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Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs
Chapter XIV - Trees and Springs


Tree-worship—Ygdrasil—Personality of Plants—Tree-ancestors — " Wassailing" — Relics of Tree-worship — Connla's Well—Cutting down Trees Unlucky—Spring at Monzie—Marriage Well—Pear-Tree Well--Some Miraculous Trees---External Soul—Its Connection with Trees, &c.—Arms of Glasgow.

TREES were at one time worshipped as well as fountains. Ygdrasil, the world-tree of Scandinavian mythology, had three roots, and underneath each, was a fountain of wonderful virtues. This represents the connection between tree and well in the domain of mythology. But the same superstition was connected with ordinary trees and wells. Glancing back over the history of civilisation, we reach a period, when vegetation was endowed with personality. As plants manifested the phenomena of life and death like man and the lower animals, they had a similar kind of existence attributed to them. Among some savages to-day, the fragrance of a flower is thought to be its soul. As there was thus no hard and fast line between man and the vegetable kingdom, the one could be derived from the other; in other words, men could have trees as their ancestors. Curious survivals of such a belief lie both revealed and concealed in the language of to-,day. Though we are far separated from such a phase of archaic religion, we speak of the branches of a family. At one time such an expression represented a literal fact, and not a mere metaphor. In like manner, we call a son, who resembles his father, "a chip of the old block." But how few when using the phrase are alive to its real force! Mr. Keary, in his "Outlines of Primitive Belief," observes, "Even when the literal notion of the descent from a tree had been lost sight of, the close connection between the prosperity of the tribe and the life of its fetish was often strictly held. The village tree of the German races was originally a tribal tree with whose existence the life of the village was involved."

The picturesque ceremony known as the "Wassailing of Apple-trees," kept up till lately in Devon and Cornwall, carries our thoughts back to the time when tree-worship was a thriving cult in our land. It was celebrated on the evening before Epiphany (January 6th). The farmer, accompanied by his labourers, carried a pail of cider with roasted apples in it into the orchard. The pail was placed on the ground, and each one of the company took from it a cupful of the liquid. They then stood before the trees and repeated the following lines --

"Health to thee, good apple tree,
Well to bear pocket-fulls, hat-fulls,
Peck-fulls, bushel bag-fulls."

Part of the contents of the cup was then drunk, and the remainder, was thrown at the tree amid shouts from the by-standers. Relics of the same cult can be traced in the superstitious regard for such trees as the rowan, the elder, &c., and in the decoration of the May-pole and the Christmas Tree. According to an ancient Irish legend, a certain spring in Erin, called Connla's Well, had growing over it nine mystical hazel trees. Year by year these trees produced their flowers and fruit simultaneously. The nuts were of a brilliant crimson colour and contained in some mysterious way the knowledge of all that was best in poetry and art. Professor O'Curry, in his "Lectvcres on the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish," refers to this legend, and says, "No sooner were the beautiful nuts produced on the trees than they always dropped into the well, raising by their fall a succession of shining red bubbles. Now, during this time the water was always full of salmon, and no sooner did the bubbles appear than these salmon darted to the surface and ate the nuts, after which they made their way to the river. The eating of the nuts produced brilliant crimson spots on the bellies of these salmon, and to catch and eat these salmon became an object of more than mere gastronomic interest among those who were anxious to become distinguished in the arts and in literature without being at the pains and delay of long study, for the fish was supposed to have become filled with the knowledge which was contained in the nuts, which, it was believed, would be transferred in full to those who had the good fortune to catch and eat them."

In many cases it was counted unlucky to cut down trees, since the spirits, inhabiting them, would resent the injury. In the sixteenth century the parishioners of Clynnog, in Caernarvonshire, refrained from destroying the trees growing in the grounds of St. Beyno. Even though he was their patron saint, he was quite ready to harm anybody who took liberties with his grove. Loch Siant Well, in Skye, was noted for its power to cure headaches, stitches, and other ailments, and was much frequented in consequence. Martin says, "There is a small coppice near to the well, and there is none of the natives dare venture to cut the least branch of it for fear of some signal judgment to follow upon it." Martin also tells us that the same reverence was for long paid to the peat on the island of Lingay. This island, he says, "is singular in respect of all the lands of Uist, and the other islands that surround it, for they are all composed of sand, and this, on the contrary, is altogether moss covered with heath, affording five peats in depth, and is very serviceable and useful, furnishing the island Borera, &c., with plenty of good fuel. This island was held as consecrated for several ages, insomuch that the natives would not then presume to cut any fuel in it."

