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The ‘dool’ or ‘dule’ trees were used as natural gallows for hanging criminals. They were common features on many estates until the middle of the 18th century. Such trees normally occupied a prominent location near the laird’s residence, where the corpse was left to swing as a deterrent for all to see.
The favoured species used for this purpose was sycamore, because its strong and resilient timber was unlikely to fail at the crucial moment. The word ‘dool’ derives from old Scots and means sorrowful or mournful.
One of Scotland’s few surviving dool trees is the ancient sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) that stands in the shadow of Blairquhan Castle, near Straiton, Ayrshire. The tree is thought to have been planted early in the 16th century during the reign of King James V of Scotland.
The moss-covered trunk has a girth of 5.6 metres (18 feet 4 inches), and is completely hollow, with only a very thin outer shell of sound wood supporting the tree. The once spreading crown was heavily pruned in 1997 in an effort to preserve the fragile shell and prevent the much-weakened trunk from total collapse. Vigorous new growth is now establishing a new, smaller crown.
This unwitting instrument of execution will remain in the land of the living for a while yet.
Where to see the Blairquhan Dool Tree:
Close to Blairquhan House, Blairquhan Estate, off the B741 road about 1.6km (1mile) west of Straiton, South Ayrshire. The house and grounds are open to the public during the last two weeks of July and the first two weeks of August, or by appointment. Admission charges apply.
Image: copyright Archie Miles