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Folk Lore in Lowland Scotland
Chapter VI - Flowers and Birds


The rough bur thistle spreading wide
Among the bearded bear,
I turned the weeder chips aside,
And spared the symbol dear."
BURNS.

To turn from sea to land, round the flowers and trees about us a wealth of legend clings. They are not only rooted in our affections as friends of our youth, but our country's history is wreathed in them. The Rose and the Thistle now twine together, and they foster under their prickles the Shamrock. The Rose's entrance into Scotland was not under popular auspices. It was that Hammer of the Scots, Edward I., who had a golden rose for his device, perhaps derived from his mother, Eleanor of Provence. The Thistle resented intrusion, but had for a time to succumb to the Rose. Gradually the queen of flowers became the emblem of England. It grew into the gage of Red and White when Henry VI. chose the one, Edward the other, and round these rival roses raged civil war. The scented petals of both were dyed in the life blood of Englishmen. Badges were a necessity, for before the days when uniforms distinguished warring companies, when mail veiled friend from foe, some mark had to be worn on the helmet. In old- fashioned gardens a rose flourishes of blended colours called York and Lancaster, a symbol of the unity of the two rival factions when Henry VII. married Elizabeth of York, engrafting one of the chief surviving branches of the White rose tree upon the rooted stem of the Red flower, and out of that peace-making union sprang the heraldic rose of the Tudors. The shamrock, so folk lore says, became the symbol of the most distressful country in St. Patrick's days. He was preaching to the Irish and could not explain to his converts the doctrine of the Trinity, so he illustrated his meaning by plucking the lowly trefoil at his feet, and "he assured his hearers that as in the distinctly three cleft leaflets there was truly but one leaf, so might this great doctrine of the Three in One be in poor fashion believed and accepted in humble faith." As to the thistle, "poverty, ill-luck, enterprise, and constant resolution are the fibres of the legend of this country's history," says Conan Doyle, while another modern writer endorses the statement, It and poverty and storm are the nurses of the qualities which make for empire." The Scots' land, that "barren ridge of hills between two inclement sea-ways," as Robert Louis Stevenson calls his native country, elected for its emblematic flower no summer-blooming, sun-nursed rose, or fond as she is of doctrine did she choose a plant explanatory of religion, but history or tradition fixed for the Spartanly-nursed north on the hardy, prickly thistle whose seeds spread on the wings of the wind and which roots and flourishes in apparently stony soil. Cackling geese saved sleeping Rome, likewise the thistle gave Scotland timely warning, and her people were grateful to it for averting disaster. The invading Danes had stolen on the sleeping camp of opposing natives, but the latter were florally guarded. The thistle undertook to act as a barbed wire entanglement. Nature reared it in the dark ages when modern tactics were undreamt of. The thistle's lancet-shaped foliage made the stealthily-creeping, bare-legged Danes give tongue. The Scots heard their smothered curses, awoke, and armed. That is how, some say, the repulsing thistle was adopted as Scotland's insignia, along with its defiant motto, "Ye daurna meddle wi' me," which became in the sleeker Latin tongue under the British Solomon's orders, "Nemo me imune lacessit." In James III. 's reign the symbol of the thistle was first mentioned among the crown jewels, and on the marriage of his son to Margaret Tudor, Dunbar indited a prophetically-named poem "The Thrissel and the Rose." This bride brought about the union of the sister kingdoms, although at the time of her marriage no seer foretold that she brought along with her dowry the succession to the crown of England. Her great grandson followed the Stone of Destiny to Westminster when her niece Elizabeth died. So, henceforth, the armed Thistle and the gentle Rose grew side by side. The wild thistle had been associated before this with fair garden flowers, for it had stood shoulder to shoulder with the lilies of France.

