The Wee Writing Lassie and the Folklore of the Nine Sacred Woods

Into the Cauldron

The Sacred Woods Go

Burn them fast

And burn them slow.

Is it a poem? Is it a limerick? No, Wee Readers, it is a spell. If you’ve been following me for any length of time, you should remember that I am a vegan, in fact I was raised vegan from the age of two. How is this relevant to the current post, well, it’s not really – it’s just to remind you that I come from a slightly none traditional family. Which is why it should be less surprising when I say that we celebrated this May Day by performing a bit of magic. That is burning the nine sacred woods in the Beltane Bonfire. Well, what we did wasn’t really a bonfire per say, more like a small fire in a cauldron – but the intent still remains the same. We set fire to sticks from the nine sacred woods – in theory, they’re very difficult to find and some of them are toxic, so mostly we burned sticks that we were drawn to pick up – saying a blessing on to the world with each one we set a flame. Because it really felt like it needed it. The sacred woods consist of the first nine woods of the Celtic Tree Calendar, they are listed below in no particular order – along with some of the folklore associated with them.

9. Ash

Myth in its fibre, wood made word, the fissured bark

of Yggdrasil, world-tree, tree of Ask – the first man

tree of manna, foe feller, child healer, known by eye & fingertip

Excerpt from Ash Tree by Chris Poundwhite

Traditionally the Ash Tree represents the mother of the world. In ancient Norse Mythology the world tree Yggdrasil – that great holy tree that connected all the realms both mortal and otherwise was a an ash tree. In fact mortal Norse warriors would sometimes make their spears from ash, and they were referred to as Aescling or ‘Men of Ash’.

8. Willow

Know ye the willow tree

Whose gray leaves quiver,

Whispering gloomily

To yon pale river,

Lady, at even tide

Wander not near it,

They say its branches hide

A sad, lost Spirit?

Excerpt from The Willow-Tree by William Makepeace Thackeray

In the ancient druid stories the universe, mankind and everything was hatched from two scarlet eggs hidden within the willow tree. One egg formed the sun and from the other came the Earth – which begs the question where was the Willow Tree. This was recreated in the seasonal festival of Beltane using painted eggs. This would later be hijacked by Christians, for the holiday Easter. So just remember, that come Easter Weekend when you’re rolling your brightly colored chicken fetus down a hill, you’re performing an ancient Druid ritual.

7. Hawthorn

My palms rest

Upon the blackened trunk

Of a melancholy hawthorn

It’s choked wood crumbling

Into dust

Falling between my fingers

Extract of Burning Hawthorn by Lotus

In Ireland the Hawthorn tree is known as the fairy tree, although take care to call it something else as it is disrespectful to mention the fairies by name. Because of this connection to the little folk it is considered extremely bad luck to cut down a hawthorn tree. So much so that in 1999 work on the main road from Limerick to Galaway was interrupted because a Hawthorn stood in the way. Wish the owners of the woods near my house shared such beliefs – sometimes I feel there won’t be a forest left by the time this lock-down ends.

6. Birch

When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees,

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay

As ice-storms do.

Extract from Birches by Robert Frost

In Celtic mythology Birch represented renewal and purification – and it was celebrated on Samhain (the holiday that would later become Halloween) which was the beginning of the Celtic New year. It also, as you might have guessed is connected to Beltane – a festival known in more modern times as May Day. Ritual fires were made of birch and oak, and Birch Trees were often made into living May poles.

5. Rowan

rowan tree with berries in summer sunny day

Oh rowan tree, oh rowan tree,

Thou’lt aye be dear to me,

Entwined thou art wi many ties,

O’hame and infancy.

Thy leaves were aye the first o’spring,

Thy flow’rs the simmer’s pride;

There was nae sic a bonny tree

In a’ the countrieside

Oh rowan tree!

Extract from The Rowan Tree by Lady Nairne

In Greek mythology it was said that the Rowan trees sprung from the fallen feathers of the eagle that had been sent to recover the cup of the Goddess Hebe. However it was attacked by demons before it could manage. Thus the Rowan Tree’s leaves are shaped like feathers and their berries are as red as blood. We can see great significance in Norse Mythology as well, where we see a rowan was transformed into the first woman – the first man having come from an Ash. As well as in British Folklore, where the Rowan is meant to protect against witchcraft and enchantment.

4. Holly

But the Hue of his every feture.

Stunned them as could be seen,

Not only was this creature

Colossal, he was bright Green

No spear to thrust, no shield against the shock of battle,

But in one hand a solitary branch of Holly

That shows greenest when all the groves are leafless.

