“When the days were still as deith,
An’ I couldna see the kye,
Though I’d mebbe hear their breith
I’ the mist oot-bye;
When I’d mind the lang grey een
O’ the warlock by the hill,
And sit flegged, like a wean,
Gin a whaup cried shrill;
Though the hert wad dee in me
At a fitstep on the floor,
There was aye the rowan tree
Wi’ its airm across the door.”
– The Silver Bough, Volume 1, F. Marian McNeill
The magic of the rowan tree has enchanted me since childhood. It seems to be a tree which marks the end of summer and beginning of autumn, with its red jewels drooping towards the earth. I’d felt a pull towards this tree long before I knew anything about witchcraft. Perhaps a wee bit of ancestral memory was passed down, as this tree is very important in Scottish folklore.
The rowan, rodden, or mountain ash – ‘the mystic tree whose scarlet berries were the ambrosial food of the Tuatha de Danann’ – may still be seen growing hard by many of our cairns, stone circles and other sites of pagan worship. As a potent charm against witchcraft and evil spells, it was used in many forms about the homestead – in fact, an old Scots word for the cross-beam in the chimney is rantree, a form of rowan tree, o which, as a lucky wood, it was commonly made. Rowan wood was also used for the distaff, the churn-staff, the peg of the cow shackle, the pin of the plough or water-mill… a rowan tree was commonly planted at the door of the homestead to ‘keep the witches away’.
-The Silver Bough, Volume 1. F. Marian McNeill.
In Highland life, a family’s livestock was often their only source of food and money and rowan charms were used to protect animals from bewitchment and mishap.The rowan tree was also shaped in the form of an arch over the byre door to protect cows, and on Quarter days a wand of rowan was placed above the lintels of the house and out-houses and a twig carried in the pocket for protection. A tree was often planted near a gate or front door of the property.
One of the most popular pieces of Scottish folk magic is the rowan tree and red thread. An auld rhyme states:
“Rowan tree and red threid, Gar the witches tyne their speed.”
Two twigs of rowan were shaped like a cross and tied together with red thread and this was carried on one’s person for protection from witches and evil spells, or the evil eye.
This practice has a long history, having been recorded by James VI who wrote about the use of rowan charms in his book Daemonologie 1597. He noted that people protected their cattle against the evil eye by “knitting roun trees or sundriest kind of herbes to the haire and tailes of the goods (animals)”. It is likely this practice dates back much further than 16th century.
In 1709, Thomas Pennant recorded that,
“The farmers carefully preserve their cattle against witchcraft by placing boughs of the mountain ash and honeysuckle in their cows’ houses on the 2nd of May.”
This practice was also seen well into the 19th century in the north-east of Scotland.
Red thread was also used alone by Highland women as a charm tied around the finger or wrist. The colour red was associated with blood and life force and having protective qualities. Women would also wear a string of rowan berries as necklace for protection.
The rowan trees outside my home are heavy with lots of bright red berries and I had a dream that the first fall of snow will come early this winter. Folklore suggests that an abundance of berries on a tree can indicate an early and cold winter is on its way. The elder berries this year were very quickly gobbled up by the birds. The signs are telling me to buy a lot of thick woolly jumpers and cardigans! As much as I dislike the thought of a cold Scottish winter, I do feel it’s needed. Last year’s winter was too mild with little snowfall.
So, besides their mystical and folkloric properties, rowan berries were also used as a traditional medicine in Scotland. Mary Beith states in Healing Threads that,
“A good gargle can be made from the berries by boiling them to a pulp, then they should be squeezed through muslin and strained for use. Whooping cough was relieved with a decoction of apples and rowanberries sweetened with brown sugar. Lightfoot mentions that in Jura, ‘They use the juice of [the rowan] as an acid for punch”. (Rowan contains sorbic acid).
Rowan berries must never be eaten raw, because the acids in them can cause indigestion and lead to kidney damage. But heat treatment such as cooking, heat-drying and to a lesser extent freezing, neutralizes the acids making them benign.
Ingredients: Rowan berries, apples, water, sugar.
“Gather your rowan berries when almost ripe. Remove the stalks and wash and drain the berries. Put them in a preserving-pan with enough cold water to float them well. Let them simmer for about forty minutes or until the water is red and the berries are quite soft. Strain off the juice, being careful not to press the fruit in the least. Measure the juice and return it to the pan. Add sugar in the proportion of a pound to each pint of juice. Boil rapidly for half and hour or until some of it sets quickly on a plate when cold. Skim it well, pour it into small pots and tie down quickly.
If you allow pound for pound of apple juice to rowan juice you will get a delightful jelly. Allow a pound of sugar to each pint of apple juice. Rowan jelly is an excellent accompaniment to grouse, venison and saddle of mutton.”
– The Scots Kitchen, F. Marian McNeill.
The Silver Bough, Volume one – F. Marian McNeill
The Scots Kitchen – F. Marian McNeill
Healing Threads, Traditional medicines of the Highlands and Islands – Mary Beith.
Myth and Magic, Scotland’s Ancient Beliefs & Sacred Places – Joyce Miller
Mystical Scotland – Ann Lindsay Mitchell