A new chapter in the 800 year relationship between the people of the Highland village of Beauly and a remarkable wych elm began on Monday 29 April 2024 with the planting of two young elms. In January 2023 Beauly’s ancient and much-loved elm fell. It ceased to be the ever present ‘guardian of the gateway’ to Beauly Priory – founded about 1230 by French monks of the Valliscaulian order. Plans to plant a replacement had already been hatched in autumn 2022 as Dutch elm disease had recently killed the tree and it was already a stark skeleton.

Beauly Priory Elm 2
The vast, gnarled stem of the Beauly Priory Elm photographed during the community event in October 2022 to celebrate its life.

At an event organised by local artist Isabel McLeish the community came together to celebrate the life of the Beauly Priory Elm in October 2022. It was hoped it would stand for many years as a monument and act as dead wood habitat. It was also hoped that a new elm could be planted to continue the story of a wych elm at Beauly Priory. Sadly, on 5 January 2023 the old elm toppled over and lay in pieces among the grave stones.

At the community celebration I mentioned that the Botanics had already been searching the Scottish Borders for survivors of Dutch elm disease, aided by crowd-sourced records of big elms and the help of the Borders Forest Trust. The plan was to propagate these promising trees as part of an elm recovery project, although at that point it was an aspiration rather than a funded project. I, nevertheless, suggested that the Garden could potentially provide an elm that might stand a better chance against disease as it would be propagated from long-term survivors. Having made the offer, it was accepted by the owners of the priory – Historic Environment Scotland.

Community reps with Beauly elm offspring
Representatives with the new Beauly Priory Elm. Left to right: Jamie MacPherson (HES); Seona Fraser (Beauly Community Council); James Stewart (Beauly Men’s Shed); Rosie MacDonald (Beauly Community Council); Stephen Watt (HES). Credit: Copyright Gary Murison.

As it has turned out the ancient elm now has two successors as a seedling elm was dug up in the priory grounds that could be a descendent of the original tree. It was nurtured in a pot for a few years in readiness for the day when it could be returned to the exact spot where the old tree grew.

Emma planting the Beauly elm offspring
Emma Beckinsale (RBGE) planting the elm dug up in the priory grounds and grown on in a pot. This tree is on the exact spot where the original grew. Credit: Copyright Gary Murison.

So, on an overcast but dry day, a gathering of community representatives, elm enthusiasts and officials of the various organisations involved planted two elms. This pair of trees are a symbol of hope for the recovery of elm at the priory and around Scotland more generally.

Beauly elm seedling being planted
Max Coleman (RBGE) planting the elm provided by the Botanics that was bred from a mother tree in East Lothian pollinated with pollen from a tree near Peebles in the Scottish Borders. Credit: Copyright Gary Murison.

The tree provided by the Botanics is the product of selective breeding between surviving, large wych elms, mainly in the Scottish Borders. It was planted on the left of the path leading to the entrance of the priory and is on the line of a historic avenue of trees that is long gone. The original Beauly Priory Elm was thought to be the last survivor of that avenue.

Beauly elm planting party
The group who participated in the planting. Left to right: Stephen Watt; Jamie MacPherson; Emma Beckinsale; Seona Fraser ; Euan Bowditch (UHI); James Stewart; Rosie MacDonald; David O’Brien; Jeanette Hall; Phil Baarda and Max Coleman. Credit: Copyright Gary Murison.

The Garden’s work to produce a new generation of elms that could be resilient to Dutch elm disease is now funded by the Nature Restoration Fund and planting in six sites across Scotland began in spring 2024. A further two rounds of planting will aim to increase the numbers at each site to approximately 200 individuals. Each site has been selected for its suitability for elm and the potential for natural spread. Most of the selected sites are in remote and wild places, so the single tree at Beauly will be a more accessible reminder of a recovery taking place in Scotland’s hills and glens.

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This project is supported by the Scottish Government’s Nature Restoration Fund, managed by NatureScot.
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