Lightfoot’s Flora Scotica (1777) makes considerable reference to the uses of native trees by the Gaels.
The Reverend John Lightfoot (1735-88) is rightly lauded for his seminal work Flora Scotica, published in 1777, which contributed to his considerable reputation as a naturalist, and which in turn saw him elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1785. While, in some respects, the text is a standard botanical cyclopaedia of its day concerning native Scottish flora, it also contains a significant number of cultural references and is therefore a particularly valuable document to this blogger.
A native of Gloucestershire, Lightfoot was educated at Oxford University and was a close friend of Joseph Banks, the leading English botanist of his day. His journey to Scotland with the Welsh author Thomas Pennant in 1772 led to two major volumes of work – Pennant’s ‘A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides’ which remains in print today and Lightfoot’s self-published Flora Scotica in two volumes which can be accessed on the internet.
For the many accurate references within each author’s work to the Gaels and the Gaelic language, we can be grateful that they chose as their travelling companion the Rev. John Stuart of Killin in Perthshire (later of Luss, Loch Lomond), one of the foremost Gaelic scholars of his day and the chief translator of the Old Testament into that language. He made crucial contributions to the published accounts of each of his companions, giving them authority and understanding which would have otherwise eluded them.
In this blog, I would like to delve into the cultural references in Flora Scotica with regard to some of our native trees, largely restricting myself to Lightfoot’s commentary on particular uses by the Gaels, although he also makes considerable reference to the natives of Lapland and other parts of Scandinavia. I have employed modern orthography where it differs from that used by Lightfoot and Stuart.
The first is the beithe ‘birch’ with which ‘the Highland woods abound’, according to Lightfoot, and which was widely used by the people. The bark was used to tan leather and to make ropes, and the outer part of it, called meilleag (a word still in use today in Gaelic Scotland and Canada), was sometimes burned in place of candles. Lightfoot adds that the wood was ‘formerly used by the Highlanders to make their arrows, but is now converted to better purposes, being used by the wheelwright for ploughs, carts and most of the rustic implements; by the turner for trenchers, bowls, ladles etc, the knotty excrescences affording a beautiful, veined wood, and by the cooper for hoops. To which may be added that it affords excellent fuel, and makes the best of charcoal and the soot is a good lamp-black for making printer’s ink.’
The leaves of the birch were used as fodder for sheep and goats and yielded a yellow dye. Its small branches ‘serve the highlanders for hurdles, and side-fences to their houses [and] the pliant twigs are well known to answer the purposes of cleanliness and correction.’ The last seems somewhat cryptic until one recognises that domestic practices with regard to toileting have changed significantly over the last two and a half centuries.
Lightfoot is by now well into his cultural stride and spends the next page and more describing in detail how to tap into birch trees at the beginning of March and extract sap using hollow sticks of elder in order to make a ‘generous and agreeable liquor’ i.e. birch-sap wine. The English parson pointedly recommends it to his ‘Highland friends’ and declares it to be ‘a happy substitute in the room of the poisonous whisky!’
The second major tree in Flora Scotica is the feàrna ‘alder’, the timber of which ‘endures moisture well and is therefore esteemed for making water-pipes, or any other use where the situation of it must be wet or damp, in which state it turns black like ebony. It is used also by the wheelwright and turner for making wheels of carts, bowls, spoons, rakes, heels for women’s shoes, clogs, pattens [overshoes] etc. The highlanders often make chairs of the wood, which are very handsome and of the colour of mahogany.’ And, just in case you thought the good reverend had exhausted the uses of alder, he adds that the ‘knots furnish a beautiful, veined wood for cabinets and the branches make good charcoal’. In the Highlands, a black dye was made by boiling yarn with a mixture of alder bark and copperas, and Lightfoot notes the occasional use of the leaves for tanning leather.
