The Ancient Tree Column – Birnam Oak & Sycamore

by | Jun 11, 2015 | Features

This month, the Ancient Tree Forum introduces us to the Birnam Oak and Sycamore

Perthshire in Scotland calls itself ‘Big Tree Country’ and one of the highlights of the Ancient Tree Forum’s 2014 summer event in the county was a trip to these two enormous trees that grow near the banks of the River Tay on the outskirts of Birnam village.

Birnam Wood was made famous by Shakespeare in Macbeth, set in the 11th centur y. While it’s unlikely that the Birnam Oak (middle and below right) was around that oak’s exact age is not known but as its gir th is around seven metres, it’s likely to be at least 600 years old so was almost certainly mature when Shakespeare is said to have visited Perthshire in 1589.


The oak’s lower branches rest on wooden supports and its trunk is hollow. At some time in the past there has clearly been a fire inside the trunk but the tree appears to be thriving.

A short distance from the oak is the even larger Birnam Sycamore (above right) which is thought to be about 300 years old. This gnarled and knobbly tree was probably pollarded in the past and has very impressive but tress roots. With their dead and decaying wood, hollows and cavities, both trees support wood-decay invertebrates, fungi, lichens and other specialists that rely on this type of habitat.

During their visit to Birnam, Ancient Tree Forum members discussed the threats the two trees face from high visitor levels, such as further potential fire damage inside the hollow oak, compaction of the soil and damage to the roots. But these trees have been around a long time, and hopefully will continue to be a focal point for visitors to Big Tree Country for many years to come.


The Ancient Tree Forum’s summer forum 2015 will be held in East Anglia on 18 and 19 June. The event will
bring together experts and enthusiasts interested in the ecology and management of ancient and veteran trees, feature field visits to wood pastures, orchards and other sites and presentations by expert speakers. For more information see