The Enchantress of the Woods: Dunollie’s Rowan Tree
A few feet from the North Wing of our 1745 House, forming part of the border between the driveway and the path to Dunollie Castle, sits an ancient Rowan tree with its striking red berries currently in gorgeous contrast to the green of the trees behind.
Drenched in folklore, with connections to the Druids and Norse mythology, the continued reputation of this magical tree as a protective symbol reminds us how embedded traditions and stories are in the rich culture of the Scottish Highlands and Islands.
It is likely that the Rowan tree’s historic reputation began thanks to the bold red of its berries. The colour red has long been associated with powerful protection and life force energy – the colour of blood. Red string was also used to tie crosses made of rowan wood together to form protective talismans which were carried by people, hung above fireplaces or thresholds, or even tied to the tails of cattle to ward off evil spirits. Whilst tying these crosses together one would recite the incantation “rowan tree and red thread, make the witches tine their speed.”
This mystical tree furthers its reputation as a protective omen through the unusual five-pointed stars – or pentagrams – opposite the stalk of the Rowan tree’s berries. Pentagrams are an ancient symbol of balance and protection against evil forces. It is not just the autumn which brings forth the magic of the Rowan tree, however. When the tree is not displaying its beautiful red berries, it is covered in beautiful white flowers, and would often have been denoted as a Faerie or Goddess tree.
The Rowan trees proximity to the houses here at Dunollie may not be coincidence, as these trees were believed to provide protection not only when made into talismans but to the dwellings by which it grew, as well as to the inhabitants of the house. This belief in the power of the tree created taboos around harming them or using any part of the tree save the berries. However, there were exceptions. Due to the wood of the Rowan tree being so strong and resilient, it makes excellent walking sticks, spindles, spinning wheels and other tools, believed to contain the energies of protection, strength, and wisdom.
Druids also considered these trees to be sacred and believed them to be a portal between this world and another, either an entrance or an exit. They made exceptions to the preservation of these trees also, but rather than making tools from the wood they burned the Rowan tree in Beltane bonfires and funeral pyres. Rowan trees are often found near the stone circles of ancient burial sites, believed to have been planted by Druids as another way to protect the spirits of the dead.
The mystical powers of the Rowan tree are not only famous in the Scottish Highlands. In Norse mythology, Thor was being dragged through the underworld in a fast-flowing river before a Rowan tree arched across, therefore creating something for him to cling to. The myth continues that this was the tree from which the first woman was made, the first man having been made from an ash. Before the Rowan’s berries bloom, it does bear a resemblance to a small ash tree, and pentagrams – a shape already touched on in the Rowan tree’s story – has been known to represent divine femininity.
The Rowan tree is also present in Greek mythology, where there can be found a story of Hebe, goddess of youth. Hebe gave out ambrosia, the nectar of the gods, from a magical chalice. But when this chalice was taken by demons, the gods sent an eagle to recover it. During the ensuing flight, the eagle shed blood and lost feathers and where each feather and drop of blood fell, a rowan tree sprung up. This legend says that this is why Rowan leaves look like feathers and the berries are blood red. Here at Dunollie we have a story long told of an injured eagle in residence at our abandoned castle… could they have brought the Rowan tree to our grounds?
The Rowan tree, regardless of how it arrived, thrives here in its perfect climate. They are known to grow well in high-altitude locations – more so than any other tree - and are commonly found in the wild, particularly here in the highlands of Scotland. Mature trees can grow to 15m in height and can live for up to 200 years. Like many trees and plants in our beautiful garden grounds, the Rowan tree is an important provider for wildlife. Its flowers produce pollen and nectar for bees and other insects, while the berries are a rich source of autumn food for birds, especially birds like redstarts which we are known to see a lot of here at Dunollie.
The berries, as well as feeding birds throughout cold autumn months, are also suitable for human consumption when cooked. Throughout history, wine has been made in the Scottish Highlands using Rowan berries, and Scots also used to make a strong spirit from them. Today, rowan berry jelly is still made in Scotland and traditionally eaten with game.
If you are at Dunollie in the future, look out for this tree as you walk towards our castle, and enjoy passing by a tree more mystical than any other – an otherworldly portal, a protector, and a provider.