Wild cherry and bird cherry grow in the Highlands and elsewhere. As with many native trees, cherry has some fascinating folklore and traditional uses.
Another name for wild cherry is gean, a name which shares its roots with guigne, a French word for cherry. Bird cherry is hag berry or hackberry in Scots dialect and the Gaelic for cherry-tree is craobh-shirist.
Gean is the ancestor of cultivated cherries though the fruits are not as sweet or fleshy. You have to be quick to beat the birds to an abundant crop following a good spring and summer. The cherries are often picked when they are still yellowy-red, before they ripen to a deeper red. Wild cherries can of course also be made into pies, wine or soup.
An infusion made of the stalks of the berries was used medicinally to treat bronchitis and anaemia. People used the bark to make fabric dyes, ranging in colour from cream to tan. The roots on the other hand yield a reddish-purple colour.
Gean and bird cherries were both used to flavour alcoholic drinks such as whisky or gin. Cherry brandy can be made by filling a bottle with wild cherries, adding sugar, topping up with brandy and leaving for a few months. The resin that oozes from the trunk was used by children as chewing gum. It is recorded as a treatment for coughs, and dissolved in wine was once used to treat gall and kidney stones.
Cherry wood is hard and fine-grained so is a popular choice for turning. The large burrs with unusual grains which can appear on the trunk are prized by turners. The quaich is sometimes carved from cherry burrs. A quaich is a traditional two-handled drinking vessel. The name comes from cuach, the Gaelic for cup. It is part of the Celtic tradition of hospitality to share a dram from the one cup and it is also used in wedding ceremonies. Cherry is one of several woods suited to making bagpipes. It is also used for making furniture, and its red-brown wood polishes up well to a deep, shiny brown colour.
In parts of the Highlands there were taboos against the use of the tree but none seemed widespread or to have persisted over the centuries. In a way, this may reflect the nature of these trees: they were not long lived, nor grew anywhere in large quantities. Rather, they appeared singly or in small groups, sometimes on the edge of woods.
Folklore from north east Scotland warned against using the bird cherry wood for any purpose, as it was a witches’ tree. It was also thought to be unlucky to bring gean branches indoors. In contrast a Highland tradition has it that a bird cherry walking stick will prevent the user from getting lost in the mist. And in Wester Ross bird cherry was thought to dispel evil. This made it the wood of choice for the lunnaid which is the pin of a cow fetter.
Further afield an old English carol tells of how Joseph and the pregnant Mary were walking in a cherry orchard. Mary asked Joseph to pick her some cherries but he replied that she should get whomever ‘brought thee with child’ to pick the cherries for her. The unborn Christ then communicated with the cherry trees and they lowered their branches so that Mary could pick her own cherries. On seeing this Joseph was suitably repentant.
In former Czechoslovakia it was customary to cut cherry branches on the Feast of St Barbara (4 December). They were then taken into the warmth of the house to have blossom at Christmas. However, the tree flowers naturally at or around Easter, especially if Easter is late. In England some of the abundant blossoms were used to decorate churches at Easter.
Wild cherry folklore has unusual associations with the cuckoo. One belief was that the bird has to eat three good meals of cherries before it may stop singing. A children’s oracular rhyme from Buckinghamshire says:
“Cuckoo, cherry tree,
Good bird tell me,
How many years before I die…“
…with the answer being the next number of cuckoo calls the singer heard.
Cherry trees are briefly conspicuous in spring, through the vibrant displays of blossom, followed by drifts of petals on the hillsides. This gave them a somewhat mysterious quality in Highland folklore. To encounter one was considered auspicious and fateful.
- Darwin, T. (1996) The Scots Herbal: the plant lore of Scotland. Mercat Press.
- Fife H. (1994) Warriors and Guardians: native highland trees. Argyll Publishing.
- Frazer, J. (1993) The Golden Bough: a study in magic and religion. Wordsworth.
- Mabey, R. (1996) Flora Britannica. Sinclair-Stevenson: London.
- Milliken, W & Bridgewater, S (2004) Flora Celtica: plants and people in Scotland. Birlinn: Edinburgh.
- Paterson, J.M. (1996) Tree Wisdom. Thorsons: London.
- Vickery, R. (1995) A Dictionary of Plant Lore. Oxford University Press: Oxford.