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The Druids

The Rannoch Rowan

The Rowan on Rannoch Moor

The Rowan

The Rannoch Rowan
The Quicken Tree

Delicate Luis, lively Rowan tree
your honeyed berries breaking on the tongue
bring youthfulness and life. Light, mystic one
your boughs sweet-smoke with incense.
In their haze bright, summoned spirits
pass between the worlds.

According to Tree Yoga (see references below), the The Rowan (sorbus aucuparia), Mountain Ash or Quickbeam,is attuned to the spiritual properties of inspiration, the voice of the heart, and protection. Inspiration is the alternative to following dogma and attunes us to deeper truths. Protection means being looked after by a power stronger than ourselves and the Rowan's ability to shield from harm is still invoked in parts of Europe as described below.

The Rowan or Luis is a fruiting tree belonging to the rose family (rosacea). The rowans comprise the genus sorbus with about 85 members. It is believed to have taken its name from the Norse 'runa', meaning 'charm'. It likes altitude (up to 3200 feet) and is native to Scotland. In Scotland it was known as the Caorann and Scottish tradition prevented it from being cut except for funeral pyres, to make a threshing tool, or for ceremonial purposes. Like the apple tree it is linked to the otherworld. In North America it is often referred to as the Mountain Ash (because its leaves have a similar appearance to those of the ash). Another name is Quickbeam. This comes from the Anglo-Saxon name Qvicbeam. To the Anglo-Saxons, the rowan was known as the "life-tree". This was related to the "quickening" in which, every spring, livestock were lightly beaten with rowan branches to stimulate the life force.

The bitter red berries are not poisonous but the parasorbic acid in them can cause stomach irritation. This acid is rendered harmless by gently cooking, which will preserve the vitamin C content. Rowan berries contain more vitamin C than citrus fruits. On the practical side, the rowan's branches were used to fashion spindles and spinning wheels.

The berries are very useful medicinally. Cut the clusters off the trees in October while they are still firm and red (leave some for the birds!) and hang them upside down in brown paper bags to dry. This is best done in a warm, airy place. When they are completely dry, you can seal them in dark, air-tight jars. The juice from the berries is mildly laxative and makes a good gargle for sore throats and hoarseness. To extract the juice from the dried berries, soak one teaspoonful in one cup of cold water for 10 hours, strain and use as a gargle. When made into jam, the fruit becomes astringent, which is good for mild diarrhoea.

To make the jam, collect fresh berries in the autumn and remove the stalks. Boil the berries and strain off the seeds and skins. Reboil the liquid until it sets. You may need to add some crab-apples to supply pectin to ensure that the mixture sets.

The fruit of the rowan can be boiled, strained and made into wine or gently boiled to make a vitamin C drink which, in earlier times, was used to combat scurvy. The Welsh used to a special ale using Rowan berries, however the secret of is now lost.

Although it is not a large tree, the Rowan has figured extensively in worship all over the Northern hemisphere. In an Icelandic myth, Thor the thunder god had his life saved by the Rowan. The name 'rowan' is thought to have derived from the Norse word 'rana' meaning 'charm'. In Norse mythology the first woman sprang from the rowan. Also, the rowan was sacred to Germanic and Norse tribes because Thor was saved from drowning in the river of the underworld by clutching the branches of a Rowan.

The rowan is still invoked in parts of Europe as a guardian against evil spirits and negative forces. Sprigs of rowan above a doorway keep those of evil intent away, while rowans are often planted near to churches and houses in the belief that a healthy rowan will protect the land it stands on. Rustling a rowan branch forces demons to speak the truth; placing a rowan branch on the bed keeps you safe for "no faerie dare touch or cross the rowan". (The Welsh Fairy Book). Traditionally, the Rowan is a particularly effective protection against the black arts and a piece of red thread bound around a rowan twig is said to be effective in turning aside any spell.

According to Druidic lore the Rowan is the tree of the Bard and bestows the gift of Awen, inspiration. The Druids planted rowan trees in the sacred groves, along with the oak and the ash. Being a small tree it was considered a "feminine" tree and the priestesses made rowan (and willow) groves their abode. The priests favoured groves of the "male" tree, the oak. It is believed that the worshippers inhaled smoke from rowan fires to induce a trance state which brought protection and enabled them to forewarn. In Ireland, the rowan is still known as fid na ndruad, 'the Druid's tree'. Also in Ireland the goddess Brighid is often represented by the rowan, while in Britain Brigantia was invoked under the sign of the rowan. Both Brighid and Brigantia were said to possess arrows made of rowan, which could catch fire when necessary.

Fair goddess-flowered oracular
your groves speak female wisdom while your rods
spin threads of life. Your subtle, scented fruits
drew Grainne in her quickening. Sacred moon-tree,
druid-favoured, when your limbs are bare
on frosted nights your head
holds starlight.

The Rowan gives protection and talismen and good luck charms were fashioned from it, along with countless invocations. The colours of the rowan are vibrant, deep green and scarlet, bright red berries. The colour of the berries associates them with life and death. The colour red was the colour of the blood of the gods and so the rowan was considered to be their natural food. In Greek mythology the rowan sprang from the blood of a sacred eagle sent by Zeus to take back the Cup of the Gods which had been stolen by eagles.

The Rannoch Rowan

A well known landmark on the A82 road and standing in lonely isolation in the desolate wilderness of Rannoch Moor, the Rannoch Rowan sits on top of a giant lichen-encrusted boulder. The beautiful berry-laden tree is a common site. The secret of its survival is in the fact that its elevated position on the boulder keeps it safe from the attention of grazing sheep and deer.

Once, between 5000 and 2500 years ago, the moor was covered with a birch and pine wood but as the climate changed, the landscape gradually changed to the desolation seen today. Only a small group of native pinewood now forms the Black Wood of Rannoch and the rest is open country.

The Quicken Tree

An otherworldly tree guarded by the giant Sharvan the Surly, it had allegedly grown from a berry dropped by one of the faeries, Tuartha de Dunaan. The berries were said to taste of honey and those who ate them received joy and youthfulness. Sharvan allowed Diarmuid and Grainne to stay in the forest on condition that they did not take a single berry from the tree. All was fine until Grainne became pregnant. As the child quickened in her womb she developed a craving for the berries. Diarmuid could only obtain the berries by killing the giant.

O Quicken Tree,
bright-berried one of life and loveliness.
Otherworldly tree of faerie powers,
youth is in your fruit, no woman can resist
your honeyed berries

Gift-giving one, your power calls out
with thrust of life and young desire of love
Immortal tree, wellspring of loveliness,
beside your roots, in hindering chains
the surly life-denying giant crouches
One-eyed guardian, ogre of malice,
boldness must strike you down,
only in death is found
New life's releasing

Acknowledgements and further reading:

Tree Yoga - a WorkbookSatya Singh and Fred HagenederEarthdancer
The Heritage Trees of Britain and Northern IrelandJon Stokes and Donald RodgerConstable
The Oxford Companion to English LiteratureSir Paul HarveyOUP
The Observer's Book of TreesFrederick Warne & Co. Ltd.
The Green Man Tree OracleJohn Matthews & Will WorthingtonBarnes & Noble
The Welsh Fairy Book. W. Jenkyn ThomasDover Publications
The Celtic Book of Seasonal Meditations. Claire HamiltonRed Wheel
The Meaning of Trees. Fred HagenaderChronicle Books

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Ken James 2008