When trees beside wells had rags hung on them as offerings, they would naturally be reverenced, as the living altars for the reception of the gifts. But even when not used for this purpose, they were sometimes thought to have a mysterious connection with the springs they overshadowed. In the parish of Monzie, Perthshire, is a mineral well held in much esteem till about the year 1770. At that time two trees, till then the guardians of the spring, fell, and with their fall its virtue departed. On the right bank of the Clyde, about three-quarters of a mile from Carmyle village, is the once sylvan district of Kenmuir. There, at the foot of a bank, is a spring locally known as "The Marriage Well," the name being derived, it is said, from two curiously united trees beside its margin. These trees were recently cut down. In former times, it was customary for marriage parties, the day after their wedding, to visit the spring, and there pledge the bride and bridegroom in draughts of its sparkling water. On the banks of the Kelvin, close to the Glasgow Botanic Gardens, once flowed a spring styled the Pear-Tree, Pea-Tree, or Three-Tree Well, the last name being probably the original one. In former times it was a recognised trysting-place for lovers. A tragic story is told in connection with it by Mr. James Napier in his "1'Totes and Reminiscences of Partick." A maiden, named Catherine Clark, arranged to meet her lover there by night,

"nor did she ever dream
But that he was what he did ever seem."

She never returned to her home. "A few days after," remarks Mr. Napier, " her body was found buried near a large tree which stood within a few yards of the Pea-Tree Well. This tree was afterwards known as `Catherine Clark's Tree,' and remained for many years an object of interest to the visitors to this far-famed well, and many a sympathising lover carved his name in rude letters on its bark. But the tree was also an object of terror to those who had to pass it in dark and lonely nights, and many tales were told of people who had seen a young female form dressed in white, and stained with blood, standing at the tree foot." The tree was removed many years ago. The spring too is gone, the recent extension of the Caledonian Railway to Maryhill having forced it to quit the field.

Near the moat of Listening, in county Kilkenny, Ireland, is a holy well dedicated to St. Mullen, who is said to have lived for a while in its neighbourhood. A fine hawthorn, overshadowing it, grew—if we can believe a local legend—from the staff of the saint, which he there stuck into the ground. This reminds one of the famous Glastonbury Thorn, produced from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea, who fixed it in the ground one Christmas Day. The staff took root at once, put forth branches, and next day was covered with milk-white blossoms. St. Servanus's staff, too, had a miraculous ending. He threw it across the Firth of Forth, and when it fell on the Fife coast, it took root and became an apple-tree. A group of thorn-bushes, near Aghaboe, in Queen's County, Ireland, was dedicated to St. Canice. The spring, overshadowed by them, was much resorted to for the purposes of devotion. At Rearymore, in the same county, some hawthorns, growing beside St. Finyan's spring, were, and doubtless still are, religiously preserved by the natives. In the Isle of Man is Chibber Unjin, signifying The Well of the Ash. Beside it grew an ash tree, formerly decorated with votive offerings.

What has been called the external soul has an important place in folklore, and forms the theme of many folk-tales. Primitive man does not think of the soul as spiritual, but as material—as something that can be seen and felt. It can take different shapes. It can leave the body during sleep, and wander about in the guise of an animal, such as a mouse. Considerable space is devoted to this problem in Mr. J. G. Frazer's "Golden Bough." Mr. Frazer there remarks, "There may be circumstances in which, if the life or soul remains in the man, it stands a greater chance of sustaining injury than if it were stowed away in some safe and secret place. Accordingly, in such circumstances, primitive man takes his soul out of his body and deposits it for security in some safe place, intending to replace it in his body when the danger is past; or, if he should discover some place of absolute security, he may be content to leave his soul there permanently. The advantage of this is, that so long as the soul remains unharmed in the place where he has deposited it, the man himself is immortal; nothing can kill his body, since his life is not in it." Sometimes the soul is believed to be stowed away in a tree, injury to the latter involving disaster to the former. The custom of planting trees, and calling them after certain persons may nowadays have nothing to do with this notion; but, undoubtedly, a real connection was at one time believed to exist between the partners in the transaction. A certain oak, with mistletoe growing on it, was mysteriously associated with the family of Hay. The superstition is explained in the following lines :--

"While the mistletoe bats on Errol's oak
And that oak stands fast,
The Hays shall flourish, and their good grey hawk
Shall not flinch before the blast.

