Very superstitious – nature and folklore in the spotlight

Explore Scotland’s natural environment and you will soon discover that it is packed full of folklore and superstition. Down through the years a close connection with nature led people to interpret its signs and symbols in many weird and wonderful ways. This Friday the 13th we take a look at a few of the best known tales.

White heather ©Lorne Gill SNH for web

White heather ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Lucky white heather

One of the best-known Scottish superstitions is that of lucky white heather. The old Celtic story goes that a young woman, discovering that her lover had died in battle, turned the heather white with her tears. As the legend tells, she declared that while white heather was a symbol of her sorrow it should bring good fortune to others. While purple heather is often abundant across Scottish moorland sites, the white variety is much less common. White versions of different coloured flowers crop up from time to time due to genetic mutations. Sometimes these are very rare which makes finding one a “lucky”. experience.

Rowan berries.©Lorne Gill/SNH

Rowan berries ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Rowan for protection

Heather isn’t the only flora that is associated with luck. Many say planting a rowan tree near your house will ensure a happy home and keep evil spirits at bay. Where a rowan grows on its own, good fortune will be bestowed upon the home but those who cut down a rowan tree will bring bad luck upon themselves. Rowan, also known as mountain ash, has brilliant red berries in the autumn and as the colour red was considered to be the best defence against magic or enchantment, this may have contributed to the reputation of the tree as having protective qualities.

Fungi, Cragbank wood NNR, Forth and Borders Area.©Lorne Gill/SNH

Woodland fungi ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Fungi fairy circles

If you’re planning a woodland walk, one thing you might come across is a fairy ring. Should you believe the ancient legends, these supernatural spots are where the woodland fairies dance and play and if you were to stray into the ring it might be the last you are ever seen. In fact, these “fairy rings” are actually naturally occurring loops of mushrooms spreading out in all directions. Eventually, nutrients in the central spot are used up and the spore network dies out leaving the circular pattern as it continues to expand outward.

Grey Seal ©Lorne Gill

Grey Seal ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Selkies from the sea

Scottish folklore tells of shapeshifting creatures that can change from a seal at sea to human form on land by casting off their seal skin. In many such stories one of these “selkies” or seal folk is forced to stay on land when their seal skin is stolen and hidden. The folk tales are said to originate in Orkney, where both harbour and grey seals can be found around the shores, although grey seals are more numerous. There are Special Areas of Conservation and designated haul outs for both species around the islands to recognise their importance.

Magpie (Pica pica).©Lorne Gill

Magpie ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Magpies for sorrow

Some birds and animals are said to have the powers of foresight. Magpies have often been associated with prophecies and many will know the old rhyme based on counting the black and white birds: “One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret, never to be told.” Another tradition is the practice of saluting magpies. Whether a simple “Hello, Mr Magpie” or a full conversation, some believe that if a lone magpie is spotted it must be greeted with good wishes or sorrow will lie ahead. It’s not clear where the ‘bad luck’ superstition arose, but magpies have gained a bad reputation for supplementing their diet by taking bird eggs and fledglings. However there’s no evidence that they have an adverse effect on song bird populations.

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