Autumn is the ‘berry time’ of year. In our neighbours’ garden, a rowan tree is now heavily laden with glistening red fruits.
This small tree reminds me of the rowan trees that grew in the garden of my childhood home in the north of Scotland. Rowans can often be seen growing beside houses throughout the Scottish Highlands.
In the past, these trees were seen as a ‘lucky’ tree – a superstition which was a diluted form of earlier beliefs in the rowan’s magic powers, especially as an antidote to evil.
In Britain, the rowan was once regarded as one of the most powerful protectors against the forces of darkness. It was believed to keep away witches and malicious spirits and to avert the evil eye.
Witches were believed to be afraid to come near a rowan tree because, if a christened person should touch a witch with any part of the tree, then the Devil would be entitled to carry her away to Hell as his tribute.
Faeries and spirits also kept their distance from the rowan. An old tale tells of a woman who prevented a ghost’s return to its grave by barring its way with a rod of rowan.
Another tale shows that even the Devil himself was believed powerless against the supernatural force of the rowan. A young miller’s apprentice had rashly arranged to meet the Devil. His anxious friends advised him to take a rowan branch with him, draw a circle around himself with it and, whatever happened, to remain within the circle.
When the Devil appeared, he threw a book to the boy and asked him to write his name in it. The boy refused to return the book. Enraged, the Devil made the most terrifying attempts to reach him, but could not break through the magic circle. Defeated, the Devil eventually disappeared, leaving his book in the hands of the startled apprentice.
Since any part of this magical tree was able to turn aside evil, both its wood and its berries were used to make charms.
To make a more powerful charm, red thread was combined with rowan because red, as the colour of blood, possessed a strong magic. Red rowan berries were strung on a red thread to make an amulet which could be placed around the neck of a child to keep it safe from the powers of the unseen world.
”Rowan tree and red threid
Gar the witches tyne their speed”
(Scots traditional charm, gar = makes, tyne = lose)
Red thread was also used to bind rowan twigs in the form of a cross which was frequently used to protect young children and livestock. During the dangerous period before baptism, when a new-born child was particularly at risk from witchcraft, the evil eye, or even abduction by faeries, a rowan cross might be fastened to its clothing or to the cradle.
Beltane (1 May) and Halloween were reckoned to be the most dangerous times of the year, because evil forces were then at their strongest. To stay safe, it was wise to carry a sprig of rowan or even to have a piece of rowan wood sewn into your clothing. You might also place a rowan cross above the doorway of your house to make sure that no witches could get in.
It was thought unlucky to use rowan for ordinary firewood, or to cut one down, except for special uses. The tree that protected the Scottish Highlander in life, sometimes protected him in death too, for a coffin or bier made of rowan wood was regarded with great respect.
During its long history as a magical protector, the rowan has earned affection and respect. Nowadays, however, it is more valued as a graceful garden tree which is also very beneficial to wildlife. Next time you see one, I hope you’ll think of the significance the rowan has had for our ancestors and, maybe, imagine how they felt about it. Sometimes a tree isn’t just a tree!
I’m intrigued by beliefs, superstitions and folk-tales about the plants that surround us. I’d love to know more, so if you know any, I’d be delighted to hear about them in the comments……