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The Fortingall ‘Polaris missile’ protecting Europe’s oldest tree

79-year-old Fran Gillespie cares for the 2,000-year-old Fortingall Yew, which overlooks her Perthshire garden.

Fortingall Yew's guardian, Fran Gillespie, 79. Image: Kenny Smith/DC Thomson
Fortingall Yew's guardian, Fran Gillespie, 79. Image: Kenny Smith/DC Thomson

Tucked away on an unassuming road near Aberfeldy, lurks the ancient and mystical Fortingall Yew – and its devoted guardian.

Small but mighty Fran Gillespie cares for Perthshire’s most magnificent tree with a passion which rivals any security guard.

With a home right beside the 2,000-year-old yew – its branches lean over into her garden – she can keep easily an eye on any visitors who may be getting up to mischief.

Her favourite thing about being a caretaker for the ancient tree?

“It’s meeting so many people who are passionate about the yew,” she says.

“There were some people the other day playing music to the tree. People come and sing to it, it’s quite sweet.

“So we get these nice little concerts.”

Fran Gillesepie looks after the huge ancient tree which stands in the manse beside her home in Fortingall. Image: Kenny Smith/DC Thomson.

A former journalist, who freelanced for the Gulf Times in Qatar for 20 years, Fran now devotes much of her time to caring for the yew.

“I see my job partly as sort of public relations for the tree,” she jokes.

“I do most of the day to day keeping an eye, and I check on it regularly.”

The thoroughly modest Fran was however keen to emphasise that she is only one of the many tree wardens across Perthshire.

Sacred Fortingall Yew enclosure closed to visitors – and weddings

As well as highlighting any concerns she has to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Fran serves as the tree’s protector of sorts.

Due to fears that visitors could bring in a fungus-like organism named Phytophthora ramorum, now only the tree wardens may enter the yew’s sacred enclosure.

People often get in touch with Fran asking if they can get married beneath the yew’s branches, but this is not allowed either.

“I don’t like to turn people down,” she says solemnly, “but we’ve just got to make sure the tree is safe.”

Fran is always on hand to remind visitors that they cannot climb over the wall, as many attempt to do, in order to get up close and personal with the 2,000-year-old tree.

She becomes very protective when we ask if our photographer can take a snap inside the tree’s enclosure.

The sprawling Fortingall Yew.
The elusive Fortingall Yew, photograph taken before the gate was locked to visitors. Image: Kim Cessford / DC Thomson.

Although almost 80 years of age, she is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to the celebrated yew.

She points out of her window to the tree, recalling: “A few weeks ago, my husband saw someone climbing on the outside of the enclosure.

“And I went out like a Polaris missile.

“The mere mention of anybody damaging that tree! I said, ‘what are you doing?’

“He was frightfully apologetic about it.”

Witches conduct ceremonies at ancient tree

The yew has also been used for some rather bizarre ceremonies, with some visitors experimenting with witchcraft at the sacred site.

“People want to believe all sorts of things about the tree,” Fran says with a sigh.

The tree itself, she says, is “not a very handsome tree.” However, this doesn’t stop Fran from popping over whenever she can to check on its wellbeing.

An assortment of characters visit the Fortingall yew, many of whom believe that it has magical properties.

“I certainly don’t believe in all the stuff that these tree worships believe in,” she says wryly.

“I have to be careful not to laugh when people tell me things like this.

“I’ll sort of nod seriously and say, ‘well, that’s very interesting indeed’.

“Then I will come back and have a giggle with my husband.”

Fran Gillespie standing in the grounds in front of the Fortingall Yew.
Fran Gillespie in the church grounds which are home to the impressive Fortingall Yew. Image: Kenny Smith/DC Thomson.

Some of these quirky visitors have a habit of depositing gifts of sorts under the branches of the Fortingall Yew, which Fran has to collect.

“People chuck crystals and rocks inside and hang beads on the tree,” she says.

“People must go around with sacks of the stuff! I’ve never caught anyone red-handed chucking any in – yet.”

Yet every so often, mysterious piles of quarts and crystals will show up beneath the tree.

Shaman told off during Fortingall Yew ceremony

Many tree worshippers have appeared at the tree over the years that Fran has spent guarding it.

However, Fran clearly is not a fan of some of these enthusiasts.

“I am not very keen on people holding these Pagan ceremonies here, because I am a church member and [the tree] is standing in a Christian cemetery.

“That’s what I feel anyway. That’s why I ask people not do it.”

One of Fran’s most interesting encounters at the Fortingall Yew was when a shaman showed up.

She recalls: “He was a tall guy with a long beard, long hair and a robe.

“He had his hand on the tree and he was in a trance, and there were about a dozen of his followers around him.

“He stayed in his trance until I started to mention the police, and then he came out of it,” she laughs.