tree of Life

Trees and Their Place in Celtic Mythology – Part 1

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Trees have long been revered by the Celtic peoples for their wisdom, and used as crafting materials and even for their healing properties. It is no wonder that they are often so central to the stories that have carried through the ages and are described in such great detail despite their perceived simplicity.

In this series we will explore native UK species and their place in the great tales of Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and beyond.


Alder - Julia Schwab
Alder – Julia Schwab

Due to its tendency to grow along rivers and streams, the alder is often linked to swamps and the mystery and secrecy that lies within them.

These themes may also relate to the particular atmosphere of alder woods. Where they are not growing along rivers or streams, alder form woods, also called carrs, on wet or swampy ground. The wide bases of the trunks sprout small thickets of alder shoots, which soon taper up to tall straight trunks and expand into leafy canopies higher overhead.

Perhaps these woods, which in springtime can be mired in several inches of water, were seldom visited and as such made ideal hideaways. The green dye which can be derived from the flowers continues the theme of hiding, being used to colour and thus camouflage the garments of outlaws, as well as the clothes of faeries, to conceal them from human eyes.

Further to this, in Irish mythology, when Deirdre of the Sorrows eloped with Naoise, son of Usna, they fled from Ulster to Alba (Scotland) to escape the wrath of King Conchobhar mac Nessa, to whom Deirdre had been betrothed. They hid from the King’s pursuing warriors in the alder woods of Glen Etibhe, strengthening this connection between the alder and those who wish to hide themselves or their secrets.

In practical terms, its home by the water gives it great rot resistance while submerged. Wooden strongholds on Scottish lochs, known as crannochs, were built from alder and it is the favoured wood for lock gates and other canal structures. Even Venice is built on piles of alder logs. Its charcoal also burns very hot and the Celts used this to forge their best weapons.

While living, alder wood is pale in colour but turns a deep orange when cut. This has led to many negative superstitions as people believed this was the wood ‘bleeding’ evil into a space.


Hazel - JackieLou DL
Hazel – JackieLou DL

The Celts associated hazelnuts with concentrated wisdom and poetic inspiration. This carries into the language of today as the Gaelic word for these nuts, ‘cno’, can be found in the word for wisdom, ‘cnocach’. This may be the reason that forked hazel twigs were favoured by diviners in the search for water.

A story that appears often in Celtic mythology tells of nine hazel trees growing around a sacred pool. Within the pool, salmon – revered by the Druids – would eat the nuts that fell from the trees and absorb their wisdom. The number of bright spots on each individual fish was said to indicate how many nuts they had eaten.

In an Irish variation of this legend, one salmon was the recipient of all these magical nuts. A Druid master who longed for the wisdom of the hazel caught the fish and instructed his pupil to cook it for him. In the process, hot liquid from the pan splashed onto the lad’s thumb. He instinctively thrust it into his mouth to cool the burn and in doing so absorbed the wisdom himself. This apprentice went on to become one of the most heroic figures in Irish mythology, Fionn Mac Cumhail (Finn McCool).

Hazel has long been the favoured wood from which to make staffs, whether for Druidic use, medieval self-defence, the staves of pilgrims, shepherd’s crooks or everyday walking sticks. Due to the pliancy of the living wood, it is even possible to ‘grow’ the bend into a crook or walking stick by bending the branches while still on the tree. Its readiness to split lengthways and ability to bend even 180° back on itself made it ideal for weaving wattle hurdles for fencing or for walls that would be daubed with mud and lime. U-shaped stakes could hold down thatching and like Willow, young shoots are perfect for basket weaving.


Rowan - valentin hintikka
Rowan – valentin hintikka

The rowan is steeped in folklore and has long been associated with themes of protection. It was said to protect both person and dwelling and, due to its vibrant autumn display of red berries, was believed to provide great protection from magic. An old proverb, ‘rowan tree and red thread make the witches tine (slow) their speed’ alludes to this. Meanwhile, by virtue of its white flowers, it is also regarded as a tree of the goddess or a faerie tree.

Further to this, Celtic peoples would carry pieces of the tree to ward off witchcraft and even used rowan sprigs to protect livestock and produce from enchantment. While it was taboo to damage rowan wood with a knife and thus it couldn’t be carved, peoples on the Isle of Man and in Scotland, Wales and Cornwall would bind equal-armed rowan crosses with red thread. These would then be sewn into coat linings or carried in pockets, furthering the association between the colour red and the strongest protection from witchcraft.

Most likely to protect the rowan population and to ensure their protective properties weren’t tampered with, it was taboo in the Highlands to use any part of the tree other than the berries. One exception to this was the buaitean, a threshing tool used on grain meant for rituals and celebrations. While there weren’t such strong rules elsewhere in the Celtic world, there were sometimes more widespread rules to be observed while harvesting rowan.

The wood is strong and resilient, making it well suited for walking sticks and ironically for carving where that is permitted. Druids would use the bark and berries to dye garments black for lunar ceremonies and twigs were favoured for divining, particularly in the search for metals.

Perhaps most famously, rowan berries are used in a variety of preserves and alcoholic drinks and each Celtic nation seemed to have its favourite. The Scots brewed a strong spirit and still to this day make rowan wine, the Welsh used the berries for ale and the Irish used them to flavour mead. Today, rowan jelly is still made in Scotland and is traditionally eaten with game (or your favourite vegan alternative, of course).

If you enjoyed this porthole into how our ancestors saw and treated the wonderful species we still see around us today, then subscribe to our news feed and keep an eye out for more in this series.

Jed Robertson and The Team

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