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The Fortingall Yew, which would have been some 3000 years old when Pontious Pilate was born
The Fortingall Yew, which would have been some 3000 years old
when Pontious Pilate was born

Pontius Pilate lived from around 20BC until some time after AD36. He was the Prefect of the Roman province of Judaea from AD26 to AD36, and is best remembered as the judge at the trial of Jesus Christ in AD33, and the man who subsequently ordered his crucifixion. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

So what is a page about Pontius Pilate doing in the Biography section of Undiscovered Scotland? There has long been a story that Pontius Pilate was actually born at Fortingall in Perthshire, also known as home to an ancient yew tree that could be as much as 5,000 years old (and, if so, is probably the oldest living thing on Earth). At first sight the story of Pilate's birth here looks unlikely. The Romans arrived in southern Britain in 55BC, but only briefly. They returned to invade what is now England in AD43, and only invaded Scotland for the first time in AD80, reaching the area including Perthshire in about AD83. Against this background, how could a Roman have been born here in, roughly, the decade either side of 20BC, which seems necessary to have allowed him to become Prefect of Judaea in AD26?

The story of Pilate's Scottish origins was set out most fully in an article published in the New York Times on 15 January 1899. It seems that between the Romans' first incursion into Britain and their later invasion, Ceasar Augustus dispatched envoys to establish diplomatic relations with some of the important British and Caledonian chieftains. These included a Caledonian chieftain called Metellanus, whose stronghold was at the head of Glen Lyon. A member of the Roman delegation to Metellanus's tribe fathered a child with a Caledonian woman, and this child subsequently returned to Rome with his father (and, possibly, his mother), and was brought up as Pontius Pilate.

As there appears to be no clear record of the circumstances of Pilate's parentage or birth, this story seems at least as likely as alternatives that would have him born in Tarragona in Spain or Forchheim in Germany. And if he was born in Fortingall, that would make him only the first of very many Scots who throughout history have travelled abroad to achieve high office in the service of other people's empires.

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