On a day out recently I visited a very old and very hollow tree, and it got me thinking.
Hollow Tree House
Hollow Tree House is one of my favourite stand-alone stories by Enid Blyton. In it two children – Susan and Peter – live with their aunt and uncle. Aunt Margaret is a vicious woman who makes the children work hard around the house but never has a kind word for them. She is snappish and downright nasty to them, in fact, liable to punish them harshly for the smallest of mistakes. Although Uncle Charlie is kinder to them he is lazy and forever out of work, and slopes off to get away from his wife whenever possible.
Things come to a head when Uncle Charlie leaves his wife and moves away to take a job. Aunt Margaret then refuses to keep the children and they are to be put in a children’s home.
For a time they had been using the little time off they had to explore the nearby wood with their friend Angela, and had found a large hollow tree in which they made a play-house so they make their plans and run away to live there for good.
The Hollow Tree of the book
I feel like I’ve written about this book, and specifically the tree more than I actually have. I’ve compared the book to the Secret Island but didn’t describe the tree in detail, I did describe it briefly in a post on Blyton’s homeliest secret homes, but what I’ve never said is how unrealistic I always thought it was.
In front of them was one of the biggest trees they had ever seen!
“It’s an oak-tree,” said Peter. “An enormous old oak-tree – hundreds of years old, I should think. Look at its great trunk – twenty people could stand inside it, easily!”
It certainly was a strange old tree. Its trunk was enormous and the tree itself rose tall and sturdy. But some of its branches were dead. The tree was so old it was dying bit by bit.
Really, twenty people inside a tree? I’ll put this one down to Peter exaggerating in his excitement.
I mean, I love it – that cosy little house inside the hollow tree with all its home comforts:
They found a little woody shelf sticking out from one side of the tree-trunk, and they decided to make it their mantlepiece.
Angela had brought a little wooden candlestick and they put the candle into it, and then balanced it carefully on the rough little “shelf”.
But I struggled to picture a tree truly big enough to be a whole room – big enough for three children – when hollowed out. I’ve seen large trees right enough, they just never seemed large enough – until recently.
It also doesn’t help that the internal illustrations have a tree that just doesn’t look big enough. It’s hard to show a tree large enough close, up, though. I had that problem when trying to take photos of the Birnam Oak – it’s so big that you have to go quite far back to see it properly! I imagine Elizabeth Wall (the original illustrator) couldn’t show the children in detail and get an enormous tree in at the right scale at the same time.
As you can see below the tree is not wide enough across for the children to lie down – but drawn much bigger and it would have taken up the whole page.
As shown above the second edition dustjacket does a better job of conveying the side of the tree, making it squatter but wider while the Armada version goes for a tree that although old is very narrow at the bottom.
Hollow Tree – a reality
The hollow tree I found (not by accident, it’s well signposted, and even has a Tripadvisor page!) is in Birnam, which is part of Dunkeld and Birnam, Perthshire.
It is called The Birnam Oak and along with a nearby sycamore – the aptly named Birman Sycamore – is thought to be the last tree still standing from an old forest which appeared in Macbeth – yes, Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Although the tree wouldn’t have been around in Macbeth’s time it is thought to have been there when Shakespeare supposedly visited Perthshire in 1589. If you do your maths that makes it at least 432 years old now. Given its size, however – a whopping seven metres (24 feet) around the trunk – it’s more likely that it is around 600 years old, meaning it was already a mature tree in Shakespeare’s day.
The hollow portion of the tree is accessed through a large opening in the lower part of the trunk, rather than having to drop in from the top – but inside there is around 3 metres (10ft) of clearance which really makes it feel like a room you could camp in. I expect a couple of fully-grown adults could lie out on the floor fairly comfortably.
He climbed higher still. When he next looked down he gave a cry of surprise. He could see right down into the hollow trunk of the great tree! It had rotted away through many long years, and now the old tree was really nothing but a dying shell, still putting out leaves on its many great boughs – but fewer and fewer each year.
Just like the fictional Hollow Tree House despite missing a significant portion of its trunk the Birnam Oak is still alive – as you can see from the photos it was in leaf when we visited it. It does, however, have its lower branches propped up with wooden stilts to protect them from breaking under their own weight.
Below is the photo with Brodie inside the tree – he’s about 3.5 feet (105cm) tall for scale!
How to find this hollow tree
The Birnam Oak is very easy to find as there are signposts through the wood leading you straight to it – some have humorous messages like It’s not me – I’m a sycamore which is placed in front of what you would think was a very large and old tree until you see the real thing.
The easiest place to start – the one with the shortest distance to walk – would be from out front of the Birnam Arts which houses their Beatrix Potter museum (and a nice café). The Beatrix Potter garden there is worth a look, too, it has statues of several of the characters from her books. There’s plenty of parking available at the art centre, too.
Directly across the road is Oak Road, a narrow road running between the Birnam Hotel and the Birnam Village Shop. Following this down the side of the hotel the path curves to the right and past a playpark before you enter the woods. From there its just a matter of following the signs!
Or if you’re looking for a longer walk there’s this Walk Highlands route which starts in Dunkeld and takes you through Birnam before coming back along the banks of the Tay to Dunkeld again.
Whatever route you take the tree is well worth a visit. You could even bring a torch and sit inside (I know a candle would be more authentic but there’s already been a fire inside the tree and it’s not worth the risk of another one!) for a while and pretend to be Peter, Susan or Angela.