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Tree of the Month: The Birnam Sycamore

On the bank of the River Tay, not far from the more infamous Birnam Oak (from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane fame) stands a magnificent sycamore.

The Birnam Sycamore is so big that many a casual visitor has presumed that this must be the great “oak”. Indeed, Scotland boasts so many big sycamore and old trees believed to date from the 17th century, that it is hard to believe this tree isn’t a native. The Scots call this the Plane Tree, and whilst so many great specimens are also found over the water in Ireland, the name “Celtic Maple” would perhaps be more fitting. Its presence near strategic sites and old castles is linked to meeting places, rallying points for Clan Chieftans and, more gruesomely, as hanging or “dool” trees.

One of the finest stood until 2006 at Newbattle Abbey, Dalkeith, Midlothian. This tree was believed to have dated from 1550 and fell following a strong gust of wind. Another old sycamore is at Scone Palace, Perth which is said to have been planted by, that most prolific of tree planters, Mary Queen of Scots. However, there is evidence to suggest that the original tree was blown around 1940 and the tree we see today is a younger pretender. Perhaps some of the oldest are still to be discovered, whilst the largest in Britain and Ireland is in the isolated Posso valley, near Peebles in the Borders. For a species that can be relatively short-lived in southern England, the oldest all appear in more upland areas, in northern England, Scotland and Ireland, with a scattering of big trees in Wales. Whilst in the south it has a rather poor reputation there can be few people who would not stand in awe at the great tree at Birnam. A most magnificent sycamore!