In legend and folklore, the hazel, along with the apple and hawthorn, is a tree often found at the border between the worlds where magical things may happen. In the Scots ballad, Hind Etin, the title is the name of a spirit who guards the hazels of a sacred tree. The May Margret goes to the wood for nuts, and unwisely gathers his nuts:
She had na p’ud a nut, a nut, A nut but barely ane,
Till up started the Hynde Etin, Says Lady, let thae alone
In the north of England, the hazel-tree guardian was called ‘Melsh Dick’ and in Yorkshire ‘Chum-milk Peg’; ancient protectors of the unripe nuts.
As might be expected from their legendary reputation for bestowing prophetic powers, hazels have been used for divination throughout the centuries. Druidic wands were made from the wood, and it has always been the preferred wood for water divining and dowsing. Until quite recently young lovers roasted hazel-nuts over fires at Hallowe’en, which was also known as ‘Nut-crack Night’. The way they burnt steadily together or flying apart, foretold the course of their relationship in the coming year. This custom is an example of the connection between hazeIs and love, which is very ancient. An old Fenian story tells how Maer, the wife of one Bersa of Berramain, fell in love with Finn and tried to seduce him with hazel-nuts from the Well of Segais bound with love charms. Finn refused to eat them, pronounced them ‘nuts of ignorance’ rather than nuts of knowledge and buried them a foot deep in the earth.
Country folklore has always linked the nuts with fertility. An old saying proclaims that a girl who goes nutting on Sunday will meet the Devil and have a baby before she can wed. This recalls the ballad of Hind Etin, in which May Margret goes on to become the tree-guardian’s wife and eventually has seven children by him. In 19th century Devon, an old woman traditionally greeted a new bride with a gift of hazels for fertility in the same wary that rice or confetti is used today. ln English villages country-dwellers associate a prolific show of hazel catkins with the advent of lots of babies, and late as the 1950s, the saying, ‘Plenty of catkins, plenty of prams’ was taken quite seriously.