Oh Rowan Tree

“The rowan tree’s graceful leaves and soft white flowers brush my arm like a whisper.”

Lisa Ann Sandell, Song of the Sparrow

One of the things I loved most about working in big national museums, was when people I
knew came to visit because it meant I could take them on a tour of my favourite objects and point out the little details, the fragments of history, the hidden stories. The kind of information you don’t always get on the display labels but that will suddenly bring an object into context or to life.

Illustration: Degrena from Ossian Warrior Poet, Eileen’s edition of the Poems of Ossian,
available here: https://wideopensea.co.uk/ossian/

Many of the folk stories I share at events mention objects or beliefs that seem alien to us
now. The griddle made of iron, for example, was a fairly precious item used to cook bannocks on the fire. In one particular folktale one is also used to kill a wolf (the last wolf no less). In folk belief Iron was protective against all manner of witches, faeries and bogles, so its use in Scottish folklore has layers of meaning, as do a lot of metal and wooden implements that we wouldn’t necessarily notice the significance of at first.

Travelling around Scotland, sharing stories from the oral tradition I grew up in, I found myself
explaining what a lot of objects in the stories were. So I began taking some along with me as examples as well as illustrations from my book to help explain and if I couldn’t find an object then I commissioned an artist or craftsperson I know to make replicas based on extensive historical research. Adults and school children alike have loved this additional context to the folklore and so, The Travelling Folk Museum was born and responses to it have been incredible.

Reviews from some of the children who’s classes I’ve visited.

Meeting with so many artists and craftspeople who are keeping traditional skills alive has helped to create a collection built around community. Being able to share these traditional skills across Scotland and seeing the stories and objects inspire people, is pure joy. One of the artists whose skills I sought out to make something for the museum was Kay Reid of Hamespun in Aberdeenshire. Kay uses exceptional skill, traditional techniques and materials to make her pieces. The piece she made for the museum is a necklace made from rowan berries, hand picked, dried and then strung on red thread, finished with a little amber bead.

It’s beautiful and goes perfectly with the old Scottish charm from the Borders of Scotland:
Black luggie, lammer [amber] bead, Rowan-tree and red thread, Put the witches to their speed! Rowan tree and red thread. Rowan has huge significance in Scottish history, folklore and folk tradition. In the Ogham calendar and Ogham tree alphabet it is known as Luis and it’s associated with January and February.

Rowan Berry Necklace made by Kay Reid of Hamespun in Aberdeenshire.

Here are just some of things Rowan was used for:

  • Warding Off Witches and Evil Spirits
  • Planting a rowen tree in your garden or by your front door was said to repel witches and bad luck. Cutting one down, on the other hand, would encourage these things.
  • Planting a rowan in a graveyard was sometimes done as a protective measure, to prevent the dead from rising again.
  • Protect your sheep and lambs from the evil eye by making a hoop of Rowan tree wood and have your sheep and lambs jump through it.
  • Charms like rowan berry necklaces, strung with red thread, were believed to protect you from evil, not just witches but evil spirits and faeries who might want to kidnap you or your family too. Such a charm was found on Margaret Barclay, who was brought to trial for witchcraft in Ayrshire, Scotland, in 1618.
  • Tying rowan twigs to your cows tails was said to stop faeries stealing the milk.
  • Wreaths made with rowan, ivy and honeysuckle were made to bring good luck. As was making a cross from the wood of the rowan on Lammas Day.

Practical Uses:

  • The use of rowan wood depended on where in Scotland you were, in some parts it was deemed an absolute no no to use the wood. However, not everywhere, archeologists have discovered cross beams above the chimney in 18th / 19th century houses to be made of rowan wood.
  • Scottish Travellers making Gelly Tents would often choose rowan saplings, strong and bendable, to make the tent frames. In addition to being flexible, rowan wood was also hard and heavy so used for making herring casks, wheels, ladders, longbows and pins for the sails of boats.
  • The wood was used for fuel when cooking bannocks on feast days such as Beltane.
  • The berries were also distilled to make a potent, vitamin c rich spirit.
  • Rowan is associated with Saint Brighid, patroness of the arts, healing, smithing, spinning and weaving. And so in both Scotland and Ireland, spindles and spinning wheels were often traditionally made of Rowan.
The ogham tree alphabet

Folklore and Magic:

  • Burning rowan has been used in saining, funeral rites, divination and rituals to encourage inspiration and creativity.
  • Scottish folklore surrounding rowan trees often include faeries or dragons as protectors of the trees and their sacred fruit. The dragons guard the precious trees. The faeries take revenge on those who take from it. These stories, highlighting folk traditions, can serve as reminders about looking after the land and our responsibilities as creatures within it. Stories can also act as a record of the importance different trees, plants and animals had for us centuries ago, records that I’m proud to be able to share with you today.

If you would like to hear a traditional story about a dragon and a Rowan tree, head over to our IG page.

Bookings for storytelling events with Eileen and the The Travelling Folk Museum can be
made via Scottish Book Trust: https://www.scottishbooktrust.com/authors/eileen-budd
You can follow what Eileen is up to on Instagram @eileenbudd
And what Kay is making now @hamespun

Eileen Budd is an artist & storyteller raised in Perthshire amid a rich oral storytelling culture. She has been working with museums for nearly 20 years, using storytelling as a way of interpreting and sharing knowledge of history and Scottish folk tradition. Her fully illustrated book ‘Ossian Warrior Poet’ and mini book ‘Scottish Druids’ can be bought here: https://wideopensea.co.uk/ossian/. Eileen hosts regular public storytelling events as well as events with schools. You can keep track of what she’s up to online: www.ossianwarriorpoet.com and on Instagram: @eileenbudd.

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