Places of Interest, Fortingall

By James Irvine Robertson

T

his ancient place of settlement lies within one of the most attractive little straths in the Highlands. Sheltered by the mass of Drummond Hill from the blasts off Loch Tay and from the north and west by the hills of Glen Lyon, it holds the full complement of prehistoric stones, cairns, monuments, hill forts, and tumuli. The village and church are the creations of shipping magnate and local MP Sir Donald Currie who bought most of the Vale in 1885 and rebuilt the church and the village to the designs of architect James MacLaren. The kirk holds one of the little bells of the old Celtic church. Another lies in the church at Innerwick, a third at Killin, and a fourth used to be at Struan but now resides in Perth Museum.

Although its age has fluctuated alarmingly, the yew in the churchyard is reputed to be the most ancient piece of vegetation in Europe. In 1800 the local minister aged it at a thousand years. It crept up to two thousand during the nineteenth century and then an eminent botanist declared its age at five thousand years. It is younger now - back down to a couple of thousand years. In fact the tree is undatable since the heart is long gone and no tree rings can be obtained. Its venerability may help to explain the strange legend of Fortingall being the birthplace of Pontius Pilate. Natives of the parish have committed the history and legends of their birth place to print for centuries and many of them were zealous antiquarians who were convinced that the impressive mediaeval fortifications in a field west of the village were a Roman camp. But not until the mid eighteen hundreds does the legend of Pilate appear.

One can almost hear the sermon - in Gaelic of course - in which the minister tried to link the minds of his sleepy congregation to the New Testament. Our wonderful tree was a seedling when the Romans were here in Fortingall and Pontius Pilate - the only Roman they would have heard of - was but a wee laddie. So when the Victorian researcher came round to admire the yew, a simple native told him that Pilate knew it as a wee laddie. And he would have been born at the Roman Camp. The myth still circulates and seems too agreeable to be ever dispelled. A modern writer has gone one further, suggesting that Christ himself was born in Fortingall - and was wearing a kilt at the crucifixion.

Recently crop marks have been observed much closer to the village and, although confirmation is still needed, they show signs of being Roman work. Or of an early monastic settlement. Or just a great big ditch.