Extract from ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Night’, author unknown

In Celtic legend the Holly King would battle the Oak King at the changing of the seasons. During Winter Solstice, the Oak King would arise triumphed – there after he reigns upon the earth, until the Summer Solstice where upon the two battle again. And this time it is the Holly King who defeats his opponent. And on and on, the cycle of the seasons go.

3. Alder

Are you weary, alder tree,

in this, the age of rain?

From your branches

droop clots of lichen

like fairy lungs. All week,

Squalls, tattered mists:

alder, who unfolded

before the receding glaciers

Extract from Alder by Kathleen Jamie

In Irish Folklore it is generally considered bad luck to pass an alder tree on your journey. The Alder tree was the tree of the God Bran – who you will remember if you’ve been following me, that I mentioned in this earlier post – along with Odin, Apollo and King Arthur. It was also associated with the Goddess of spinning, because it was a source for strong colored dye. In Magical belief Alder reminds us of the need to blend strength and courage with generosity of spirit and compassion.

2. Oak

A mighty wind blew night and day

It stole the oak tree’s leaves away

Then snapped its boughs and pulled its bark

Until the oak was tired and stark.

But still the oak tree held its ground.

While other trees fell all around

The Weary Wind gave up and spoke.

How can you still be standing oak?

Excerpt from The Oak Tree by Johnny Ray Ryder Jr.

Throughout the world’s cultures the Oak tree has been venerated, often as the symbol of the greatest god in the pantheon. Gods such as Zeus, Jupiter, Dagda, Perun and Thor – called the Oak tree their own. Many Ancient kings would imply they were personifications of these gods by wearing crowns of oak leaf during times of victory – and even today, the oak leaf remains a symbol of military prowess.

1. Hazel

In the Beginning Love satisfies us.

When Love first spoke to me of love –

How I laughed at her in return!

But then she made me like the hazel trees,

Which blossom early season of darkness,

And bear fruit slowly.

The Hazel Trees by Hadewijch of Antwerp

The Hazel Tree has been venerated since the days of the Druids’ power, maybe even longer than that. There is an old ancient tale – repeated in varying forms across ancient Britain, of nine sacred hazel trees that grew around a pool. In the pool swam Salmon (who were honored by Druids), when the nuts fell from the trees, the Salmon would leap up and eat them – and from those nuts the salmon would absorbed the tree’s wisdom. I’ve mentioned the hazel nut before, in my previous post – because not only does it provide you with great wisdom, but a good boost to your immune system as well.

If you’ve enjoyed this foray into the folklore of the nine sacred woods, don’t forget to follow the wee blog if you haven’t already. Also check me out on Twitter, Instagram, GoodReads, Tumblr, Pinterest and Facebook. And follow The Wee Mailing List, for all new content. Also check out Trees for Life – where most of this folklore information came from, it’s a fascinating site for anyone interested in the folklore of trees. Remember if come next May Day you decide to burn the nine sacred woods in your own Beltane celebration, make sure to exercise proper fire safety – you will be working with open (if not very large) flames. I also advise eating something afterwards, I always feel light and giddily shaky after burning the wood and food in the belly is a good way to ground yourself, or so I’ve been told. If you found any inaccuracies in what I’ve said here today, don’t hesitate to mention them down below in the comments. I love to be corrected, it’s how we grow. Until next time Wee Readers, make sure to get plenty of Sunshine, stay safe and have a bonny day.

7 impertinent questions for Ailish Sinclair

Set in the the late sixteenth century, at the height of the Scottish witchcraft accusations, The Mermaid and the Bear , by Scottish Author Ailish Sinclair – out now in paperback and Kindle – is a story of triumph over evil, hope through adversity, faith in humankind and – above all – love.

Now I know what you’re thinking – well that sounds terrific Wee Lassie, I would really like to read that! But why are you talking about it? Well, never fear my Wee Readers , I shall explain all. Recently I’ve received some very exciting news – fellow Author, Ailish Sinclair, has had her book – The Mermaid and the Bear – published. I was very excited anyway, as I am when any fellow writing Lassie gets her book published – especially when they mention me in the acknowledgements ( buy it and check it out, I’m mentioned under my birth name Charlotte) – and then something occurred to me. Ho, ho, I said, this is something my Wee Readers should know about, after all by your very nature you are readers. So thus, with the idea in place I approached Ailish herself, and formed a plan.

The basic idea for this post was an interview, which is kind of what we ended up with, but with a bit of twist. As we already knew each other, the questions didn’t have to be quite so formal, they could be…down right impertinent even. Okay, let’s start with a Wee Introduction: Ailish Sinclair is an author from the north of Scotland – like yours truly – who was trained as a dancer in London; before returning back up North, where she taught ballet and met her husband. She now lives beside a loch with said husband and two children, surrounded by castles and stone circles, where she writes and dances (yes, still) and apparently eats a lot of cake.

