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The Rowan Tree

Arbor Day and Beltane Season

Apr 26

Other Scottish Country Dances for this Day

Today's Musings, History & Folklore

"Oh! rowan tree, oh! rowan tree,
Thou'lt aye be dear to me,
En twin'd thou art wi' mony ties
O' hame and infancy.
Thy leaves were aye the first o' spring,
Thy flow'rs the simmer's pride;
There was na sic a bonnie tree
In a' the countrie side.
Oh! rowan tree.
How fair wert thou in simmer time,
Wi' a' thy clusters white,
How rich and gay thy autumn dress,
Wi' berries red and bright.
On thy fair stem were mony names,
Which now nae mair I see;
But thy're engraven on my heart,
Forgot they ne'er can be.
Oh! rowan tree."

~ The Rowan Tree, Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne (1766-1845)

Beltane (the ancient Celtic festival celebrated on May 1st) is soon upon us as well as this day for planting or admiring trees! Planting a rowan tree will suit both occasions admirably, but even obtaining a twig from a rowan tree is a good idea for this season. If trees and twigs of rowan are scarce, defy all mischievous spirits with a dance and work a protective enchantment with the many reels in this elegant strathspey! The rowan tree, known for its striking red berries and robust wood, occupies a special place in Scottish tradition and folklore. In Scotland, the rowan is deeply intertwined with protective superstitions, often planted near homes and gateways to ward off evil spirits and witches! This practice is rooted in the Celtic belief that the rowan tree holds mystical powers, which are particularly potent against enchantments and harm. The tree's branches and berries are used during the festival of Beltane to craft wreaths and charms, further amplifying its role as a guardian against malevolence. In Scottish households, it was common to see rowan twigs incorporated into the handles of churns to prevent butter from being hexed! 🌳 🪄 🧈 ♥️

The Rowan Tree

The Rowan or mountain-ashes are shrubs or trees in the genus Sorbus of the rose family, Rosacea and are native throughout the cool temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, with the highest species diversity in the Himalaya, southern Tibet and parts of western China!

The traditional name rowan was applied to the species Sorbus aucuparia. The name "rowan" is recorded from 1804, detached from an earlier rowan-tree, rountree, attested from the 1540s in northern dialects of English and Scots.  Various dialectal variants of rowan are found in English, including ran, roan, rodan, royan, royne, round, and rune.

The Old English name of the rowan is cwic-beám, which survives in the name quickbeam (also quicken, quicken-tree, and variants). This name by the 19th century was reinterpreted as connected to the word witch, from a dialectal variant wick for quick and names such as wicken-tree, wich-tree, wicky, and wiggan-tree, giving rise to names such as witch-hazek and witch-tree.

The tree has two names in Welsh, cerdinen and criafol. Criafol may be translated as "The Lamenting Fruit", likely derived from the Welsh tradition that the Cross of Christ was carved from the wood of this tree, and the subsequent association of the Rowan's red fruit with the blood of Christ.

The Old Irish name is cairtheand, reflected in Modern Irish caorthann. The "arboreal" Bríatharogam in the Book of Ballymote associates the rowan with the letter luis, with the gloss "delightful to the eye (li sula) is luis, i.e. rowan (caertheand), owing to the beauty of its berries". 

The most common Scots Gaelic name is caorann which appears in numerous Highland place names such as Beinn a' Chaorainn and Loch a’ Chaorainn. Rowan was also the clan badge of the Malcolms and McLachlans. There were strong taboos in the Highlands against the use of any parts of the tree save the berries, except for ritual purposes. For example, a Gaelic threshing tool made of rowan and called a buaitean was used on grain meant for rituals and celebrations.

The rowan tree figures prominently in Celtic music! References to the rowan fruit's red color and the flowers' beauty are common such as in the song "Mairi's Wedding" which contains the verse:

"Red her cheeks as rowans are, bright her eyes as any star, fairest of them all by far, is our darling Mairi."

In addition, rowans figure in J. R. R. Tolkien's novel The Two Towers employs rowans as the signature tree for the Ent, Quickbeam. The forest of Fangorn, where Quickbeam and other Ents live, is populated with numerous rowans that were said to have been planted by male Ents to please the female Entwives. Quickbeam declares his fondness for the tree by saying that no other "people of the Rose ... are so beautiful to me," a reference to the rowan's membership in the family Rosaceae.

For more about protecting yourself with a "loop of rowan" from dark spirits, click the blackbird feasting on the rowan berries!

The Rowan Tree

Click the dance cribs or description below to link to a printable version of the dance!

The Rowan Tree

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