The Rowan tree is one of the most sacred trees in Scottish folk tradition. ‘Scottish tradition does not allow the use of the tree’s timber, bark, leaves or flowers, nor the cutting of these, except for sacred purposes under special conditions.’ (Fife)
Rowan is one of the trees associated with Saint Brighid, the Celtic patroness of the arts, healing, smithing, spinning and weaving. Spindles and spinning wheels were traditionally made of Rowan in Scotland and Ireland. Rowan trees planted near stone circles in Scotland were especially powerful. Scottish Fairies were said to hold their celebrations within stone circles protected by Rowan trees. Modern interpretations of the Celtic Ogham place Rowan, called Luis, as the sacred tree of February.
Rowan twigs were placed above doorways and barns to protect the inhabitants against misfortune and evil spirits. It was one of the trees sacred to Druids and used for protection against sorcery and evil spirits. The Druids burnt Rowan on funeral pyres, for it also symbolized death and rebirth. The Druid Ovates and Seers burnt Rowan in rites of divination and to invoke spirits, and Druids used Rowan wood in rites of purification. