have suggested that musician and actor David Bowie play Pontius Pilate “as a Scotsman” in the film, “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988). Bowie did not accept the advice.
Duncan, Jeremy. (1997). Perth and Kinross: The Big Country, John Donald Publishers Ltd. Edinburgh.
Fraser, Duncan. (1978). Highland Perthshire, Standard Press: Montrose, Scotland.
Gordon, Seton. (1973). Highways & Byways in the Central Highlands, Republished EP Ltd.
McKerracher, Archie. (2002). Perthshire in History and Legend, John Donald Publishers Ltd. Edinburgh.
Pennant, Thomas. (1979). A Tour of Scotland in 1769, Third edition. Published by Melven Press: Perth, Scotland.