Scots pine, and pine generally, has a long and rich history in mythology. The ancient Egyptians buried an image of the god Osiris in the hollowed-out centre of a pine tree. As a symbol of royalty the pine was associated with the Greek goddess Pitthea.
Pine was also a fertility symbol and was linked to the Dionysus/Bacchus mythology surrounding the vine and wine making. Worshippers of Dionysus carried a phallic pine-cone-tipped wand. Pine cone images appear on a number of ancient fertility amulets. 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 also symbolised immortality. The Scots pine groves or ‘shaman forests’ scattered over the grasslands of eastern Siberia were sacred to the Buriats. These are a Mongolian people living around the southern end of Lake Baikal. These groves were entered with 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. This was 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 was 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.
The Scottish Gaelic for pine is giuthas (pronounced GYOO-uss). This word crops up in several Scottish place names. Among them are Allt na Ghuithas in Wester Ross and Glac a Ghuitas by Ardgower. These translate as ‘Pine Stream’ and ‘Pine Hollow’ respectively. There are also Anglicised derivations such as Dalguise and Kingussie.
In the days of wooden boats and ships several pine products proved useful in shipbuilding.
The high resin content of the sap means that the wood is slow to decay. The tall, straight, flexible trunks are 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!). There used to be a superstition about not felling pine trees for ship building when the moon was waning. People believed the tidal influence of the moon affected the resin content of the wood. It is interesting that botanists now recognise that the moon’s gravity does indeed affect sap flow in plants to some extent.
Pine has a range of healing properties. The resin and needles can treat some respiratory problems. For example pine needle pillows can help relieve catarrh. The needles are high in vitamin C making pine tea useful in winter when this vitamin can be less available. They also have antiseptic and disinfectant qualities. The Bach Flower Remedies recommend pine to treat despondency, despair and self-condemnation.
Some Highlanders used split pine roots as tapers to light their homes. Pine candles were also part of wedding rituals in Scottish fishing communities. The belief was that they brought prosperity and luck to the newly-weds. On Orkney people would circle a pine candle three times around a mother and her newborn child to purify them.
Near Aberfolye there is a Scots pine known as the Fairy Tree. Legend has it that the Reverend Robert Kirk was abducted by fairies in 1692. His spirit is said to remain in this ancient tree.
A persistent theme in the folklore of Scots pine is their use as markers in the landscape. In the Highlands they marked the burial places of warriors, heroes and chieftains. Further south, Scots pine were more unusual and would have stood out more. Because of this people used them to mark ancient trackways and crossroads. In England they often marked drove roads and the perimeters of meadows on which drovers and their herds could spend the night. There is also the more fanciful suggestion that Jacobite sympathisers planted Scots pines in England.
Scots Pine is the badge of several clans. Wearing tartan was outlawed after the unsuccessful Jacobite Rebellion in 1745. The Clan MacGregor wore the Scots pine as their plant badge in a gesture of defiance.
Scots pine was a symbol of durability, as in the Gaelic proverb:
Cruaidh mar am fraoch, buan mar an giuthas
Hard as the heather, lasting as the pine.
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- https://www.nature.scot/about-naturescot/access-information-and-services/gaelic/dictionary-gaelic-nature-words (Accessed April 2021)
- https://permacultureprinciples.com/post/moonlight-affect-plant-growth/ (Accessed April 2021)
- https://www.scotclans.com/scots-pine-announced-as-scotlands-national-tree/ (Accessed April 2021)