Ailish loves Stone Circles

Her book is refreshingly also set up North in the region of Aberdeenshire, in the late sixteenth century – during a period of our history that’s not often talked about by the wider world, or indeed Scotland itself: the Aberdeen Witchcraft panic of 1597. There’s a real feeling of authenticity when it comes to Sinclair’s writing: from the clear amount of research that has gone into every aspect of late sixteenth century life, right down to the accurate Scottish dialect that many of the characters speak in. I’m not going to harp on too long about this, since it’s neither the focus of the book nor this post , but it’s very rare to find Doric in a modern book – which if you’re like me and live in a place where that’s just how people talk , it’s nice to not be left out for once. Another inclusive detail in Ailish’s novel is the fact that her heroine – Isobell – is a plus sized women, and this is never treated like a problem, or something about her that needs to be fixed, by the narrative. All body type inclusion, yeah!

Alright, enough with the introductions already, on with the impertinent questions.

7. As a fellow Writing Lassie from up here in Scotland, would you say your book has something more, or deeper, to say about Scottish culture than can be found in other books?

I live in Aberdeenshire, where the book is set, and have done so for most of my life. I hope my deep love for the countryside comes across in the narrative, and that I’ve captured the way people speak and behave towards one another here. I had to tone down the local language somewhat to make it easier to understand. ‘Ken fit like?’

6. You’ve mentioned before in other interviews that you become quite intense with your research when you’re writing a Historical Novel. So, my question is, what’s the maddest thing you’ve ever done in the name of research?

Eating primroses? Sliding down dangerous cliff sides in bare feet? Cross examining the poor wardens in St Nicholas Kirk? I’m not really sure about the maddest. The hardest part was knowing when to stop. When is enough information enough? Research could go on forever, but once the story has formed firmly round it, and you know what sort of underwear everyone was wearing, it’s probably time to write the book.

5. Now that you’re getting published, and you can look back on your career with a clinical eye – what would you say was the first moment you felt like a real writer?

I actually think the most precious writing time is well before publication is even being considered. It’s that first draft. Anything is possible then. Fall in love with your story and your characters and they will lead you to all sorts of places you never imagined possible. So, to answer your question: when I was working on the first draft, and wanting to write it ALL the time, rushing home to get back to it, thinking about it ALL the time… that’s when I felt like a real writer.

4. As a confessed recovering Chocoholic, was it terribly difficult to leave the substance out of The Mermaid and the Bear?

Well, I felt deeply sorry for my poor characters that they couldn’t have any chocolate of course, but not so sorry that I withheld it from myself. I have to confess that I am, in fact, not in recovery, and have no intention of ever being so!

3. Your new novel – The Mermaid and the Bear – deals with the long-forgotten Aberdeen witchcraft panic of 1597. By choosing this subject you have brought the voices of women unjustly forgotten by history into the public eye again. What I want to ask is, is there a feminist undertone to your choice of subject matter; and if not, is there some other reason you were drawn to that particular area of Scottish history?

Given that 85% of those accused of witchcraft in Scotland were women, yes, there is definitely a feminist side to the novel. Women supporting each other, standing strong against misogyny, and believing they have the right to aspects of life that were the dominion of men at the time, and even now, do come into the story.

2.Okay, let’s dig a little deeper. If you were put on the spot, like I’m doing to you now, and you were forced to choose a person or persons (plural), that you really admired in that part of history. Who would it be?

Anyone who stood up to oppression and abuse. These people rarely make it into the recorded history of the time, so historical fiction provides scope to write about bravery, love and heroic acts as they might have happened. When bad events occur there are always those who stand strong and true, often among those who are persecuted themselves.

1. Alright final question, and then I’ll let you go. Would you say that the romantic hero of The Mermaid and the Bear – The Laird – resembles anyone you know in real life?

While aspects of his character were inspired by a local historical Laird, my fictional Laird is a little bit like my own husband. I am lucky to be married to a man who accepts people as they are, doesn’t judge anyone on outward appearance, and has an open heart and mind, just like Thomas Manteith!

Ailish Sinclair and Husband
Ailish and Husband house shopping

I love that final answer, it always make me well up – especially if you’ve read her mention of him in the acknowledgments.

If you’ve enjoyed these impertinent questions to the emerging Author Ailish Sinclair, remember to follow my wee blog if you haven’t already, and check me out on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and my Tumblr account – or sign up to the Wee Mailing List. However if you’ve also enjoyed the long suffering answers of Ailish herself, remember to follow her wee blog here and sign up to her Mailing List here. Also check her out on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest , Facebook and Goodreads. And don’t forget to check out the The Mermaid and the Bear, now out on Kindle and Paperback where all decent books are sold. Until next time my Wee Readers, have a bonny day.