"If you would France win,
Then with Scotland first begin,"

was an olden saying, and ambassadors knew how true an adage this was, for when the Rose was a dreaded flower, encroaching on the Thistle's domain, France was her ally and helped to keep the Rose's roots from spreading beyond her legitimate kingdom. The Stuarts, a century after the Rose and Thistle had entwined together, for their special badge adopted an oak leaf in grateful recollection of the sheltered hiding-place Charles II. had found on the tree. The leaf proved to be a somewhat prophetically transient emblem, lacking the tenacious staying power of the thistle. The Jacobites sadly watched it, like their hopes, fade and wither. From the broom which Geoffrey of Anjou plucked and put for cognisance in his helmet his race took their name of Plantagenet. The Forbes in the north have it also for their badge, for the heather and the broom are closely associated together with the hills of Scotland. White heather from its scarcity is prized. Some folk say it is the print left by the resting fairies. When the heather was on fire the blaze meant in days of yore, unsheathed swords in the Highlands. It was a beacon for the clans—

"To arm and make ready then,
Sons of the mountain glen."

In Scottish song we meet ofttimes with the birks. On the grave of true lovers whom death has not divided the birk and the briar flourish together, as when the actors in the tragedy of Douglas are laid to rest.

"Lord William was buried in St. Marie's kirk,
Lady Margaret in St. Marie's quire,
And out of her grave there grew a birk
And out of the knight's a brier."

When the Black Douglas came along full of vengeance, for had not his daughter's lover fought and slain his seven sons—

"He pull'd up the bonny brier
And flang it in St. Marie's Loch."

To "pu' the birks sac green" is an ill omen. So we read in one version of "The Dowie Dens of Yarrow"; in others it is heather. There was a wife who dwelt by Usher's Wells in ballad story—

"A wealthy wife was she,
She had three stout and stalwart sons
And sent them o'er the sea."

They returned to her from the dead and in their hats were branches from a birch.

"It neither grew in syke nor ditch
Nor yet in any sheugh;
But at the gates o' Paradise,
That birk grew green eneuch."

Though presaging ill in dreams to see it green it is a popular favourite, so it may well grow gracefully on its silvery stem, humbly drooping its branches at Heaven's gate.

The cross of the Saviour, tradition says, was made of the bourtree (elder). It is not misliked, often being planted about dwellings, but it is deemed unlucky to cut it. Before trimming it to shoot out anew in spring, it was customary to mention the fact to the free-growing elder in the following words:-

"Bourtree, bourtree crooked
'N'ever straight and never strong,
Ever bush and never tree
Since our Lord was nailed on thee."

That rhyme exonerated the gardener from ill intent. The ever-quivering aspen twists, so the story sayeth, for ever restless with the shame that it was the tree Judas chose. The poet sings in "Gloomy winter's now awa" of "the silver saughs with downy buds," the precursors of spring gleaming and shining against the grey skies of February. Saughs have stood for sorrow ever since by the waters of Babylon the harps were hung on their branches. All the flowers which Goethe classes as the beautiful hieroglyphics of Nature, by which she indicates how much she loves us," are easily understood by unlettered children, and round the blooms they love the best they have woven garlands of association which remain perennial throughout life.

Daisies, the wee modest crimson-tipped flowers, smiling up into little faces, have been always prime favourites. They are forged into chains by tiny fingers. Bairnwort it is called in the borderland, for it is indeed the children's playmate. "The gowans fine" are dear to Scots the world over. Whether the gowan is the larger, long-stemmed species, or the bright- faced, simple floweret—the day's eye—smiling up from out of the carpet of grass at us from dawn to dusk, from earliest spring to the season's end, we know not. It is a lesson to many— humble, contented, with its unflinching gaiety, its bright eye, always admired and popular with young and old. The anemone of our April woods was patronised by our good neighbours the fairies. Inside its drooping bells, which promptly closed around them, they took their beauty sleep, clasped in its petals, when weary of dancing in the glades or wind-swept moors. Some old people remember in their time Easter eggs were invariably dyed by its juice, and at the spring festival of the church this blue Pasque " flower, as it was called, was worn. The pretty name ' windflower,'" says Mrs. Miller Maxwell in Children's Wild Flowers, "is as old as the centuries, for it comes to us echoing down from that mysterious Egypt where, while regarded with tenderness, it yet appeared as the emblem of sickness and suffering. Later on the Romans, ever borrowers of other customs, wore wreaths of anemone only, which they called Egyptian garlands, when entreating the favour of the gods for some beloved sick one's loss. Constantly we find joy and sorrow intermingled, for this same anemone, if mixed with other blooms, was worn at feasts and merry makings, these wreaths having been hung round the statues of Venus, their particular patroness. A special significance was given to the first anemone of the year. The flower was plucked with reverence and religious ceremony, and the magic words repeated, 'Anemone, I gather thee for remedy against all disease,' and then the blossom was put carefully away and kept in its hiding- place till illness threatened."

