Gaelic tradition affords the craobh-challtainn – the hazel tree – a special place in people’s affections.
The hazel tree (Corylus avellana) is a special plant to the Gaels, as it is to many of the peoples of Europe and western Asia. It is one of the characteristic trees of the ‘Atlantic Hazelwoods’ that have been increasingly recognised as ‘Celtic Rainforest’ in recent years, and it has a long history of being used and loved by the people of Scotland. Nobody who has walked in an ancient Atlantic Hazelwood, where the trees are adorned magnificently with epiphytic mosses, liverworts, lichens and fungi, can fail to have been moved by the experience. And the hazelnut remains one of our favourite foraged foods.
The modern Gaelic name for the species is calltainn – mentioned in a short Gaelic rhyme about native trees and their favoured locations:
Seileach nan allt is calltainn nan creag, Feàrna an lòin is beithe nan eas, Uinnseann an dubhair is darach na grèine, Leamhan a’ bhruthaich is iubhar an lèana. The willow of the streams and the hazel of the rocks, the alder of the damp meadow and the birch of the waterfalls, the ash of the shade and the oak of the sun, the lime of the hill and the yew of the plain.
In the form calltainn, the hazel is found named in several locations on the landscape e.g. Camas a’ Challtainn ‘the bay of the hazel’ on Loch Shiel and Àirigh a’ Challtainn ‘the shieling of the hazel’ in Glen Strae. However, students of the ‘arboreal alphabet’ of the Gaels will know that the letter ‘C’ in ancient times was represented by an older name for the hazel – coll or call. This is also present in old place-names such as Badcall i.e. Bad Call ‘hazel copse’, found in at least three locations in the North West Highlands (although the species does not give us the name for the island of Coll or the village of Coll in Lewis).
An inflected (adjectival) form of call – callaidh – is found in Cùil Challaidh ‘hazel nook’ on the Black Isle (reduced to Kilcoy in English), and a similar form is found in Bealach Collaidh ‘hazel pass’, reported by the great toponymist, W J Watson, as being ‘to the west of [Ben] Wyvis’ (although it is not on the maps). Where the Scots language has modified an earlier Gaelic name, we see coll becoming ‘cow’ as in Duncow near Dumfries (from Dùn Collaidh ‘hazel fort’). In Lowland Scotland there are numerous examples of Cowie and Cowden names, many of which are likely to have originated in a Gaelic reference to hazels. Watson was able to prove this in the case of Cowden near Comrie in Perthshire, which was Coldon in old documents and which Gaelic speakers in his day still referred to as A’ Challtainn ‘the hazel wood’. Cowdenknowes near Melrose, made famous in the traditional song ‘Broom of the Cowdenknowes’, provides evidence for the historical spread of Gaelic into the Scottish Borders, as well as for the presence of the hazel in the environment. And Cowcaddens in Glasgow, with an early form Kowcaldenis, has been derived by scholars from Coille Challtainn ‘hazel wood’.
There is a Gaelic simile cho fallain ris a’ chnò ‘as healthy as the nut’which almost certainly refers to the hazelnut. Indeed, an alternative name for a hazel wood is coille-chnò ‘nut wood’. Archaeological evidence informs us that hazelnuts were consumed by humans in Scotland as far back as the Mesolithic, and they have long provided a food source for squirrels, mice and some birds.
Hazelnuts also have a special place in Gaelic folklore in both Scotland and Ireland, with a particular form being known as cnò an eòlais ‘the nut of knowledge’. It was by eating the flesh of a salmon that had itself consumed some of these special nuts, that Fionn mac Cumhail, the great legendary leader of the Fianna, achieved his superior knowledge. In one of the great legends of Skye, the warrior queen Sgàthach and her student Cù Chulainn fought some stupendous battles with neither coming out on top – until each of them, by taking a meal of roasted hazelnuts, acquired the wisdom to discontinue the conflict! The belief did not die with these ancient legendary figures – it was also said in more recent times that children born in autumn who were given the milky fluid from unripe hazelnuts as their first meal would develop prophetic powers.
The nuts were not just nutritious or connected to superior knowledge. A double nut, called a cnò chòmhlach, was used as a charm against witchcraft, and two hazelnuts were sometimes placed in a fire, each representing the member of a couple whose romantic suitability for the other was being tested. If the nuts burned quietly alongside one another, a happy marriage would ensue, but if they burst apart, the relationship would not endure.
It was not just the nuts that were valued by the Gaels. Hazel rods, being straight, yet flexible at a certain stage of their development, were prized for the construction of clèibh ‘creels’ for fishing and agricultural work, and for barrel hoops, as well as for shepherd’s crooks, walking sticks, tool handles and the frames for the bow tents of the travelling people. Their use for shepherds’ crooks which would be employed in the training of sheepdogs has given us the expression with regard to dogs that are in need of further instruction – tha e feumach air buille a’ challtainn ‘it needs the chastening of the hazel’.
As in other parts of the British Isles, hazel trees were often managed in the Gàidhealtachd by turning them into a preasarlach, a process known in English as ‘coppicing’. This takes advantage of the natural inclination of the species to be multistemmed, and allows stems to be harvested, on a rotating basis, every few years. One of the reasons for such practice was to provide a sustainable supply of wood for the manufacture of gual-fiodha ‘charcoal’ – an important fuel in industrial processes. In some cases, place-names with gual ‘coal’ may refer to a charcoal industry based on the management of hazel woods. A possible example is Rubha Guail ‘coal point’ in Sleat, Skye, from which charcoal was likely exported by the people of the now-abandoned village of Leitir Fura (where hazel trees still grow).
And here’s a puzzle of the sort that the old Gaels would often pose in the taigh-cèilidh. Where would you find birds’ feet on the floor of a hazel wood? The answer is on a newly-cut stump of a hazel tree. The young shoots, which will develop in time into slatan-calltainn ‘hazel rods’, are known as casan-eunain ‘little bird’s feet’.
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This blog was written by Inverness-based writer, broadcaster and storyteller Roddy (Ruairidh) Maclean, whose work highlights the connections between the Gaelic language and Scotland’s environment.