“Oh! Rowan Tree, thou’lt aye be dear to me”
Hallowe’en, or All Saints’ Eve, is considered the time of year that the physical and supernatural realms are at their closest, and magical (or spooky) occurrences are possible. It is also a time of celebration; the end of summer and the thanksgiving of the harvest. This is represented in the customs of carving pumpkins (or more traditionally turnips and swedes) and the bobbing of apples. Inspired by the rowan tree in the National Records of Scotland’s Archivists’ Garden, we ponder if this plant is a more suitable emblem of this time of year.
The rowan tree (Latin – Sorbus aucuparia) has inspired superstition and folklore in northern Europe for centuries, and the appearance of its distinctive red berries indicates the coming of autumn.
The distinctive bright red rowan berries with their five pointed star base. Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland.
The rowan is also commonly known as Mountain Ash, although it does not belong to the ash family. The origin of this name may derive from its abilities to grow thousands of metres above sea level in hostile environments. In Scotland it is also known as Quicken, Rone Berry, Wizard’s Tree and Roddin amongst others. In Gaelic it has several interesting other names; caorunn (wood enchantress/wood ash), craobh chaoran (berry-tree), luis (drink) and uinseag (ash).
Lady Nairne (1766-1845) wrote a Scottish folk song dedicated to the rowan tree she fondly remembered from her youth. In ‘Rowan Tree’, Nairne portrays the tree as a symbol of the changing seasons, its white blossom appears briefly for a few weeks each year:
How fair wert thou in simmer time,
Wi’ a’ thy clusters white,
How rich and gay thy autumn dress,
Wi’ berries red and bright.
On thy fair stem were mony names,
Which now nae mair I see;
But thy’re engraven on my heart,
Forgot they ne’er can be.
Oh! rowan tree.
This verse also describes how the names of those that have died are engraved in the bark of the tree. The Scottish custom of making protective charms from the twigs and berries of the tree are also mentioned in the same song:
They pu’d thy bonnie berries red,
And necklaces they strang;
Lady Nairne’s childhood home, similar to many other residencies in Scotland, had a rowan in the garden to ward off malevolent spirits and bad luck. It is often found planted near stone circles and sacred places, again attesting to its magical powers. The protective and life giving properties of the colour red which is thought to shield the living from the dead, and the five pointed star or pentagram at the bottom of each berry are symbolic of protection. These beliefs led to people wearing charms or necklaces made of rowan for protection.
The magical powers associated with the plant don’t end there. Wood from rowan trees is used by water diviners as rods to locate underground water sources and the berries were often used across Europe as remedies for the common cold or ‘flu.
Marginalia from Issobell Watsone’s ‘Ane wiche confessione’. National Records of Scotland, CH2/722/2 page 25.
During the Scottish witchcraft trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such herbal remedies and charms were associated with necromancy – the supposed practice of communicating with the dead.
The criminal trials of two accused witches, Issobell Watsonne [link is to the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft] in 1590 (National Records of Scotland, JC26/13 Bundle A) and Elizabeth Maxwell [link is to the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft] in 1650 (National Records of Scotland, CH2/722/2) both mention rowan as evidence of their occult affinities. Issobell confessed to curing a man of ‘the worm’ with a piece of a dead person’s finger and rowan tree. Elizabeth stated that she ‘took a rowan over her head’ to cure a sickness. Elizabeth was also ‘witnessed’ riding a cat and leading two others in her hands, which undoubtedly reinforced the charges against her.
From ‘Ane wiche confessione’ – this passage details Issobell’s cure using ‘Raun trie’ (rowan tree) and ‘bane Junt’ (bone joint). National Records of Scotland, CH2/722/2 pages 22 and 23.
A transcription of the original kirk session record is given below, along with a modern English version:
Siclyk confessis that vpone James kynaird[is] wyff pray-
ing for god[is] saik in hir husband[is] name scho gaif him
ix pickill[is] of qwhyt ane peice Raun trie w[i]t[h] ane bane or
Junt for the tuche zaik q[uhi]lk scho receavit fra S[i]r Jo[h]ne Row
Minister of Perthe. This saying of hir[is] being refutit for
that the quheit was fresche, The peice Raun trie grein and the
Junt having sennon[is] at it lyk lint string[is]. Then scho allegit
th[a]t sho got the same[n] in the court fra hir mother sister to keip
hir fra all straik[is] of the fair folk (quha wsit to straik
hir sair) in the chainge of the mone. In the ?own[?]t
scho confessis scho gat the p[ro?]miss[is] fra the qwein of faier[is]
Likewise confesses that when James Kynaird’s wife prayed
for God’s sake in her husband’s name she gave him
9 grains of wheat, a piece of rowan tree with a bane/band or
lump (Junt) for the tuche zaik which she received from Sir Johne Row
minister of Perth. This saying of her’s being refuted because
the wheat was fresh, the piece of rowan tree green and the
lump having fibres/tendons [sennonis] on it like lint strings. Then she alleged
that she got the same in the court from her aunt/mother in law? [mother sister] to keep
her from all blows/injuries of the fairy folk (who used to strike her
sorely) in the change of the moon. In the ?own[?]t
she confesses she got the p[ro?]miss[is] from the queen of the fairies’
Perhaps this Hallowe’en you’ll disregard the pumpkin and chose to protect yourself against those poor souls caught between this world and the next and seek to banish evil from your home by tying a sprig of rowan above your door…
George Black, Scottish Charms and Amulets, 1892
Tess Darwin, The Scots Herbal: The Plant Lore of Scotland, 2008
The University of Edinburgh’s Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database