A companion to the fairy-cradling anemone, which also, slender of stem, braves the breeze on the wind-shorn uplands and decks the sea-braes revelling in the briny air, is the bluebell. It nods among the grasses on the auld fail dyke, roots on the sandy bank by the wayside, and is a welcome flower where'er it blows. It is lengthily named by botanists camtanula roundifolia, but its folk-lore name of harebell tells how it tinkles warningly to the beasts who crouch in their lair near to where it springs, and it sings to them a soft, low melody. Scott speaks of—

"The slight Harebell that raised its head
Elastic from her airy tread,
For waving on its thin tall stern,
It bends before the gale which breaks
The wind-resisting forest trees."

The bluebell's elegant, thimble-like flowers the fairies loved, and pranked along on pageants becapped with harebell hats. The white species is considered lucky when found growing wild. The commoner blue was said to be worn in honour of St. George, but St. George's Day is in April, and the old rhyme likely enough applies to the wild turquoise-coloured hyacinths which at this season Tennyson says are like the heavens upbreaking through the earth.

Ash trees were lucky to have planted around a dwelling. They defended the householder from witches, but as a green shade they are unsatisfactory, being not only loth to clothe themselves with leaves, but shedding them early in the season again. Throughout the Highlands, often the very stones of a deserted cottage or a clachan of hill-side homes have been carted away to mend walls, and a grassy mound and a few lonely ash trees only remain to tell where there had been many a poor black cottage grimy with peat smoke. The old folks, the kind folks who loved the place of old are overseas. The rowan, the ash's relative, is nurtured too by the cottage door. Its red berries make necklets for the children. There lingers since the Roman era a belief in red as an amulet, a preventive of evil. Coral was worn for this reason and holly berries prized therefor. Tennant in his Tour through Scotland mentions that farmers placed boughs of the mountain ash in their cow-houses on the second of May to protect the beasts from malign influence. It was an antidote to all the wiles of witchcraft. A branch of it above the dairy doorway kept the milk sweet. The staff of the churn was made of it so that evil spirits would play no pranks with the butter. The ash was sought for for a Yule log, for the giant tree Yggdrasil which roofed the gods in Asgard was the ash.

Christianity adopted the flowers and used them as emblems of their saints, flowering at the time of their particular festival, so many flowers became herbs of grace bracketed with holy names. For instance, June 24 is St. John's Day, and the yellow flower (hybericum perjorctum) became associated with that feast time. The common fern on St. John's Eve was pulled in the height of summer when witches were abroad; it was a panacea against their incantations. St. Peter's wort was the cowslip, and the bunch of yellow blooms his keys. Southern- wood, whose sweet scent savours of a country church, has also the name apple-ringie. It is the herb of St. Ninian, Saint Rin's wood. The "apple" is from an old word, aplen, for church, or house of the church, so maybe St. Ninian grew the fragrant wood at his home, and it smells still of the kirk and summer. Many flowers with lady in their name had been adopted by the Church and consecrated to the Virgin. The crown imperial lily has its blooms turned down and in the depth of its bell-shaped flowers are great spots. It is said to have assumed this shape for shame at not having bowed to the Lord, and the drops in the depth of its cup are the everlasting tears it sheds in contrition. The flowers throughout the year make us enjoy the friendship of the seasons. They are, as " one who dwelleth by the castled Rhine" said, "stars that in earth's firmament do shine." They lighten and gladden our way, and no place is so exposed, so stony, but they thrive and glow, in some cases turning wastes into fields of cloth of gold. No wonder Linnaus fell on his knees and gave thanks for the " mountain gorses ever golden " so gallantly blooming the whole year long.

There are delicate flowers which cannot face the nipping winds, but peep out at us from nooks where they are cosseted by stronger brothers, or seek shelter in the woodland dells where "spunkies dance." The fragrant violets' scent recalls—

"The sweet South,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour."

