The Sacred Sycamore

by Siusaidh NicNeill

Platanus

Look through your list of Holy Trees, the Tree Alphabet or the Oracle - I bet you won't find a Sycamore there. I always considered them to be weeds. They'd grow on the Moon given half the chance and have taken extremely well to cold acid soils of the North Highlands of Scotland. What kind of tree is this?

It's a fine tree, a tall tree, a handsome Middle Eastern type tree - the 'Omar Sharif' of trees. Enough. The Sycamore was introduced into this country over six hundred years ago. Theories vary, as usual. It is possible that the Romans brought it over. But why? Didn't they realise there were trees here already? My preferred theory is that it was deliberately introduced by a group of people who travelled all the way from Scotland, England and Wales through Europe to Palestine and back. The Crusaders. And the reason they brought back the seeds of the Sycamore, rather than the Olive or the Palm was that the Sycamore was considered sacred. It was this beautiful, slow-growing tree which acted as the boundary marker between Upper and Lower Egypt. It was beneath the broad spreading branches of this tree that Mary and Jesus stopped for a breather on the flight into Egypt. Now the Cedars of Lebanon may well have been Solomon's wood of choice for the Temple, but I am willing to put money on the fine figuring of this pale honey hardwood making an appearance somewhere in the original building.

Today, any worker in wood would be proud to get a piece of storm blown Sycamore to work. It may be common (especially here in the Western Islands) and it may be adaptable (especially here...) but it is a slow to mature tree, even though it is able to reproduce fruitfully (ah those helicopters of our childhood) so it is quite rare to access. Woodworkers love it for many things but it is particularly popular for making musical instruments, at one end of the spectrum, and butcher's blocks, at the other. It is a singularly good wood for coppicing and it is reckoned that an average seven acre croft planted with mixed broadleaf high in Sycamore will not only be self-replenishing but will offer stock shelter and enough fuel for one family - for ever.

During the great storms of the winter of 1998 a huge Sycamore in Corstophine, near Edinburgh, was split in two by lightning. It was in the middle of a park owned by the Forrester family and was said to be of great height and very old. It made the papers. This family are said to be connected, through the Knights Templar to the Sinclair family at Roslyn where there are many, many Sycamores (also of great height and very old) but exactly five miles due south of Roslyn Chapel there is a low hill. Crowning this hill there is a grove of thirteen trees. The thirteenth tree is set off-centre and has been struck by lightning. All these trees are Sycamore. In the centre of the grove is the ruin of a 14th century chapel and it was here on Mount Lothian that William Wallace was knighted. That these Sycamores were planted, there is no doubt, the usual life span is about 250 to 300 years and it is my belief that this may be the second or even third planting. A little archaeology might not go amiss here. It is the planting of the Sacred Sycamore - so often thought of as an incoming weed - that flags this place up as special in the landscape.

Those people who love trees, all trees, believe that if a tree is introduced and can reproduce, then claim it as native and love it. After all the Caledonian Pine to which we all bough and scrape can only reproduce with extensive help from the very species who destroyed their very extensive forests. But for the Sycamore there would hardly be a tree to be seen on the wet, windswept western islands. The great lush dome of the Sycamore that has stood to the side of the school-house in this village, since the day it was built over 150 years ago, is a reminder of what a majestic tree it is.