Wildlife & Nature

The Birnam Oak

Birnam Oak (11)Macbeth shall never vanquished be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him.

               ‘Macbeth’, Act IV Scene I

Most of us know the story of Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’.   Set in the 11th century, it’s a dark and compelling tragedy in which a power-crazy Scottish general has a stormy encounter with three witches and then commits one murder after another in a fanatical quest for the Scottish throne.

Towards the end, immured in his fortress at Dunsinane, Macbeth takes comfort in the idea that he’s invincible.  Why did he listen to the witches in the first place?   They talked a load of rubbish about trees getting up and walking around on their own.   If that was a sign of his impending death, it was never going to happen.

No one would have wanted the job of telling Macbeth that his worst nightmare was about to come true, but someone had to do it:

Birnam Oak (10)Messenger:

“As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
I look’d toward Birnam, and anon, methought,
The wood began to move.”


“If thou speak’st false,
Upon the next tree shalt thou hang alive,
Till famine cling thee:  if thy speech be sooth,
I care not if thou dost for me as much.
I pull in resolution, and begin
To doubt th’ equivocation of the fiend
That lies like truth:  ‘Fear not, till Birnam wood
Do come to Dunsinane’:  and now a wood
Comes toward Dunsinane.  Arm, arm, and out!”

Act V, Scene V

Macbeth is panicked into action, and from then onwards things start to go very badly pear-shaped.  As for the trees of Great Birnam Wood which are apparently marching against him, these are in fact the soldiers led by his rival, Malcolm, who have cut down some branches and are carrying them as camouflage.   For me, it works better if I imagine it on an epic scale, like something out of ‘Lord of the Rings’.

Birnam Oak (12)A few years ago I was surprised to learn that a relic of Birnam’s Great Wood was still standing, a solitary veteran of a forest that was once the pride of Scotland’s kings.

Now, one thing should be explained first of all:  the Birnam Oak, ancient though it is, does not date from the 11th century.   It could, however, have been a mature tree by the late 1500s, which is when Shakespeare is rumoured to have visited Scotland at the request of James VI.   Did Shakespeare walk in Birnam Wood, and find inspiration for a new play?

Birnam Oak, Dunkeld 2I was expecting the Birnam Oak to be a fragile, crippled relic, but this is not the case at all, although its longer branches are supported by crutches.   Presenting the picture of health, it stands 90 feet high and has a girth of more than 24 feet, with a hollow at the bottom that is comfortably big enough for one person to sit inside.

The Birnam Oak is a sessile oak, Quercus petraea, distinguished from the pedunculate oak by its acorns which are not borne on stalks but grow directly on the twigs.

A few sycamore seedlings have cheekily taken root on its lower branches, but it’s big enough not to care.  On a sunny morning in early May, when the leaves were just coming out, the upper branches were alive with woodland birds looking for nest sites and feeding on insects.

Birnam Oak sycamore seedlingsBirnam Oak (5)

Lichens on the bark
Lichens on the bark

It’s staggering when you try to imagine the great historical events that this tree has lived through.  The birth of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1542;   the Reformation;  the Civil War in the mid-1600s;   all three Jacobite uprisings, and the hopes of Bonnie Prince Charlie, dashed forever at Culloden in 1746;   the Union of the Crowns;  the Highland Clearances;  the building of roads, and the advent of steam power and railways.   How many generations of people have passed under its branches?   If it has absorbed any memories, how good it would be to be able to tune into them!

Birnam oak - trunkJo in Birnam Oak, Dunkeld (Colin) 3


Standing next to the Birnam Oak, but at a respectful distance, is another veteran:  the Birnam Sycamore.

Birnam SycamoreThe girth of this retainer is slightly bigger, at 25 feet, and you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s even older – but you’d be wrong.  Sycamores grow and mature more quickly than oaks, and this one is 300 years old – a fantastic age, yet it’s still a stripling when compared to its near neighbour.

Birnam Sycamore, Dunkeld 18Dunkeld May 2015 192Birnam Sycamore, Dunkeld 15Wood sorrel, DunkeldWood anemones, DunkeldThe woodland floor was carpeted with wood sorrel and wood anemones

Visiting the Birnam Oak

The Birnam Oak and Sycamore stand on the south bank of the River Tay in Birnam, just below Dunkeld in Perthshire.  Look out for the brown signpost which points to the path down Oak Road, next to the Milton Birnam Hotel.

Birnam Sycamore (left) and Birnam Oak
Birnam Sycamore (left) and Birnam Oak


Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf 


While you’re in Dunkeld, be sure to visit the beautiful old cathedralDunkeld Cathedral

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