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Flamborough III(b): Week 6 – 24 August

Odd One Out: Logs in Dunnet Forest

The rowan berries are out in Dunnet Forest, blood-red clusters hanging from the branches like over-excited miniature grapes. I always find rowan trees reassuring, since when I see one I know I’m safe from witches. For, as everybody knows, rowan is said to act as a charm against witches, an important point as forests are traditionally a witch’s natural habitat and you never know when one might pop up unexpectedly out of the underbrush. I grew up listening to the Steeleye Span track The Twelve Witches, which has the comforting refrain: Rowan tree, red thread/ Hold the witches all in dread. This is a variant of the Scottish rhyme, Rowan tree and red threid/ Gar the witches tyne their speed, or as it is most commonly rendered, Rowan tree and red thread/ Put the witches to their speed.

Drifting Fog

And then I thought, what speed exactly? How fast does the average witch travel? Could it be that we’ve got it all wrong, and rather being a charm to ward off witches, perhaps rowan acts on them like a performance-enhancing drug—that rowan actually makes witches go faster? And what has survived is a folk memory of the time rowan was banned at the 1695 Salem Witch Cross-Country Trials because it gave some of the competitors an unfair advantage. Alas, I fear we will never know.

Meanwhile, back in the real world—for a given value of “real”—the gansey is, as expected, finished. It’s now been washed and blocked and all it has to do is steam quietly in the baking Caithness sun—about a month should do it given current temperatures—and get itself dry. I do like this pattern, simple, effective, a joy to knit and yet perfectly proportioned on a gansey. Strange how this gansey is already receding into the past as thoughts turn to the next project: more about this next week.

Waving Grasses

And returning to folk customs for a minute, I can’t help wondering just how it was established that rowan acts as a witch-repellent? I imagine it was much like medical trials today, with witches offered perhaps 20 groats to come down to the castle and be exposed to a variety of plants to see if any of them produced a response. (“Whortleberry…no reaction. Dandelion… no reaction. Sneezewort… witch sneezed but explained she’d forgotten her antihistamine tablets. Stinking iris… witch denied it was her. Rowan… witch was up and off at about 20 m.p.h. assisted by a light tail wind… By jove, Janet, I think we could be onto something!”) Well, however it came about I’m grateful to our ancestors for establishing the fact, since I can now roam through Dunnet Forest free from the risk of being turned into a toad. Which is lucky, as there’s this gingerbread cottage in a clearing there I’ve had my eye on for a while…

7 comments to Flamborough III(b): Week 6 – 24 August

  • Sharon Gunason Pottinger

    Rowan tree also believed to soothe the restless dead. And as well called the traveller’s tree because with its help you could never lose your way.

  • Best just plant a rowan outside your door. The birds will bless you even if the witches don’t.

  • =Tamar

    I’m pretty sure we had a rowan tree near the door when I was growing up. We just called it “bird-berries” because we were told not to eat them. I think it was deliberately planted because there were no others around. Sometimes I wonder what my parents were up to.

  • I was admiring the rowan trees on yesterday’s evening walk whilst sitting on a rock eating Cadbury’s Twirls. I would like a rowan in our garden, not sure we have the room though. The completed gansey looks fantastic Gordon and the weather is just changing to nicely cold for John to be able to wear it. Horizontal rain here today, I don’t mind too much, I quite like rain, not every day though….

  • Judit M./Finland

    Hello from Finland, Gordon the gansey looks fine, congrats !
    I would like to add a bit to your rowan chat : “Rowan or Mountain Ash fruit / berries are too astringent – unpleasant are not suitable to be eaten raw. The fruit (berries) of Rowan can be made into a slightly bitter jelly but also marmalade and juices. The fruit (berries) have many uses e.g.. to flavor liqueurs and other alcoholic beverages.
    In traditional medicine, the ripe rowanberries are made into a decoction used as a gargle for sore throats. The berries were used as a treatment for scurvy because of their high vitamin C content. A decoction of the bark is said to be good for diarrhea.
    Extract of rowanberries containing sorbic acid which is a natural antimicrobial preservative. C vitamin from rowanberries is a natural antioxidant protecting the body cells from free radicals.
    The bark has astringent qualities as do all parts of the tree, and has been used in the tanning industry. In northern Sweden and Finland cooked rowan tree bark was used as food for animals during the winter.”
    Best regards !

  • Julie

    Beautiful Gansey … again! Spectacular pattern.

  • Gordon

    Hello everyone, and thanks for the kind words as ever. It’s been quite an intense week at work, so I’m sorry I haven’t had the head space to reply to everyone individually this time.

    Thank you for all the rowan lore! I suppose my main reason for not planting a rowan tree outside my front door is the thought, what if our postie joined a coven? I’d never get my mail order fountain pens delivered again!

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