Its companion, the primrose, has become the badge of the Conservatives on the supposition that it was Beaconsfield's favourite flower. For on April 19 it is torn from its home on dells and braes and sent up to towns in ton loads to do honour to the great leader's name, yet only once in his writings did D'Israeli mention the pale floweret and pronounce it good for flavouring a salad. Forget-me-nots of Heaven's divinest blue mark the streamlet's course, where they grow profusely " for happy lovers." Blue is the sweetest colour that is worn, green is the emblem of grief, and yellow is forsworn or false, so lovers' knots and lovers' bouquets are of the forget-me-not's true blue. Every flower we tread on, from the butter-coloured celandine, the herald of wild spring, which appears before even the "maids of February" whiten the garden with their snowy bells, all through the seasons till "the reed is withered from the lake and no bird sings," there is on moor and bosky shelter some plant abloom, some tree overhead, which folk lore and association has endeared to us. As well as legend and wood myth to interest us, beauty to please the eyes, the flowers have been given powers to heal bodily ailments. Nature has placed the antidote near the bane. If you have not grasped the nettle like a man of mettle, but handled it gently and been stung for your pains, the soothing dock is near. There is a balm as well as beauty in every flower. Foxgloves relieve the heart-sore. The poppies wave among the wheat—together grow the tall, cultivated staff of life, and, planted by Nature among the straight cereal, ripples the scarlet wave of sleep. As Hamilton Aide says:—

When on some fevered bed perchance,
The corn will not avail,
Nor wine nor any potions deep,
To call one little hour of sleep
Over the eyelids pale;
'Tis then those useless scarlet coats
(Like some of human kind),
Prove their strong hearts can soothe distress,
For all they wear a gaudy dress
That flutters in the wind;
Their sundried leaves have not in vain
Outlived the harvest day,
If life has gained one hour of peace,
If troubles for a moment cease
Under the poppies' sway."

The queen of flowers, the rose, stands for the emblem of silence—sub rosa is a secret message. Eros in Greek mythology presented a rose to the god of silence, and from the East comes another proverb, A little bird told me." It is a saying often in our mouths to-day, and in ballad story we read how Johnnie of Breadeslee, when he and his "gude graiehounds" lay aweary with the chase and glutted with venison they were shot by the seven foresters, Johnnie cried:-

"O, is there nae a bonny bird,
Can sing as I can say,
Could flee away to my mother's bower
And tell to fetch Jonnie away?
The starling flew to his mother's window stane,
And it whistled and it sang,
And aye the ower word o' the tune
Was 'Johnnie tarries lang.'"

The bird as a messenger is a relic of the days when man and beast spoke together. Birds were the swift messengers that sped from country to country. They flutter about us still, for any one who reads the fables of old finds from east to west our little brothers of the air bulk largely in fairy story. In Egypt to-day they say God blesses the house on which the birds build, and we look for a stroke of good fortune when the swallow nests in the eaves. In Scotland the old "doocot," surviving the manor house to which it belonged, stands alone in a field. Superstition would not allow of its being destroyed despite its feathered inmates being voracious poachers among the farmers' new-planted crops. It is still held it forbodes ill to strip the pigeon house, so the feathered poachers have a roof kept over their heads though the chimney stone is cold in the manor. Piebald birds or beasts, by reason of their " kenspeckle" coats, are subject to notice, and round them the country people built a host of superstitions. The pert pyots (angiice, magpies) foretell, according to their number, birth, death, marriage, or an heir:—

"One's joy, two grief,
Three's a wedding, four's a birth."

Or,

"One bodes grief, two's joy,
Three's a marriage, four's a boy."

Sir Humphrey Davy believed in two magpies promising well for anglers in spring. It is held to be unlucky to see one, the reason being, so Sir Humphrey says, in cold and stormy weather one only leaves the nest in search of food:—

"Man on the pict horse,
What's good for the kink host?"

Dr. Jameson says a friend of his often was asked, and the rider of the parti-coloured steed used to amiably order, candy. Folks in spring when they first hear or see summer's heralds note how to meet them:-

"Sit to see the swallows fly,
Stand to hear the cuckoo cry.
Is the foal before its mother's eye,
A happy year will come and fly."

