The Church in Wales is using the Cherishing Churchyards Week, (June 7 – 15), to raise awareness of the yew tree, a familiar site in churchyards. The yew tree is a native tree that was held sacred by the Druids in pre-Christian times. They no doubt observed the tree’s qualities of longevity and regeneration (drooping branches of old yew trees can root and form new trunks where they touch the ground), and the yew came to symbolise death and resurrection in Celtic culture.
As Christianity spread yews were planted in churchyards, probably to placate those whose religion had been superseded by the new religion.
In other cases, it seems that very old yew trees may have already been growing on a site before the earliest church building was erected there; some, such as the one beside St Digain’s Church in Llangernyw, North Wales, even predate Christianity by several thousand years. Several other yews growing by churches have become famous in their own right, such as the Bleeding Yews of Nevern in Pembrokeshire.
Those of a superstitious nature should be aware that anyone found chopping a yew tree down suffered an ancient curse – or even eternal damnation. In Irish mythology, the yew is one of the five sacred trees brought from the otherworld at the division of the land into five parts. Known as the Tree of Ross, it was said to be the “offspring of the tree that is in Paradise”. In the Brehon Laws, it is named as one of the Seven Chieftain Trees.
In Scotland the yew was one of the nine sacred trees for kindling Beltane fires, a fire festival that celebrates the coming of summer and the fertility of the coming year, and the old Scottish rhyme about the need-fire calls it ‘the tree of resilience’. An old curse stated:
Well of the Yew Tree, Well of the Yew Tree,
To thee should honour be given;
In Hell a bed is ready for him
Who cuts the tree about thine ears.
Pity that the Church in Wales does not always practice what it preaches – as the yew trees in the grounds of St Andrews Church, Kings Road, Colwyn Bay (100 yards from the Bryn Holcombe) were cut down some two years ago. This was followed soon after by the closure of the church, despite having recently celebrated its centenary and having a growing congregation. Could it be the curse of the yew trees?