In Britain, yew trees are closely associated with churchyards. It’s sometimes said that this was ordained because yew wood was ideal for longbows, so that English kings wanted to preserve the trees by planting them in a protected environment. This is a nice story, but it’s plainly wrong, as very many yews far older than the Middle Ages can be found growing around churches, in addition to which they are to be found growing by wells and on ancient sites such as hill forts. Their significance stretches back much further than the Hundred Years War and is by no means linked to the Christian church.
An example of such a tree grows within the boundary of the church of Hope Bagot near Ludlow in Shropshire. I visited recently, drawn by the holy well and by the report of an ancient tree. The Hope Bagot yew is monumental: it is about eight metres or twenty five feet in circumference, very obviously of great age- at least 1000 years- and its canopy extends over a huge area, shading far more than the small bubbling well beneath its roots. It’s a remarkable sight and easily attests to the awe and majesty of these trees.
Yews are not regularly associated with faeries, unlike rowans and elders, but there are a number of accounts that demonstrate that these significant trees very properly do have supernatural associations. They have magical properties that make them significant to the faes.
Firstly, I have recounted elsewhere the story of the ‘meremaid‘ that lived in a pool at Marden in Herefordshire. Through some accident now forgotten, the church bell rolled into the pool and was captured by the maid. Horses tried to drag it out, but failed, and the villagers were advised by a ‘wise man’ that the job could only be accomplished using a team of sterile cows (called freemartins) equipped with yokes made of yew and fitted with bands of rowan (some accounts also say that the drivers had whips whose handles were made from rowan). The recovery had to be performed in silence. Everything was going well, with the bell being hauled steadily out of the mud, the meremaid fast asleep inside, when one of the men cried out in excitement. The maid awoke and plunged back into the pool dragging the bell with her. She angrily cried out that she’d have drowned the team as well, had not the magical woods prevented her: “If it had not been/ For your wittern (rowan) bands/ And your yew tree pin/ I should have had your twelve freemartins in.”
The second instance of a faery association with yew comes from Mathafarn, in Powys in mid-Wales. Wirt Sikes (British Goblins, 73) describes an abduction in a faery ring that occurred there in the Ffridd yr Ywen (the Yew Forest). Two farm labourers, Twm and Iago (Tom and Jack) were working in the wood one summer’s day when a mist descended. They thought evening had come and set off homewards, when they came across the yew that gave the wood its name, right at the heart of the forest. This was at a spot called the ‘Dancing Place of the Goblin,’ and the clearing was filled with a strange light. The pair decided it was not as late as they’d thought and decided to take a nap there. When Twm woke up, Iago had disappeared- abducted in a dance of the tylwyth teg under the yew tree. The rest of the story concerns Iago’s rescue, although this proves ultimately tragic: once he is pulled back into the world of men a whole year later, he eats food and crumbles away.
The last story takes us to Scotland. J G Campbell (Superstitions of the Highlands & Islands of Scotland, 1900, 173) describes the glaistig of Morvern. She haunted a lonely area of mountain, known as the Garbh-shlios, the rough country side, which extends along the coast from the Sound of Mull to Kingairloch, a distance of about seven miles. This glaistig herded the sheep and cattle that roamed over the wild pastures. She was said to be a small, but very strong, woman and she would take refuge at night in a particular yew tree (craobh iuthair), for protection from the wild animals that prowled over the ground. The glaistig once competed with a local man rowing a coracle across to the island of Lismore. He had thought himself to be a good rower, and he felt ashamed when he was bested by a woman- but he confessed that he never rowed so hard in all his life. When the boat
reached the other shore, the mysterious little woman vanished and he realised he had tested his strength against the glaistig.
Yews appear in a lot of Irish legend too and are linked with the Tuatha De Danann. For example, there is Fer Hi (yew man) son of Fogabal (yew tree fork) who was the king of the sidhe of Cnoc Aine. Fer Hi played a harp in a yew tree and used his music to sow dissent between two mortals in order to take revenge upon one of them. The magical yew in which Fer Hi sat is described by the stories as “beautiful but venomous.”
What can be said in conclusion about yews in British faerylore? It’s evidently a wood with magical properties, one that can repel faes in the same way as rowan but which can also provide them with shelter. This is a contradictory nature, puzzling, but typically faery too. The trees’ magical power also protects and even sanctifies wells and other ancient sites.