In Scotland the cuckoo is called the gowk, and in some rhymes it is well not to stand but to "gang and hear the gowk yell." To hunt the gowk on April i, is synonymous with making a fool of yourself, for seldom is it heard till May. A cock crowing with its head into the door of a house was said to be a sure token that strangers would soon cross the threshold. So prevalent was this belief, when thus warned, the goodwife would proceed to tidy up the house and prepare, like Leebie in Thrums, to receive visitors. A hen that crowed brought ill luck to the owner, Sand when it evinced such an unwomanly voice it was promptly killed. "Whistling maids and crowing hens are no canny about a house," says the Scotch proverb. A bird coming into a house was as a rule thought to be propitious; but if a cuckoo cried from the chimney, it was held to be a certain sign that death would be below that roof-tree soon. One thing in regard to this latter superstition, the sign would seldom be heard, for the bird who has no sorrow in its song, no winter in its year, despite its impudence in ridding itself of the troubles of rearing its children, is a shy bird seldom seen, unique though its marvellous monotone is, listened for as the advent of summer. Whatever quarter you face when first in the sweet of the year you hear the cuckoo, in that direction your steps will be led during the coming twelve months. The robin, from its sociability and tameness, as well as from the prominent part it played in happing up the babes in the wood with leaves, is a prime favourite. Its breast, legend says, was dyed red in its attempt to pluck the crown of thorns from off the Saviour's brows. The robin by its mythical good deeds has immunity from molestation from mankind. Even nest-hunting boys revere the home of the red-breast. In some cases folk lore has acted as a prevention to cruelty to birds, for rhymes threatening maledictions on those who harm popular birds stay the hand of evildoers.

"The laverock and the untie,
The robin and the wren;
If ye harry their nests,
Ye'Il never thrive again,"

is one verse which Scotch boys believe in. Another verse says:-

"The robin and the wren
Are God Almighty's cock and hen.
The martin and the swallow
Are God Almighty's bow and arrow."

Jenny Wren was always coupled with Cock Robin in the popular mind, and the bustling, diminutive bird was under the Church's protection:—

"Malisons, malisons mair than ten
That harry the Ladye of Heaven's hen."

Although folk lore preserved some birds, it by some curious quirk has harboured the superstition that the yellow hammer (the yorling or the yite in the Scots tongue) drank a drop of the devil's blood on May morning. It is persistently persecuted because of this belief. With its unlucky yellow plumage, its jerky, uncertain flight, it is held to be of peculiar extraction:-

"Half a puddock, half a toad,
Half a yellow yorling,
Drinks a drap o' the deil's blood
Every May morning."

Its note has been translated into a threat of retribution from its patron, the arch fiend:—

"Cis a cis a see,
If ye harry my nest
The deil will harry thee."

Alack! this menace uttered so beseechingly by the blithe little yite (a confiding little bird, for it likes to flutter along the hedgerows as the wayfarer plods his weary way by the dusty highway) does not stay the boys' hand from cruelty. As if to make lip from being withheld from plundering the robin redbreast, the yite is sought and, when found, its nestlings are meritoriously destroyed. "When I was young," says Mr. Napier, speaking of folk lore in the nineteenth century, " I was present at an act of this sort, and as an illustration of courage and affection in the parent bird, I may relate the circumstance. The nest, with four fledglings, was about a quarter of a mile outside the village. It was carried through the village to a quarry as far as the opposite side. The parent bird followed the boys, uttering a plaintive cry all the way. On reaching the quarry, the nest was laid on the ground, and a certain distance measured off, where the boys were to stand and throw stones at it. While this was being done, the parent bird flew to the nest and made strenuous efforts to draw it away; and when the stones were thrown, it flew to a little distance, continuing to cry, and only flew away when it was made the mark for the stones. This was but one of many such torturing scenes yorlings were doomed to suffer, but they have survived, and their confidence in man is unshaken, for it is as bold as the robin in seeking human companionship." The plover was long detested in Scotland. Its wailing cry of peesweet as it hovers overhead when its uplands are invaded by dog or man earned it this hatred. It is a sentinel against invaders on moors and mosses. It may well cry "about the graves of martyrs," for its warning note brought many of them to death in covenanting times. The dragoons watched the fluttering "teuchet" (as the plover is also called in Scotland) and knew from its movements where their prey hid. Many a covenanting meeting had to disperse because of the hovering, bewailing plover, fearful for their young, clamouring overhead. There is still in some parts a traditional antipathy to the descendants of these birds who thus unconsciously betrayed their companions who lurked among the heather. Leyden alludes to this long-remembered grudge against the peesweet, and, speaking of the Presbyterian fugitives in the wilds, says:-

