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Could there be new life for Beauly’s fallen 800-year-old wych elm tree?

Rosie MacDonald of the Beauly Community Council  with the remains of the 800-year-old tree. Image Sandy McCook/DC Thomson
Rosie MacDonald of the Beauly Community Council with the remains of the 800-year-old tree. Image Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

Having been part of Beauly’s history for 800 years, it is hoped there will be an afterlife for the village’s oldest resident.

Local people are mourning the loss of the landmark wych elm tree, believed to be the oldest in Europe, which has fallen in the grounds of Beauly Priory.

Despite succumbing to Dutch Elm Disease in recent years, its final fall still came as a shock.

Tree may live on

Generations of local people grew up marvelling at the beauty of the tree as their ancestors had done since the 13th century.

The same tree that Mary Queen of Scots would have seen when she stayed at the priory in 1564.

She is said to have given the village its name when she declared ‘un beau lieu’ (what a beautiful place).

But while the tree will now be removed, parts of it will live on.

Branches cut last year were given to the local men’s’ shed for re-use and other sections could be turned into artwork.

At the same time, it is hoped saplings of the original tree found in the priory grounds could grow new trees near the spot where the wych elm once stood.

The tree has been enjoyed by generations of people in Beauly. Image Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

A collection of poems, essays and photographs featuring the elm will be published next month and it is hoped a plaque will be erected to mark its place in Beauly history.

In the meantime, Historic Environment Scotland (HES), which manages the site, has erected safety fencing ahead of the tree’s removal.

A spokeswoman said: “We’re currently looking at how we can potentially repurpose some of the timber from this special tree which has been a focal point in Beauly for hundreds of years.

“Following the scheduled essential branch limbing process late last year, we donated the resulting timber to the Beauly Men’s Shed for re-use and we will again explore donating some of the wood from the elm to local community groups or artists where this is possible.

She added: “Two saplings which could potentially be offspring of the Beauly elm were discovered on site in the last year and are being looked into further.”

Tree may pre-date 1230 priory

The Beauly elm is thought to pre-date the establishment of the priory in 1230 and is referred to in the early deed documents.

It is the last remaining tree from an avenue of elm in Beauly, shown on a Lovat Estate map from 1798-1800.

The Wych Elm is on the ancient tree inventory by the Woodland Trust and is listed with Monumental Trees and the Ancient Tree Forum.

As well as its importance to local people, its history and Gothic look attracts thousands of tourists.

In 2021, HES’s digital documentation team carried out a laser scan, the first time the agency had scanned a tree.

This created a detailed 3D model which can be viewed digitally for years to come.

A 3D model has been created of the tree. Image Historic Environment Scotland

Rosie MacDonald, 80, a member of Beauly Community Council, grew up admiring the tree.

She recently tried to stop workers removing branches which were seen as a safety hazard.

“It’s such a shame what’s happened. The tree has been a feature of the village for so long.

“Everyone here knows about it and visitors come here especially to see it.

“It would be nice if they put something there to remember it in future.”

Celebration of the tree’s significance

The significance of the elm was marked last year in a celebration organised by artist Isabel McLeish and local group Circus Artspace.

Isabel said when she began research into the tree local people approached her with their memories and stories.

“I realised then there was scope for a bigger arts project to celebrate this amazing tree.”

The resulting free publication, created as part of the Year of Stories 2022, will be available from Beauly Library next month.

She welcomes moves to give new life to the tree: “The intention is that it will be given to members of the community so that, rather than it being burned or whatever, people can make things out of the wood.

A celebration of the tree was held in Beauly last year.

“The branches that were removed were given to the men’s shed so the tree will live on in different forms and be celebrated in that way.

“There are also saplings that probably came from the original. So there is scope for positive things to come out of this, but it’s still sad it’s come down.”

Kirsten Body from Circus Artspace is hoping to re-use parts of the tree.

“I was quite shocked when I heard about the elm. We are keen to express an interest in using part of it in our artwork.”

Fallen elm is ‘wake-up call’

Among the work to feature in the new archive is an essay by Dr Max Coleman, from the Royal Botanic Garden. He said the Beauly elm’s demise is a climate change wake-up call.

He said Dutch elm disease is spread by bark beetles which need temperatures above 22°C for effective dispersal.

“It may be the case that parts of northern and western Scotland are beyond the climatic limit of the beetle, although the obvious worry is that a warming climate may shift this balance.”

Also part of the collection is a poem by Mandy Haggith, giving a voice to the tree on the state of the world.

Artist Isabel McLeish at the Beauly elm tree.

Part of it reads: “Please, you bring your gifts
into the world and everyone on earth
knows that’s what you do.
Paintings, sculptures, knitted wool,
boats, those filigrees of silver, all your arts are fine,
and for that we forgive you everything,
and we all know there’s plenty needs forgiving.
The CO2 – I’ve done my best to, as you might say,
‘suck it up’, but steady on. That’s all I’ll say
because I’m here to praise, to thank the earth
for giving me this life, these lives, our lives.
I’ll not go on much longer.
I just want to let you know I feel for you
fumbling your ways into the future.
Yes, I feel for you and feeling
is where we’re just the same.
Touch my sun-warmed wood
with your skin and I touch you.

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