This month the Rowan trees in Edinburgh have been covered with vibrant red berries. Elsewhere the nuts on the local hazel trees are ripening and ready to feed some lucky city wildlife. Scotland has always been steeped in myth and legend going back to ancient times and many of its stories are connected with its flora. So with nature’s larder now taking eye-catching centre stage, here are some of its links with folklore and Edinburgh.
1. Calton Hill
Rising steeply above the east end of Princes Street, Calton Hill is well known for the prominent monuments on its summit. It’s also one of the best vantage points for spectacular views over Edinburgh and the surrounding area, making it a popular place to visit.
Hazel tree folklore
However, less well known is the origin of the Calton Hill’s name which comes from the Gaelic calltainn meaning hazel tree. So going back into the mists of time the hill was called after the hazel grove which grew there.
The hazel tree holds a special place in ancient Celtic mythology. It was seen as the tree of knowledge and wisdom. In popular old Scottish and Irish tales, the number of hazelnuts eaten by a salmon gave the number of red spots on their skin. Salmon also gained the knowledge to negotiate huge distances out to sea and to find their own way back again.
The Irish legend of Fionn MacCumhail (pronounced Finn MacCool), has him acquiring the knowledge of the world simply by licking his finger after touching the salmon of wisdom. This particular salmon had itself eaten nine special sacred hazelnuts.
Not only salmon and Fionn MacCumhail could benefit from the wisdom of hazelnuts. Traditionally it was believed that babies born in Autumn would develop the gift of second sight if first given the liquid from unripened hazelnuts to drink.
Want to know if you and your intended are romantically compatible for life? Look no further than a couple of hazelnuts. In the past these were put on the fire and if they burned together, all bode well for the couple’s future together. However if they jumped apart….well their future together wouldn’t last.
In the Highlands of Scotland we have the legendary battle of two fierce opponents on the Isle of Skye. Namely the warrior queen Sgathach and her martial arts pupil Cu Chulainn (who incidentally gives his name to the Cuillin mountains on Skye). They are locked in combat for days on end to see who will be victorious. Repeatedly Sgathach’s daughter tries to entice them out of their enchanted duel by tempting them to eat food in an effort to stop them fighting. Finally, it is only after eating roasted deer stuffed with hazelnuts inside, that they have the wisdom to stop.
C is for Coll
In early Scottish Gaelic coll meant Hazel tree and was one of the 18 letters of the Gaelic alphabet. At that time all the letters were named after trees and plants. Both coll and calltainn appear in many Scottish place names throughout the country. The hazel tree is also the clan badge of the Clan Colquhoun.
As well as it’s links with folklore, hazel had practical uses too. It made ideal water-devining rods, walking sticks and shepherd’s crooks. Likewise young pliable branches could be woven like willow and used for many purposes including fishing creels. Equally importantly, hazelnuts were an invaluable source of protein which were easily carried and stored. They could be ground with flour to provide a wholesome, tasty bread. Nothing was left to waste – the leaves were used to feed cattle too.
2. The Rowan Tree
The Rowan tree is probably one of the trees which is most associated with Scotland. It’s also the title and subject of a traditional well-known Scottish song written by Lady Nairne and published in 1822. There’s no doubt that the tree is popular with locals. At this time of year it’s vivid red berries brighten up Edinburgh streets, gardens and surrounding countryside.
Although Rowan berries are targeted by birds, who feast on them, humans shouldn’t eat the berries raw. However when the berries are cooked down and turned into a jelly, it makes a traditional accompaniment to venison. Watch out though, most rowan jelly can still be quite sour. A fact I learned from ‘bitter’ experience as a child!
Natural Protection from Witches
Traditionally in Scots folklore, Rowan trees offered protection from witches and any other evil spirits. For this reason you’ll often see Rowan trees planted by the front or back doors of houses and cottages. Especially in the highlands.
In the past a sprig of Rowan was put in babies’ cribs to ward off any bad spirits. In fact the protection was also against fairies replacing a baby with one of their own changelings.
The colour red was always seen as an important colour in folklore and the protection of the Rowan sprig could be enhanced if tied around with red thread or wool.
This meant it was used to protect cattle in farmers’ barns where it would be hung above the door.
A Fairy Gateway
Rowan trees are able to grow in the most inaccessible rocky outcrops and high hillsides in Scotland. As a result, in folklore they had a reputation for being magical gateways to the fairy world.
