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Rowan Tree Day (Beltane Eve)
"Rowan tree, red thread, Holds the witches all in dread."
~ Traditional Scottish
Known as the Mountain Ash in much of the United States and as the Dogberry Tree in parts of Canada, the Rowan tree figures prominently in ancient folklore of the British Isles and elsewhere. Rowan is one of the nine sacred woods burnt in the Druids’ Beltane fire, and the cutting of one, or using any portion of the tree for any purpose other than spiritually approved rituals was taboo. The wood of the Rowan tree was seen as the most powerful and protective part, and Rowan twigs bound with red thread were thought to be a powerful charm against witches or evil spirits. The wood was also fashioned into sticks to stir milk from curdling, pocket charms (or amulets) to ward off rheumatism and evil spirits, divining rods (for the finding precious metals), and the smoke from fires kindled of rowan wood was used to protect cattle from malicious fairies. Because the tree is associated with Saint Brìghde/Brìde, the Celtic patroness of the arts, healing, smithing, spinning and weaving, spindles and spinning wheels were made of Rowan.
"Rowan-tree and red thread
Make the witches tyne their sped"
~ old Scottish saying
The ancient festival of Beltane held most often between April 30th and May 1st is about halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.
Beltane marked the beginning of summer when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures.
Spirits or fairies were thought to be especially active at Beltane, similarly at Samhain, and the goal of many Beltane rituals was to appease them.
One of the main protective devices used were sprigs from the Rowan tree. So powerful were the branches of this tree thought to be, that the collection of them, on the eve before Beltane festivities, came to be known as Rowan Tree Day.
Sprigs of Rowan were often tied with string dyed red from the Rowan berries to cows' tails and horses' halters as protection, and sheep were made to jump through Rowan hoops. Crossed branches of Rowan were often placed in cowsheds and stables for the same purpose, and milking stools and pails were sometimes made of Rowan wood.
Witches (often in disguise as hares) were reported to steal milk from cows (and butter) during Beltane.
Necklaces of Rowan berries with red thread, or sprigs of rowan worn in the hair or on clothing, were often worn for protection by Highland women.
A rowan tree which took root in the fork of an existing tree where old leaves had accumulated, such as another rowan, oak or a maple, was called a "flying rowan" and thought of as especially potent against witches and their magic, and as a counter-charm against sorcery.
For more on the Rowan tree and its uses in Scottish folk traditions, click the tree.