"The lapwing's clamorous whoop attends their flight,
Pursues their steps where'er the wanderers go,
Till the shrill scream betrays them to the foe.
Poor bird! where'er the roaming swain intrudes
On thy bleak heaths and desert solitudes,
He curses still thy scream, thy clamorous tongue,
And crushes with his foot thy moulting young,
In stern vindictive mood."

To turn from superstitions connected with the winged messengers of days of yore to quadrupeds —seers hold it is ill to dream of cows. To meet in the flesh, sheep on the road are good, especially if they pass you on the left. To descend to smaller beasts—a bee, instead of being busy taxing the flowers for honey and wax, flying straight towards one denotes important news a-coming. All children from generation to generation have cherished the same rhyme to exhort the red and black spotted, tortoise-shaped little insect to hasten off whenever they meet it:-

"Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home,
Your house is afire, your children at home;
All but one, that lies under a stone,
Fly thee home, ladybird, ere it be gone."

In Germany, too, it is met with this startling news. In some places in Scotland where this soldier-coated beastie was made to spread its wings and fly, after it folks sang:—

"Lady, Lady Landers,
Lady, Lady Landers,
Take up your coats about your head,
And fly away to Flanders."

We also are all brought up in the belief it is daring of the fates to kill a spider, whether it be the diminutive scarlet one or the longer-legged, web-spinning, fly-catching species. As Lord Rosebery says: "It is never wise to explore what has given you pleasure and to endeavour to trace a delightful fiction to the austere sources of fact," and the tale of Bruce and the spider is so woven into Scottish history, I do not think we would believe King Robert himself if he came back and told us it was all a fiction. The persistence of the spider and the lesson it taught the disheartened king, the sermon it preached for all, how to endure and strive till the goal is gained, is a tale every Scotch child is told, and points a moral, and the spider truly adorns a tale. Cobwebs the stirring housewife cannot endure, but she dreads to slaughter the weaver of them. A cricket singing on the hearth is believed to bring riches to the household so favoured.

There is a deal of the doctrine of forgiveness preached in folk lore and fairy tales, despite the cold blood case of the pitiless treatment of the yellow hammer and a hereditary dislike to the betraying plover. It was believed evil went into the lower animals, and by this means they saved human beings by absorbing it. Pigs, cats, and specially hares are beasts full of ill omen and unlucky if they cross the path of landsman or seaman setting forth on a venture. Pussie appears in many rhymes and warnings. There was always a suspicion hanging about a cat of being an assistant at witchcraft, especially if black—a colour associated with the powers of evil, the devil's livery. The grimalkin of the Herd of Men was a somewhat sacred animal ill Catholic times. There is a game called the Priest's Cat played by rustics at Scottish firesides in the gloamin'. A piece of stick was made hot in the fire and handed from one to another of the circle, idle by want of light, sitting around the hearth.

"About wi' that, about wi that,
Keep alive the Priest's cat,"

one of the party by the fireside said, and passed the brand from hand to hand. When the flame died the person who held the stick was liable to a fine. In days of old, when the priest's cat in the flesh died, there was great lamentation throughout the country-side, as it was supposed to turn into some supernatural being who would work mischief among the human flock, so to keep the priest's live mouse-destroyer in life was a matter of prime importance. Still in some districts people fear to let a cat die in the house, however much of a domestic pet poor "pussie bauldrons" may have been when well. To avoid the catastrophe a bed in an outhouse was made so that it might not expire under the roof tree. To the cat good treatment was as a rule meted out, for from the East it brought with it a halo of sacredness.

With one or two exceptions, in the folk lore of beast and bird we see the initial teaching of the fairy tales to be kind to the lowliest of creatures, for no one knows how good a turn they may be able to do one. The mouse can nibble the lion's bonds, the bird fly over earthly enemies' heads and bring news of friends, forewarnings of raids. Even the plague-carrying, hated rats leave the unsafe ship, telling its tale of rotten timbers to those who choose to listen.


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