HISTORY OF TWEEDSMUIR PARISH, UPPER TWEED VALLEY, PEEBLESSHIRE, SCOTLAND

 

 Frasers of Neidpath and the  Yew Trees of Neidpath

 

Photograph taken of avenue of yew trees in 2002 by the Editor.

The Neidpath Castle visitor's brochure  (2002) mentions the following - "The north side of the existing drive has a fine avenue of yew trees planted in 1654.   The variety known as Taxus Baccata Neidpathensis is virtually unique to Neidpath.   Differing from the common yew only in its steeply ascending branches and short rather dense leafage.   It is probable that the trees were  acquired from a continental nursery."

However there had been Taxus Baccata Neidpathensis at Neidpath long before 1654.  The Innerleithen Alpine Club in 1897(1)   mentions the following - "Approaching Neidpath Castle, Professor Veitch stated.... some yew trees within the the castle grounds were pointed to as a distinct variety of Taxus Baccata, not known to occur anywhere else, and known to botanists as T. baccata Neidpathensis.  It had also been affirmed that bows made from Neidpath yews were used in the last crusade.   This was what is known as the seventh of the series undertaken by St. Louis of France, but finished by Prince Edward - afterwards Edward I - about 1271"

The Royal Horticultural Society(2)  made the following comments regarding the Neidpath Yew.   "T.b.Nidpathensis, resembles cheshuntensis in the leaf, branch and colour of the foliage, but is of stiffer growth, being columner rather than pyramidal in habit, with a disposition to spread at the top."

Was it the characteristic of "stiffer growth" that made the Neidpath Yew superior to other yews for making both short and longbows but also for crossbows that required a shorter/stiffer stave?

 

Neidpath was just west of the old town of Peebles.  The area in the grounds covered by trees was probably extensive and clothed both sides of the Neidpath gorge.  How many of these trees were yew is unknown.   The image above - Edgar's map of 1741 - does not indicate where the entrance to the site was and there is no sign of a drive.   It would appear that the original road to the castle entered the property at the White Yett (Gate) on the A72 that was adjacent to the boundary of Hay Lodge.  

The date of 1271 mentioned above was after the lands of Neidpath - known as Jedderfield at the time - were acquired by Gilbert Fraser c1190 (5).   Gilbert was of the Frasers of Oliver family and was Sheriff of Peebles and Traquair.  This title was hereditary and passed to his son Simon of Oliver and the Neidpath lands were subsequently absorbed into the Barony of Oliver.  

Gilbert built a "castle" on the Neidpath site(3) (5).  There is little information about this castle. It was in use by Gilbert and his family and other Frasers over several decades as the main Fraser residence in the barony of Oliver.  However, nothing remains of this castle

A new castle was built on the site in the fourteenth century by the Hays(4) who had inherited the lands on the death of Simon Fraser The Patriot.   This is the castle that can be seen today. 

 

Neidpath Castle from bank of the River Tweed.  Traces of the original terraces of the hanging gardens can be seen below the castle at the top of slope.

 

neidpath castle 01.jpg

 

 

 

 

Above - Neidpath Castle flying the Scottish Saltire and close up of Goat's Head Crest of the Hays  on the keystone of gateway. 

Right - Avenue of Yew trees at Neidpath

 

 

 

 

The image of the goat's head armorial on the keystone of the Neidpath gateway actually includes a bunch of strawberries hanging below the crest.   The formal heraldic description of the armorial is  - "a goat's head erased, over a coronet; and depending on the drop beneath, a bunch of strawberries, symbolic of the name of Fraser."(6)

The area shown in centre of image above is a magical spot for Frasers as the keystone on the gateway shows strawberries with the adjacent yew trees nearby - both plants with strong association with the Frasers.   The Court of the Lord Lyon seems to prefer the yew as a plant badge to cover all Frasers (9).   Clan Fraser would appear to have opted for the Strawberry (7)(8).    This is reasonable considering  the cinquefoils of Fraser heraldry See page Frasers of Oliver for examples.    The cinquefoils must be an early example of a plant badge.  As Clan Fraser  has opted for the Strawberry plant as their plant badge does this leave Lovat Fraser with the yew?  Not any old yew but Taxus Baccata Neidpathensis!  Having just said that I now find that Wikepedia has the plant badges the other way round!

Neidath Castle subsequently came into the possession of the Douglas family (Duke of Queensberry) in 1696 then to the Earls of Wemyss and March in 1810 where it remains to this day.

William Wallace was heavily involved in the battles at Stirling Bridge and Falkirk and he had his base in the Ettrick Forrest which was much larger then than it is now - stretching north into the Lothians.   One of the allies of Wallace was Sir Simon Fraser of Oliver.  It can be seen that Wallace had access to the Neidpath yews that would provide the best quality staves for himself and his archers.

In 1297 while Guardian of Scotland Wallace sent a letter to the merchants of Lubeck indicating that Scotland was open for business.   This letter had his seal attached and the reverse of the seal would appear to show a drawn short bow.   Why would Wallace have such a device on his seal unless it was of extreme importance to him.   It could show that Wallace himself was a skilled archer or it could indicate the importance of the short bow in the succesful guerrilla tactics employed against the English or indicates the importance of  the yew?

 

In the middle ages there was a huge demand for yew wood for longbows, shortbows and also crossbows that outstripped the supply not only across Scotland but also England/Wales/Ireland and Europe.   The yew trees at Neidpath undoubtedly disappeared at this time.

The yew had been used for millennia for bows - see page Early Peoples page for c4000 BC yew longbow found in the Tweedsmuir Hills in 1991.   The bow found with Otzi the Iceman, 3359 - 3105 BC, was also made of yew as was the handle of his copper axe.

References.

1)   Principal Excursion of the Innerleithen Alpine Club during the years 1889-1894.  Scottish Borders Record, Galashiels, 1897.

2)   Proceedings of the Royal Horticultural Society.  Notes on the varieties of Common Yew.   Vol 1, 1859-61.

3)  Buchan, J.W. History of Peeblesshire, Jackson Wylie, Glasgow, 1925. Vol II p291. 

4) The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, Inventory for Peeblesshire, HMSO, Edinburgh, 1967. Vol 2 pp243-261.

5)  Gunn, Dr, Neidpath Castle, Peebles, 1931. p3.

6)  Chambers, William; History of Peeblesshire, W&R Chambers, Edinburgh, 1846. p318.

7)  Fraser, Marjory, Flora; Clan Fraser A History, Scottish Cultural Press, Dalkeith, 2009. p68

8)  Way, George of Plean & Romilly Squire; Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia, St. Kilda, Glasgow, 2017. 3rd. Edition, p197.

9)  Adams, Frank, revised by Sir Thomas Innes of Learney; The Clans, Septs and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands, Johnston and Bacon Books, Ellon, 8th edition, 2004. p541.

 

Make a Comment.   

Top

or Section  Frasers of Oliver.