It was thought to be extremely unlucky for anyone to chop down a Rowan tree. You might think this was only in the past. But you’d be wrong. A few years ago I was talking to a National Trust for Scotland ranger about the management of a local highland wood near where I used to live. Some Rowan trees in the wood, near an old well, needed cutting down. Surprisingly, he couldn’t find any local highland contractor who would do the job. Whether they believed in the folklore or not, it seems they simply weren’t willing to take the risk!
3. A Hidden Link
Not all of Edinburgh’s connections with plants and their folklore are so readily on view.
If you take a walk in the Old Town, explore some of the narrow closes off the High Street. All of them are individual and different. Few people think to look up, but if you do you may get an interesting surprise.
If you’d like to take a guided walk to find out more, check out my Old Town and New Town tour which also includes Calton Hill.
The ceiling of one of these closes is painted and shows Echinacea and Calendula – along with presses, mortar and pestles.
These tell the story of the history of healing in the city and two plants used in popular medicine. But they equally have links with folklore.
For colds, coughs & catching thieves!
In folklore echinacea was a symbol of strength and healing. Medicinally it was and still is used for boosting the immune system and helping with coughs, colds and flu. However traditionally it had lots of other uses too such as healing burns and wounds. It was brought to Europe in the 18th century from American where it had been used extensively by the indigenous native Americans.
Calendula was named by the Romans and has been used for centuries for its healing and antiseptic properties. It treated wounds effectively and as an anti-inflammatory it helped with all types of skin irritations.
In folklore it was said that it could enhance psychic powers. If you put the flower under your pillow you would dream of the person who had stolen something from you and uncover their identity.
It was also used as a type of symbolic protection. For this reason at Stirling Castle you’ll see calendula or marigold flowers carved into the doors of the King’s Closet as protection for the King.
4. Thistle of Scotland
It’s impossible to write a blog about plant folklore and not mention the most famous of them all – the thistle.
Throughout Edinburgh you’ll find thistles of all shapes and sizes. From Princes Street Gardens where you’ll find large spectacular thistles growing in one of the borders, to Edinburgh Castle with its stylised, symbolic thistle representing King James IV, to the Royal Coat of Arms both ancient and modern found on several buildings and monuments in the city.
Most people know that the thistle is the national flower of Scotland, but the reason why goes back into the realms of history and folklore.
The Flower That Saved Scots from Defeat
The popular legend of how the thistle saved Scotland dates from 1263. It takes place during the reign of the Scots King Alexander III and centres around the Battle of Largs. At that time the Vikings under King Haakon IV of Norway attempted to invade Scotland. However, due to stormy weather part of the Viking fleet was forced ashore at Largs in Ayrshire. Traditionally it’s said that during the night the Vikings decided to sneak up on the sleeping Scots and take them by surprise as they slept.
In order to be as quiet as possible they removed their footwear and stepped stealthily across the ground towards the Scots. Unfortunately for them, and luckily for the Scots, one of the Vikings let out a yell of pain as he walked straight onto a jagged thistle growing underfoot, unseen in the dark.
The shout alerted the Scots of the approaching Viking force and so allowed them to immediately take up their arms and engage in battle. A battle which the Scots won. Thus the thistle had saved the Scots from defeat and invasion.
There’s no way of knowing if this story is true, but it’s the one that has become a Scottish legend.
Thistle Symbols Everywhere
Later the thistle starts appearing on coins from 1470 during the reign of King James III. It was used as the emblem of Scotland by James IV and can be seen along with the Tudor rose of England to mark his marriage with Margaret Tudor. James V had several thistles on his Royal Coat of Arms. If you take a look at the current Royal Coat of Arms in Scotland you’ll find the thistles are still there.
In Scotland the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle is the counterpart to the English ancient chivalric Order of the Garter. Nobody can quite decide the date of when it was actually created in Scotland, so this varies and is debated. However it definitely came to the fore under King James VII & II in 1687 and is still the highest chivalric honour in Scotland.
Don’t mess with the thistle!
The Latin motto of the Monarchs of Scotland at least from James VI onwards, which is also the motto of the Order of the Thistle, is ‘Nemo me impune lacessit’. This translates as ‘nobody provokes me with impunity’ loosely meaning nobody attacks me without punishment. Commonly in Scots it’s ‘Wha daur meddle wi me’. (Who dares meddle with me). It’s a motto that can be seen in Edinburgh carved on exteriors in different locations.
Although it’s a royal motto it could just as easily apply to the thistle itself. Mess with it at your peril. So the thistle has ended up representing the Scottish nation, gaining royal status and international recognition. Not bad for a wee, prickly purple flower, which blooms and grows like a weed throughout Scotland.
Now that’s what legends are all about!