Century-old Scottish tree with Sask. 'roots' celebrated this summer

A spruce tree with a Saskatchewan connection was plucked from the battlefield in Belgium in World War One. There's a long story behind how it ended up at the Abercairny gardens near Crieff, Scotland.

A Scottish tree has a deep connection with a homesteading farmer in Saskatchewan

David McCabe's Spruce at the Abercairny gardens in Crieff, Scotland. (Submitted by Daniel Parker)

To say that the McCabe Spruce has a lot of history in its roots would be an understatement.

The spruce tree was plucked from a battlefield in Belgium in the First World War. It was then planted 100 years ago at the Abercairny Gardens near Crieff, Scotland, about 100 kilometres north of Edinburgh.

That tree has a link to Saskatchewan.

It's named the McCabe Spruce because it was one of a few saplings dug out of war-torn soil in 1916 by Lt. David McCabe of 5th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

The saplings were sent by McCabe to his family in Scotland.

A budding fascination

Daniel Parker has family connections to the Abercairny Estate, where the sapling grew into a mighty spruce tree that still stands today. When he saw the plaque not too long ago, he wanted to find out more. 

"Some time ago I became fascinated with an iron plaque at Abercairny," said Parker to CBC Radio One's The Afternoon Edition while sharing McCabe's story.

The plaque reads, "spruce seedling pulled up on hill 60 May 1916 by Lt D. McCabe. 5th Canadians. Sent home to his father Martin McCabe, gardener, Ardvreck, Crieff."

Daniel Parker says he became fascinated with David McCabe's story because of this plaque by the McCabe Spruce at the Abercairny gardens. (Submitted by Daniel Parker)

Parker found out that David McCabe grew up in Crieff, Scotland and apprenticed as a stonemason. He came to Canada before the First World War to homestead.

McCabe farmed near Hazenmore, a village in southwestern Saskatchewan. But when war broke out, McCabe travelled to Winnipeg to enlist.

McCabe was wounded at Ypres in the spring of 1915.  He went home to Scotland to recuperate, but rejoined his regiment in December of the same year.

In 1916, McCabe was at the international trench — a no man's land, near Ypres.  He noticed a small parcel of trees left on the landscape that had otherwise been all but flattened by warfare.

He plucked some of the spruce saplings, and sent them home with a letter to his father, Martin McCabe, who was a gardener.

"It reminds me very much of the appearance of a Canadian forest after it had been ravaged by fire," wrote McCabe to his father about the landscape and the remaining trees left alive.

"Be sure and let me know if the trees reach you safely and whether you think they will grow."

Surviving spruce

In April 1917, McCabe died at Vimy Ridge in France.

His grief stricken father gave one of the saplings to a local agricultural fundraising auction to help raise money for the Red Cross. It was bought for £5 and planted at Abercairny Estates near Crieff in 1917.   

As far as Parker knows, it's the only one of the saplings that has survived.  

He says this summer there was a celebration of McCabe and other soldiers of the area that were killed in the First World War.

"My wife made a wreath out of the cones of this spruce tree, and gave it to the McCabe family, who still live in the area." he said.

McCabe died shortly after the Battle of Vimy Ridge in France in April 1917. (Submitted by Daniel Parker)

"In turn, the McCabe family gave it to 18 cyclists from Edinburgh University who journeyed all the way to France to lay it on David's grave. It was incredibly moving."  

Parker said he didn't know the McCabe family still lived in the area until this summer. Parker didn't know about the letter, and the McCabe family didn't know about the tree.

Parker added the McCabe Spruce was also entered in the Woodland Trust tree of the year competition. Voting runs for the month, and Scotland's winning tree will be announced in December. Unfortunately, voting is only open to residents of the U.K.

With files from CBC Radio's The Afternoon Edition