TOWARDS the end of the year there was a lot of activity in Scotland based on the idea of discovering Scotland’s national tree.
I’m not sure what particular species won, indeed if a poll has actually taken place, but I do like the idea of promoting trees whether it’s the wonderful Scots pine, the ubiquitous birch or the mighty oak. I like them all for different reasons.
A few years ago I took a long walk down the length of the Isle of Skye, from Rubha Hunish to Broadford. On the course of that walk I was trying to discover more about our early Celtic ancestors and in particular, their relationship with the landscape, including trees.
I had just walked over the rocky tops of Bla Bheinn on the Isle of Skye, descended to the shores of Loch Slapin and thought it was time for a well deserved break. I wandered round the head of the loch, agitating a flock of oyster catchers who didn’t mind showing their annoyance with some high-pitched shrieking, and stopped in the shade of some trees as I approached the village of Torrin.
Lying on a bed of Durness limestone, which accounts for the surrounding greenery, there’s been a community here at Torrin for over 2000 years and our Celtic ancestors would have treasured the fertility of the place.
Once again I found myself caught up in some old Celtic insights. For example, the Celts believed one of the portals to their “otherworld” was through wild animals, which perhaps explains why we become so excited when we meet a wild beast face to face in the wilds, be it a deer, a marten or a fox. And now here in Torrin I found myself absorbed by the beauty of the surrounding woodlands.
The word ‘druid’ comes from the Celtic words for oak tree – duir, and knowledge – wid. The oak has a special significance – it was thought to be a portal to sacred knowledge. Druids also tended to meet in woodland groves and they often slept on beds made from rowan (which was sacred to the triple-goddess Brigid, and used as a protection against enchantment) to try and induce prophetic visions. Hazel was used in much the same way.
Druids, who have been much romanticised in modern times, were simply a hereditary class of priests and magicians who characterised early Indo-European societies. They were the Celtic equivalent of the Indian Brahmins or the Iranian magi, and like them specialised in the practices of magic, sacrifice and augury. They were the wise men, the councillors of the Celtic world.
The wood of various trees all had a function in the Celtic world, sometimes practical, sometimes symbolic. For example the sap from the birch was used to treat rheumatism and, with an accompanying spell and chant or two, was even thought to promote fertility. The yew, even today found in churchyards throughout the country, was associated with death and re-birth. The first three letters of the Celtic alphabet were associated with trees – Beith (birch) Luid (rowan) and Nuin (ash) and when a tribe cleared a tract of land they always left a tree in the middle. The symbolic power of the tree was very important, and it was here, below the spreading branches, that their chiefs would be inaugurated.
Here was a connection with both heaven and the underworld – the branches reaching to the sky, connecting us to the power of the elements and the ever changing heavens, while the roots extended far below the earth to whatever powers the ‘otherworld’ could provide.
The special relationship the Celts had with trees was recognised by Alexander Carmichael in his Carmina Gadelica, a collection of prayers, incantations, runes and blessings, collected from the Gaelic-speaking regions of Scotland between 1855 and 1910.
“Choose the willow of the streams
Choose the hazel of the rocks
Choose the alder of the marshes
Choose the birch of the waterfalls
Choose the ash of the shade
Choose the yew of resilience
Choose the elm of the brae
Choose the oak of the sun”
Amidst the general starkness and rock and water-dominated landscape of Skye, this area around Torrin really is something of an oasis. I chose an ash, the ash of the shade, and sat below it, allowing its essence to seep into my own being, expanding my own mind to the skyward reach of the uppermost branches. And did I gain any divine revelation? Was I aware of my spirit being refreshed and revitalised? Well, not exactly, I was still a little bit footsore but it was a great feeling to sit in the shade for a while, at least until the midges drove me on. The good old midges – they have a habit of bringing you back to earth with a bump.
The Skye Trail is available from www.mountain-media.co.uk