12 Nov 2010

The lonely legacy of Birnam Wood

Be lion-mettled, proud; and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are:
Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.

(Macbeth, Act 4 Scene 1)
In 1589, a company of English strolling players were permitted to put on a play in Perth. Although no names were recorded, tradition holds that William Shakespeare was among the actors and that his visit to Birnam Wood inspired him to write his famous tragedy.

Today a gentle trail leads from Birnam village centre down to the banks of the River Tay, where the ancient forest’s last surviving oak still lives.

In the play, it was from Birnam Wood that Malcolm III’s army cut branches to conceal their attack on Dunsinane Hill. In reality their target would have been more than 15 miles away, but once we are near to the river with the cool autumn air surrounding us, theatrics win out over geographical facts.

First we have to find the tree. Luckily some kindly volunteers have erected helpful signs to keep over-excited visitors from posing beside the wrong friendly giant. “It’s not me, I’m a sycamore,” says one. A little way down the path another notes: “Not me either…keep going."

Finally it is there, so apparent in its gnarled frozen dance, like a disco-loving octogenarian whose arthritis medication has worn off. Crutches have been placed to hold up the weak lower branches, giving the tree an appearance of weary grace. Bright green moss carpets most of the branches and wide sections of the trunk, while mushrooms sprout from between the crusted lines of bark.
A nearby information board provides details of the tree’s girth (7 metres) and facts about the tree as a habitat for wildlife (“A mature oak is home to around 300 different insects and provides food and shelter for more living creatures than any other European tree”).

The hollowed core of the trunk creates a musty cave large enough to crouch in during a storm. When the rain has passed the drops from the branches create a slow, irregular percussion on the forest floor.

Macbeth is set in the 11th century but it is unlikely the tree is quite that old. But it is still wondrous to imagine what the woodland would have looked like when it was a Royal Forest belonging to Duncan, Earl of Fife, who received it as a wedding gift in 1160.

It is even more wondrous to think that Duncan was a descendant of Macduff, who in the play had been “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped,” thus upending the witches’ prophecy that “none of woman born” could defeat Macbeth.

The Birnam Oak is one of those sights which draws out gratitude and sadness in equal measure. Gratitude that it is still here, a capsule of natural, social and theatrical history. Sadness at its frail and solitary state.

Between the grandiose tourist attractions that can be hurridely ticked off a to-do list, a visit to Scotland is enhanced when it is peppered with stops at places like Birnam. And if you are so inclinded, imagine taking with you your copy of Macbeth, and reading aloud in the shadow of these twisted brances.

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