Scots pine

Scots pine has a long and rich history in mythology. In The Golden Bough, James Frazer relates various stories involving pine trees from classical mythology, which may or may not have been Scots pines, such as how the ancient Egyptians buried an image of the god Osiris in the hollowed-out centre of a pine tree. He writes that "it is hard to imagine how the conception of a tree as tenanted by a personal being could be more plainly expressed." As a symbol of royalty the pine was associated with the Greek goddess Pitthea, and also with the Dionysus/Bacchus mythology surrounding the vine and wine making, probably as a fertility symbol. Worshippers of Dionysus often carried a pine-cone-tipped wand as a fertility symbol and the image of the pine cone has also been found on ancient amulets as a symbol of fertility. For the Romans the pine was an object of worship during the spring equinox festival of Cybele and Attis. As an evergreen tree the pine would also have symbolised immortality.

The Scots pine groves or 'shaman forests' scattered over the dry grasslands of eastern Siberia were considered sacred by the Buriats, a Mongolian people living around the southern end of Lake Baikal. These groves were to be approached and entered in silence and reverence, respectful of the gods and spirits of the wood.

Closer to home, Druids used to light large bonfires of Scots pine at the winter solstice to celebrate the passing of the seasons and to draw back the sun. Glades of Scots pines were also decorated with lights and shiny objects, the tree covered in stars being a representation of the Divine Light. It is easy to see how these rituals have given rise to the latter day Yule log and Christmas tree customs.

In the old Gaelic alphabet, where each letter is denoted by a tree whose name starts with the letter, the Scots pine is not listed under its Gaelic name of Guibhas but rather under P for Peith, which is the alternative Gaelic for the tree. Guibhas (pronounced goo-ass) crops up in several place names in Scotland both in its native Gaelic, such as Allt na Ghuibhas in Wester Ross and Glac a Ghuibas by Ardgower, 'Pine Stream' and 'Pine Hollow' respectively, and as Anglicised derivations such as Dalguise and Kingussie; Goose Island, Lough Derg, may originally have been Isle of Pines, not geese.

Drawing of Scots pine tree

Scottish folklore surrounding the Scots pine seems to be fairly sparse. This may be due to the sort of uses to which Scots pine was put, mainly as a building material. In the days of wooden boats and ships several of the products of the tree proved useful in shipbuilding. The high resin content of the sap of the pine means that the wood is slow to decay. The tall, straight, flexible trunks proved to be ideal for masts and spars (witness Beinn nan Sparra, Hill of Spars, in Glen Affric), and the wood was also used for the planking, and sealed with pitch made from the resin (which was also used to seal the beer casks!). In fact there used to be a 'superstition' about not felling the pine trees for shipbuilding during the waning of the moon, as the tidal influence of the moon was said to affect the resin content of the wood; and indeed botanists now recognise the complexities of sapflow in plants which are to some extent affected by the gravitational influences of the moon's cycles.

Hugh Fife, in his book Warriors and Guardians - native highland trees, suggests that as much plant folklore stems from the uses and influences of the plant on people's everyday lives, and that as the uses of Scots pine were mainly on a larger, industrial scale, less lore about the pine has evolved or persisted, ie no rituals for annual harvesting, coppicing, medicinal/herbal uses and the like. There are nevertheless some medicinal uses derived from the pine: the resin and needles of the pine have been used, particularly as an inhalant, to treat respiratory problems and as an expectorant, and also have antiseptic and disinfectant qualities. The Bach Flower Remedies recommend pine to treat despondency, despair and self-condemnation.

A persistent theme in the folklore of Scots pine is their use as markers in the landscape. In the Highlands there is a recurrent theme that they were used to mark burial places of warriors, heroes and chieftains. In areas further south where the sight of Scots pine may have been more unusual and their use would have stood out more, they can be seen to mark ancient cairns, trackways and crossroads. In England they were commonly used to mark not only the drove roads themselves, but also the perimeters of meadows on which passing drovers and their herds could spend the night. There is also the possibly more fanciful suggestion that Scots pines were planted in England by Jacobite farmers or sympathisers.

Paul Kendall


Stay connected

Sign up to our newsletter and we will send you a monthly update of news and events at Trees for Life