Yew / Iogh

yew2The last letter in the Gaelic tree alphabet is yew, standing for I – iogh in old Gaelic and iubhar in modern Gaelic. The Gaelic for yew, Iubhar, comes from an old word iùi, meaning arrow. It was traditionally used for making bows. The Latin for yew is Taxus baccata. It has huge significance as a sacred tree in graveyards, and it can achieve great age, thousands of years, so many churchyard yews probably pre-date Christian use of the site.


And the message of the yew tree is blackness – blackness and silence.

Sylvia Plath

shade and a conversation of crows and blackbirds

funeral clothes and the hush of a sleeping baby

mouldering bones      slow exhalation of atomised souls

shadows of time      long generations past in murmurs

furrowing bark      shudder of an arrow

dusk and the passing of badgers

frozen nights creaking with ice

dark winter days to hold onto life

deep green and quiet

so many trees      so many messages

Mandy Haggith

Snippets of lore

Iona’s name comes from the old Gaelic Iogh.

Yew is an evolutionary link between conifers and deciduous trees. It has needles but no cones.

Yew foliage is poisonous to people and livestock. The fruit flesh is harmless but the seeds are very toxic.

Yew fruits are eaten and spread by blackbirds, thrushes and badgers.

A yew tree can live for thousands of years. The Fortingall Yew is the oldest tree in Britain.

Yew has male flowers (yellow cones) and female flowers (green buds) on separate trees.

Male yew flowers produce lots of pollen in February or March on warm days – a golden shimmer.

Yew seed takes up to 3 years to germinate.

Yew’s branches can take root so it can grow sideways.

Yew wood is dense, resilient, resistant to rot and beautiful.

The Clacton Spear, the oldest human wooden artifact, was made of yew 450,000 years ago.

The ice-man carried a bow and axe handle made of yew wood.

Yew wood was used for longbows, because it is strong and flexible. It gets stronger over time.

Robert the Bruce ordered each man worth a cow to own a bow + 24 arrows.

Yew bows are still carried by the Royal Company of Archers, but the last time the yew longbow was the no.1 weapon was Flodden, 1513.

Yew is used for making bagpipes, chanters and clarsachs. Yew is the best wood for weaving shuttles.

Yew juice was added to arrow tips as poison.

Yew pollen was used to create theatrical explosions.

Yew is excellent for topiary.

Yews have an ancient pre-Christian association with grave yards. Many churches are built on older sacred sites.

Liz Lochhead, Churchyard Song: ‘From the rafters of the mourning yews/church rooks broadcast their no-good-news.’

Druids and John Knox liked to preach under yews.

Yew is a Christian symbol of resurrection – branches are hung in churches at easter and it is burnt for ash on Ash Wednesday.

Yew trees are a symbol of immortality and resilience.

Yew guards the door between this world and the next.

In graveyards yew roots grow down into bodies to release the soul to the air.

Yew was called ‘King’s Wheel’ because it is a symbol of the cycle of life and death.

A sprig of yew in a shroud will protect the soul on its journey through the underworld.

Yew’s lesson is transcendence of death. Yew rods were used for ogham inscriptions – yews and writing transcend time.

A yew wand will give you the power of immortality.

‘The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree/ Are of equal duration’ TS Eliot.

Morton plotted Darnley’s murder under the Whittinghame Yew.

A birlinn – the clan chief’s boat – always had yew on board for luck.

Yew sticks were cast to divine the future.

Macbeth’s witches use ‘slips of yew sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse.’ (sliver’d = struck by lightning)

Hamlet’s father is poisoned by ‘the double fatal yew’.

Yew unites ill-fated lovers in death. Tristan and Isolde were buried at Tintagel castle & 2 yew trees grew from their bodies and entwined.

Yew rods can cause magical transformations, turning people into dogs, pigs or swans.

It is taboo to use yew wood as fuel, unless for baking sacred cakes.

Hold yew in your left hand to insult someone without them reaslising.

The Treaty of the Union (between Scotland and England) was negotiated under the Auld Yew at Loudoun Castle.

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