Taking time for trees

Taynish oakwoods in spring.

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As the days lengthen and – hopefully at least! – the levels of sunshine increase, we can look forward to the trees coming into leaf, writes Jo Woolf.

No doubt many of us will ponder the perennial question of whether the oak is out before the ash, in which case ‘we’ll get a splash’, or the ash is out before the oak, meaning that ‘we’ll get a soak’.

For untold centuries, trees have stood at the heart of many of our beliefs and traditions; we’ve used their products for building, for food, for remedies and for prophesy. Knowing which wood to use for what purpose was, of course, the key: sometimes the first question to ask was whether you should cut it at all.

I’ve chosen five trees, to show you what I mean…

Hazel

The first hazel catkins are always a joy to see, braving the squalls of early spring. Hazelnuts were an important source of food for early settlers: pits containing hundreds of charred hazel shells, the relics of Mesolithic feasts, have been found on Skye and Colonsay.

The hazel is also associated with knowledge. In Irish legend, nuts from hazel trees overhanging the Well of Wisdom dropped into the water and were eaten by salmon, which in turn were caught and cooked by a young man named Fionn Mac Cumhaill;  through the fish, Fionn imbibed the hazel trees’ wisdom, and he would later become one of his country’s most heroic figures.  The idea of hazelnuts containing bite-sized wisdom is still with us, whenever we tell someone a story ‘in a nutshell’.

At Hallowe’en, especially in Scotland, people would try to predict their future partner by throwing hazelnuts onto the fire one by one:  if the nut cracked or jumped out, the lover would be faithless, but if it burned steadily, he or she would be true.

Hawthorn

With their abundant blossom and bright red berries, hawthorns were believed to be the abode of fairies, and they were rarely cut down, even if they stood in the way of the plough.

Wizened old hawthorn trees can often be found ‘guarding’ an ancient site such as a stone circle or a healing well.  On Eildon Hill near Melrose, the 13th-century Scottish poet and prophet Thomas the Rhymer is reputed to have encountered the Fairy Queen beneath a hawthorn bush, and was spirited away into the Otherworld for seven years.

Bringing hawthorn or May blossom indoors was thought to bring bad luck, but women would collect dewdrops from the flowers to bathe their faces, as it was said to enhance their beauty, and men would wash their hands in the water to make them more skilled at their work.

‘Cast ne’er a clout ’til May is out’ was the sage advice of country folk, who would hang on to every ‘clout’ or item of clothing until May blossom signalled the arrival of warmer weather.  But caution was still needed, because another saying warned: ‘When the hawthorn bloom too early shows, we shall still have many snows!’

Juniper

An evergreen conifer, juniper can grow to altitudes of 3,000 feet, hugging windswept hillsides with its low-growing, prickly branches;  locally, there are some good examples in Knapdale.

When burned, juniper wood produces a cedar-like fragrance but little smoke;  in former centuries this made it a favourite fuel for illicit distilling, because it would not betray the location with a tell-tale plume of smoke!  The smouldering wood is still used to give a delicate taste and aroma to smoked food, including meat and fish.

By far the most popular use for juniper berries was to make gin:  in fact, the words ‘gin’ and ‘juniper’ share the same source.  In the 1800s, juniper berries were harvested in the Highlands and taken to markets in Inverness and Aberdeen.  In recent years, a number of Scottish distillers have begun offering gin from berries sourced locally in the Highlands and islands.

Elm

While English elms have suffered a significant decline through Dutch elm disease, the wych elm, which is more common in Scotland, is still thriving.

If you wanted to avoid the attentions of malevolent spirits, elm was your tree of choice:  milkmaids would put a sprig of elm into their milk churn to stop witches from curdling the milk, and there are instances of a murderer being buried with an elm stave through the heart, to prevent them from rising from the grave.

If the stave then took root and grew into a tree, it was thought to have miraculous healing properties:  there’s a story that people would collect their nail-clippings and pin them to one of these trees, in the hope of a cure!

Although elm did have some practical uses – its wood was used to make early water pipes, canal locks, and the keels and rudders of ships – our relationship with the tree was uneasy at the best of times.  ‘Elm hateth man and waiteth’ is a saying that sums up its reputation for dropping large boughs unexpectedly, even in calm weather.

Interestingly, it also offered a remedy:  a decoction of the leaves was applied to wounds and broken bones.

Oak

In the 1st century AD, Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote that the druids in Britain ‘hold nothing more sacred than mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is an oak.’

The tree known as the ‘king of the woods’ became entwined with our national identity, and with the fate of monarchs:  a familiar story tells how King Charles II hid in an oak tree to escape the Roundheads during the Civil War.  In the 1700s, oak leaves and acorns were symbols of the Jacobite movement, which sought – unsuccessfully – to restore a Stuart king to the throne.

Oaks were widely used for building houses and ships:  King Henry VIII’s warship Mary Rose consumed around 1,200 trees in her construction, most of them oaks, and larger ships demanded even more.  The timber also made excellent charcoal, and was burned to smelt iron;  here in Argyll, until the late 1800s, oak wood fuelled the Bonawe iron furnace on Loch Etive.

We’re blessed with some beautiful woodlands which are well worth a visit in spring.  Examples include Sutherland’s Grove at Barcaldine;  Taynish oak woods near Tayvallich;  and Glasdrum Wood above Loch Creran.

Jo Woolf’s new book, Britain’s Trees – A Treasury of Traditions, Superstitions, Remedies and Literature, is published by The National Trust.  It contains chapters on around 40 different tree species, looking at the often weird and colourful traditions attached to them.  There are also cameos of individual trees with a fascinating history, such as the Birnam Oak and the Corstorphine Sycamore. Published this month, the book will be available in Oban from Waterstones.