Throughout the major cultures of Europe people have held the oak tree in high esteem. To the Greeks, Romans, Celts, Slavs and Teutonic tribes the oak was foremost amongst venerated trees. In each case associated with the supreme god in their pantheon, oak being sacred to Zeus, Jupiter, Dagda, Perun and Thor, respectively. Each of these gods also had dominion over rain, thunder and lightning. It is no coincidence that oak trees are more prone to lightning strikes than many other trees. This is because of the tree’s high water content and the fact that they are frequently the tallest living things in the landscape.
The Druids frequently worshipped and practised their rites in oak groves. The word Druid may derive from a Celtic word meaning “knower of the oak tree”. The Gaelic word for oak is darach and remains in place names such as Glac Daraich (oak hollow/small valley) in Glen Affric.
Mistletoe, probably the Druids’ most potent and magical plant, frequently grew on oak trees. Its presence was believed to indicate the hand of God having placed it there in a lightning strike.
Ancient kings presented themselves as the personifications of these gods. They took on the responsibility not only for success in battle but also the fertility of the land, which relied on rainfall. They wore crowns of oak leaves, as a symbol of the god they represented as kings on Earth. Similarly, successful Roman commanders were presented with crowns of oak leaves during their victory parades. Oak leaves have continued as decorative icons of military prowess to the present day. Oak leaves’ connection with rainfall also survived in more recent folklore. There are a variety of similar rhymes about which tree’s leaves appeared first, such as the Irish saying:
If the oak before the ash,
Then we’ll only have a splash.
If the ash before the oak,
Then we’ll surely have a soak!
The spiritual appreciation of oak did not cease with the advent of Christianity. However, early Christian churches supplanted many oak groves. St. Columba was said to have had a fondness and respect for oak trees and to have been reluctant to fell them. Even so, his early chapel on Iona was constructed of oak from the nearby Mull oakwoods. St. Brendan was divinely inspired to use oak boards instead of traditional hides to cover his coracle. Legend says this small vessel may have carried him to the New World some thousand years before Columbus.
Oak was also favoured for its strength and durability. It was a core part of the distinctive Tudor timbered houses, and artists used its even-grained, honey-coloured beauty for carving and turning. The bark was valued by the leather tanning industry as it contains a lot of tannin. During the Industrial Revolution large amounts were sent from northwest Scotland to Glasgow for this purpose. The bark also yields a brown dye, and oak galls gave the strong black dye from which ink was made. A tonic derived from boiling the bark was used to treat harness sores on horses.
Perhaps because of the oak’s size and presence, much of its folklore concerns specific, individual oak trees. Many parishes used to contain what became known as the Gospel Oak. This was a prominent tree at which part of the Gospel was read out during the Beating of the Bounds ceremonies at Rogantide in spring. In Somerset stand the two very ancient oaks of Gog and Magog. These were named after the last male and female giants to roam Britain. The trees are reputed to be the remnants of an oak-lined processional route up to the nearby Glastonbury Tor. The Major Oak in Sherwood Forest is purported to be the tree where Robin Hood and his Merry Men hatched their plots. It is now a popular tourist attraction although this particular tree probably does not predate the 16th century.
In Leicestershire the Topless Oaks in Bradgate Park were said to have been pollarded as a sign of mourning. This was due to the beheading, in 1554, of Lady Jane Grey who had lived nearby. After the battle of Worcester in 1651 King Charles II hid from the Roundheads in a large oak at Boscobel. In 1660 he instigated the 29th of May as Royal Oak Day to celebrate the restoration of the monarchy.
Children would wear oak leaves (or better still, oak apples) as part of a custom which officially lasted until 1859. In fact the tradition continued well into the twentieth century. Once again the symbol of oak leaves had royal connections. And so it won’t be a surprise which plant was the clan badge of the Royal Clan Stewart.
Sources and further reading
- 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.
- www.britannica.com/topic/Druid (Accessed October 2020)