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Guardian of the Gateway:
800 years of the Beauly Wych Elm

During 2022, Circus Artspace worked in collaboration with visual and socially engaged artist Isabel McLeish on a project to celebrate the ancient Wych Elm tree at Beauly Priory. 


About the tree

The Wych Elm tree at Beauly Priory was around 800 years old and believed to be the oldest Wych Elm in Europe. Historic Environment Scotland described the tree as “living archaeology” and an estate map from 1798 - 1800 shows an avenue of Elm trees in Beauly with this particular tree being the last one remaining from this avenue. The stature of elms has made them imposing landmarks and boundary markers. The Wych Elm of Beauly Priory has marked the entrance to the grounds since1230 and is referred to in the original title deeds. Sadly, the tree died of Dutch Elm Disease and had its last buds in 2021. After an intensive period of freezing and thawing, the ancient and hollowed tree fell on Thursday 5th January 2023. 

About the project

Guardian of the Gateway aimed to celebrate and showcase the heritage and cultural value of the Beauly Wych Elm tree, by bringing together the local community with artists, writers and partnership organisations to discover, celebrate and share their own stories, memories, archive material and research about the Wych Elm. We gathered old and new stories, photography and artworks from people through a series of engagement events and share them during our final tree celebration on 24th September and more widely in a free publication. The project aimed to encourage dialogue about the implications of climate change, disease spread and ecological loss in the Highlands as well as celebrate our relationships with an ancient native Scottish tree. We are grateful that this project was able to happen in 2022 before the tree came down, and gave us the opportunity to explore and celebrate the tree and what it meant to local people. The project captured some of the intangible cultural heritage surrounding this ancient tree and provided a wider national focus for the spread of Dutch Elm Disease in the Highlands.


We are delighted to share this 80 page publication which includes specially written texts from Mandy Haggith, Phil Baarda (NatureScot), Max Coleman (RBGE), as well as creative responses from Beauly Primary School and the community.  Access a PDF of the publication below or pick up a hard copy from Beauly Library.

You can also listen to Mandy read Elm tree talk below.

Elm tree talkMandy Haggith
00:00 / 05:23

About the artist

This project emerged from Isabel McLeish's own research and artistic practice centred around trees. She graduated with a BA (Hons) from Grays School of Art in 2019 and returned to the Highlands to do her MA Art & Social Practice at the University of Highlands & Islands (2020-2021). You can find more research about the Beauly Wych Elm as well as Isabel's own artwork inspired by it on her website.

Instagram @isabelmcleishart   |

Guardian of the Gateway_graphic_edited_e


This project was supported by the Year of Stories 2022 Community Stories Fund. This fund was delivered in partnership between VisitScotland and Museums Galleries Scotland with support from National Lottery Heritage Fund thanks to National Lottery players.  #YS2022  

We are very grateful to Historic Environment Scotland for their support accessing Beauly Priory and the Historic Environment Support Fund grant to develop the heritage and legacy around the tree.  #HESsupported

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