The Rowan is steeped in folklore and was seen very much as a tree of protection.

It has had a wide range of popular folk names, the most well-known being mountain ash. Its old Gaelic name from the ancient Ogham script was Luis from which the place name Ardlui on Loch Lomond may have been derived. The more common Scots Gaelic name is caorunn (pronounced choroon, the ‘ch’ as in loch). This name crops up in many Highland place names such as Beinn Chaorunn in Inverness-shire and Loch a’chaorun in Easter Ross. Rowan was also the clan badge of the Malcolms and McLachlans.

Greek mythology tells of how Hebe, the goddess of youth, dispensed rejuvenating ambrosia to the gods from her magical chalice. When, through carelessness, she lost this cup to demons, the gods sent an eagle to recover the cup. A fight ensued and the eagle shed feathers and drops of blood. These fell to earth where each of them turned into a rowan tree. Hence the rowan derived the shape of its leaves from the eagle’s feathers and the appearance of its berries from the droplets of blood.

The rowan is also prominent in Norse mythology as the tree from which the first woman was made, (the first man being made from the ash tree). Legend has it that it saved the life of the god Thor by bending over a fast flowing river in the Underworld in which he was being swept away. Thor managed to grab the tree and get back to the shore.

In Scandinavia, rowans growing out of some inaccessible cleft in a rock, or crevices in tree possessed an even more powerful magic. Such trees were known as ‘flying rowan’. Rowan was furthermore the prescribed wood on which runes were inscribed for divination.

In the British Isles the rowan has a long and still popular history in folklore as a tree which protects against witchcraft and enchantment.

The physical characteristics of the tree may have contributed to its protective reputation. Each berry has a tiny five pointed star or pentagram opposite its stalk. The pentagram is an ancient protective symbol.

People also believed the colour red was the best protection against magic. Thus the rowan’s vibrant display of berries in autumn may have further contributed to its protective abilities. An old rhyme hints alludes to this: “Rowan tree and red thread / make the witches tine (meaning ‘to lose’) their speed”. The rowan was denoted as a tree of the Goddess or a Faerie tree by virtue of its white flowers. The same was true of the hawthorn and elder.

These themes of protection crop up again and again. People carried pieces of the tree to ward off witchcraft. They even used of rowan sprigs to protect cows and their produce from enchantment.

The tree itself was said to afford protection to the dwelling by which it grew, and residents would make sure not to damage them.  To this day rowan trees can be seen growing beside rural dwellings in the Scottish Highlands and Ireland.

On the Isle of Man people wore crosses made from rowan twigs, without the use of a knife. They fastened them to cattle, or hung inside over the lintel on May Eve each year. From Scotland to Cornwall similar equal-armed rowan crosses bound with red thread were sewn into the lining of coats or carried in pockets.

There were strong taboos in the Highlands against the use of any parts of the tree save the berries. However there were exceptions. A threshing tool made of rowan and called a buaitean was used on grain meant for rituals and celebrations. The strength of these taboos did not apply in other parts of Britain it seems. Even so, there were sometimes more widespread rules to be observed in harvesting rowan. One example is the taboo against using knives to cut the wood.

The rowan’s wood is strong and resilient. It makes excellent walking sticks and is well-suited for carving. It was often used for tool handles, spindles and spinning wheels. Druids used the bark and berries to dye the garments worn during lunar ceremonies black. The bark was also used in the tanning process, and people used rowan twigs for divining, particularly for metals.

The berries can be made into or added to a variety of alcoholic drinks. Different Celtic peoples each seem to have had their favourites. As well as the popular wine still made in the Highlands, the Scots made a strong spirit from the berries. The Welsh brewed an ale and the Irish used them to flavour mead. Today rowan berry jelly is still made in Scotland and is traditionally eaten with game.

 

Paul Kendall

 

References

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.