The darach ‘oak’ is noted as being ‘frequent’ in the Lowlands but ‘dwarfish’ in the Highlands. In addition to its being employed in ‘navigation and architecture’, as well as tanning, Lightfoot notes that the ‘highlanders use the bark to dye their yarn of a brown colour or, mixed with copperas, of a black colour. They call the oak “The king of all the trees in the forest” [it is still referred to as Rìgh na Coille in Gaelic], and the herdsman would think himself and his flock unfortunate if he had not a staff of it.’ Of the calltainn ‘hazel’, Lightfoot claims that some Gaels looked upon the tree as unlucky, but that they considered two conjoined nuts, known as a cnò-chòmhlaich, to be a good omen which would be carried on the person as an ‘efficacious charm against witchcraft’.
The giuthas ‘Scots Pine’ (called ‘The Wild Pine or Scotch Firr’ by Lightfoot) is reckoned by the English parson among the most useful of all our trees, with the tallest and straightest ‘formed by nature for masts to our navy’. He notes the use of bog pine in many parts of the Highlands, with the resinous roots being dug out and splintered, to manufacture candles. At Loch Broom (Ross-shire) he notes that fishermen made ropes of the inner bark, a material often used because of ‘hard necessity’ as a food in Scandinavia. He also makes the following entertaining comment, although not in particular reference to Scotland: ‘The farina, or yellow powder, of the male flowers is sometimes in the Spring carried away by the winds in such quantities where the trees abound, as to alarm the ignorant with the notion of its raining brimstone!’
Lightfoot makes considerable comment on the taxonomically challenging willows, whose Gaelic names are poorly recorded, and admits that specimens gathered for him by the Rev. John Stuart had proved impossible to classify ‘in so difficult and vague a genus’. He does, however, record the Gaelic generic seileach and notes that the ‘inhabitants of the Highlands and Hebrides frequently use the bark of these to tan their leather.’ The smooth soft, flexible wood was used to make tool handles and to ‘furnish shoemakers with cutting-boards and whetting-boards, to smooth the edges of their knives upon.’
Of other tree species which are notable in Gaelic tradition, Lightfoot notes that the iubhar ‘yew’ is ‘found here and there in the Highlands, in a truly wild state’ (a matter of some contention in the modern era) and he notes that his ‘ingenious friend, Mr Pennant’ had noted the remarkable ‘decayed’ specimen in Fortingall churchyard, a tree still celebrated today for its longevity. He makes general comments about the aiteann ‘juniper’ and its use in the manufacture of gin, and he gives an account of an ancient tradition concerning the uinnseann ‘ash’, thus: ‘In many parts of the highlands, at the birth of a child, the nurse or midwife, from what motive I know not, puts one end of a green stick of this tree into the fire and, while it is burning, receives into a spoon the sap or juice which oozes out at the other end, and administers this as the first spoonful of liquor to the new-born babe.’
Perhaps it’s appropriate to conclude with the account in Flora Scotica of one of the iconic trees of the Gàidhealtachd, the craobh-chaorainn ‘rowan tree’ (given as Quicken-Tree or Mountain Ash for an English readership, with the Scots form written ‘roan’, representing a common English pronunciation of ‘rowan’). Lightfoot notes that on Jura the juice of the berries was used ‘as an acid for punch’ and that ‘the highlanders often eat them when thoroughly ripe and, in some places, distil a very good spirit from them.’
Lightfoot also comments on the special place of this species in the hearts and minds of the Gaels: ‘It is probable that this tree was in high esteem with the Druids, for it may to this day be observed to grow more frequently than any other in the neighbourhood of those Druidical circles of stones, so often seen in North-Britain, and the superstitious still continue to retain a great veneration for it, which was undoubtedly handed down to them, from early antiquity. They believe that any small part of this tree carried about them, will prove a sovereign charm against all the dire effects of enchantment or witchcraft. Their cattle also, as well as themselves, are supposed to be preserved by it from evil; for the dairymaid will not forget to drive them to the shealings or summer pastures with a rod of the Roan tree, which she carefully lays up over the door of the sheal boothy [sic], or summer-house, and drives them home again with the same. In Strathspey they make, for the same purpose, on the first day of May, a hoop of the wood of this tree, and in the evening and morning cause all the sheep and lambs to pass through it.’ I don’t imagine that Lightfoot would be altogether surprised that there are many ‘superstitious’ folk alive in Scotland today who yet ‘retain a veneration’ for the rowan tree.
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.