But when the root of the oak decays
And the mistletoe dwines on its withered breast,
The grass shall grow on the Earl's hearthstone,
And the corbies craw in the falcon's nest."

At Finlarig Castle, near Killin, in Perthshire, are several trees, believed to be linked with the lives of certain individuals, connected by family ties with the ruined fortress. Aubrey gives an example of this superstition, as it existed in England in the seventeenth century. He says, "I cannot omit taking notice of the great misfortune in the family of the Earl of Winchelsea, who, at Eastwell, in Kent, felled down a most curious grove of oaks near his own noble seat, and gave the first blow with his own hands. Shortly after, the countess died in her bed suddenly, and his eldest son, the Lord Maidstone, was killed at sea by a cannon bullet." In the grounds of Dalhousie Castle, about two miles from Dalkeith, on the edge of a fine spring is the famous Edgewell Oak. Sir Walter Scott, in his "Journal," under date May 13th, 1829, writes, "Went with the girls to dine at Dalhousie Castle, where we were very kindly received. I saw the Edgewell Tree, too fatal, says Allan Ramsay, to the family from which he was himself descended." According to a belief in the district, a branch fell from this tree, before the death of a member of the family. The original oak fell early in last century, but a new one sprang from the old root. An editorial note to the above entry in the "Journal" gives the following information:—"The tree is still flourishing (1889), and the belief in its sympathy with the family is not yet extinct, as an old forester, on seeing a branch fall from it on a quiet still day in July, 1874, exclaimed, `The laird's deed, noo 1' and, accordingly, news came soon after that Fox Maule, eleventh Earl of Dalhousie, had died."

The external soul was sometimes associated with objects other than living trees. Dr. Charles Rogers tells us that "a pear, supposed to have been enchanted by Hugh Gifford, Lord of Yester, a notable magician in the reign of Alexander III., is preserved in the family of Brown of Colston, as heirs of Gifford's estate." The prosperity of the family is believed to be linked with the preservation of the pear. Even an inanimate object would serve the purpose. The glass drinking-cup, known as the "Luck of Edenhall," is connected with the fortunes of the Musgrave family, and great care is taken to preserve it from injury. Tradition says that a company of fairies were making merry beside a spring near the mansion-house, but that, being frightened by some intruder, they vanished, leaving the cup in question, while one of them exclaimed

"If this cup should break or fall,
Farewell the luck of Edenhall."

Some living object, however, either vegetable or animal, was the usual repository of the external soul. A familiar folk-tale tells of a giant whose heart was in a swan, and who could not be killed while the swan lived. Hunting was a favourite occupation among the inhabitants of the Western Isles; but on the mountain Finchra, in Rum, no deer was killed by any member of the Lachlan family, as it was believed that the life of that family was in some way linked with the life of these animals. A curious superstition is mentioned by Camden in his "Britannia." In a pond near the Abbey of St. Maurice, in Burgundy, were put as many fish as there were monks. When any monk was taken ill, one of the fish was seen to float half-dead on the surface of the pond. If the fish died the monk died too, the death of the former giving warning of the fate of the latter. In this case the external soul was thought of as stowed away in a fish. As is well known, the Arms of the City of Glasgow are a bell, a tree, a fish with a ring in its mouth, and a bird. The popular explanation of these emblems connects them with certain miracles, wrought by Kentigern, the patron saint of the burgh. May we not hold that an explanation of their symbolism is to be sought in a principle, that formed an article in the beliefs of men, long before Kentigern was born, as well as during his time and since? The bell, it is true, had, doubtless, an ecclesiastical association; but the other three symbols point, perhaps, to some superstitious notion like the above. In various folk-tales, as well as in Christian art, the soul is sometimes typified by a bird. As we have just seen, it has been associated with trees and fish. We are entitled therefore to ask whether the three symbols may not express one and the same idea under different forms. It is, of course, open to anyone to say that there were fish in the river, on whose banks Kentigern took up his abode, and quite a forest with birds singing in it around his cell, and that no further explanation of the symbolism need be sought. All these, it is true, existed within the saint's environment, but may they not have been regarded as types of the soul under the guise of objects familiar to all, and afterwards grouped together in the burgh Arms? On this hypothesis, the symbols have survived the belief that gave them birth, and serve to connect the practical life of to-day, with the vague visions and crude conjectures of the past.


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