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The Sycamore

The Newbattle Abbey Sycamore
Rabbie Burns' Sycamore
Blairquhan Dool Tree
Tolpuddle Martyrs Tree
The Bicycle Tree


The Newbattle Abbey Sycamore

The Newbattle Abbey Sycamore

Thought to have been planted about 1550, this sycamore in the grounds of Newbattle Abbey near Dalkeith is thought to be the oldest in Scotland and possibly in the UK. Having at one time (in 1904) reached a height of 98 feet and a trunk girth of 16 feet, it is now shrinking with age and its current height is about 80 feet.

The sycamore is believed to have been brought from France during the Reformation (mid-16th. century). Many of the finest examples are in the grounds of Scottish country houses where the climate ideally suits it.

Rabbie Burns' Sycamore

Standing next to Alloway Auld Kirk, built 1516, the tree has taken the name of Rabbie Burns (1759 - 1796) because he was born a stone's throw away.

He was inspired by the eerie location and in 'Tam O' Shanter' wrote:

"When glimmering through the groaning trees
Kirk Alloway seem'd in a bleeze
Though ilka bare the beams were glancing
And loud resounding mirth and dancing."

Some time in the past the church wall was carefully bridged across the ever-expanding roots of the tree to accommodate them. It is unlikely to be a fact, but tempting to imagine, that the tree itself was planted in Burns' youth. In reality it is probably younger than the kirk and probably dates from the 18th century. Blairquhan Dool Tree

Blairquhan Dool Tree

A 'Dool' or 'Dule' tree was a hanging or gallows tree. They were common in the mid-18th. century on country estates, usually in a prominent position where the Laird could leave the body hanging in full view as a deterrent to others. This is one of the few surviving examples and it stands in the shadow of Blairquhan castle. The tree is thought to date from about 1550.

The favoured species used for this purpose was sycamore, because its strong and resilient timber was unlikely to fail at the crucial moment. The word ‘dool’ derives from old Scots and means sorrowful or mournful. Dule Trees, were also known as the 'Grief Tree', the 'Gallows Tree', the 'Justice Tree' or simply 'The Tree'.

Dule trees were also used by Highland Chieftains, who would hang their enemies or any deserter, murderer, etc. from the Dool Tree. Highland clan chiefs also therefore had the power of 'life or death' over their clansmen in times gone by. The high ground on which these trees grew often became known as 'Gallows Hill'.

Tolpuddle Martyrs' Tree

Tolpuddle Martyrs' Tree

Nine miles east of Dorchester lies the village of Tolpuddle. Between 1770 and 1830, enclosures had changed the English rural landscape forever. Landowners annexed vast acreages of land, forcing the Peasants off their lands and into poverty. They no longer had plots to grow vegetables nor common land for grazing their animals.

Low wages, appalling conditions and unemployment, bad winters and poor harvests in 1829 and 1830 fuelled a great explosion of anger, resulting in riots led by the mythical "Captain Swing" in November 1830. Throughout England 600 rioters were imprisoned; 500 sentenced to transportation; and 19 executed.

In 1830 the wage of an agricultural labourer was nine shillings. In the following years the wage was reduced to eight shillings, and then to seven. In 1834, the workers were faced with the fact of their wages being reduced to six shillings a week and they lived in dreadful poverty. They started up a Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers (F.S.A.L.). Over the winter this consolidated and they agreed not to accept any work for les than ten shillings a day. With their leader, George Loveless, they tried to form a trade union to give them the necessary bargaining power. Apart from George Loveless, the other men were James Brine, James Hammett, James Loveless (George's brother), George's brother in-law, Thomas Standfield and his son, John Standfield. In March, 1834 the six Tolpuddle martyrs were sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia for trying to form the trade union. The authorities were determined to crush the trade union movement and so the six were sentenced under the trumped-up charge of: "administering an unlawful oath, using a law applicable to the Navy, not workers rights".

The martyrs' tree is the tree on the village green where the six had met earlier in the year to try to form their trade union. In 1934 the tree was given to the National Trust by Sir Ernest Debenham. The tree is now very old and needs periodic tree surgery to promote its growth. 1984 was the 150th. anniversary of the martyrs' struggle and Len Murray, then General Secretary of the TUC, planted another sycamore in Tolpuddle, grown from a seed of the original tree. The Bicycle Tree

The Bicycle Tree

This century-old sycamore in Brig O' Turk, near Loch Lomond. stands in an old smithy's yard and has almost swallowed up what was once an anchor, and a bicycle which used to belong to a local boy who failed to return from the first world war. Handlebars stick out of the trunk that has swallowed the rest of the bike. As it grew, the expanding trunk engulfed the blacksmith scrapheap around it.

Even though there are no plans to fell it, villagers are calling for a preservation order to protect the tree. John Barrington, the author of a guide to the area, describes it as "one of Scotland greatest arboricultural curiosities".


Acknowledgements and further reading:

The Heritage Trees of Britain and Northern IrelandJon Stokes and Donald RodgerConstable
The Oxford Companion to English LiteratureSir Paul HarveyOUP
The Observer's Book of TreesFrederick Warne & Co. Ltd.
Tree Yoga - A WorkbookSatya Singh & Fred HagenederEarthdancer

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© Ken James 2008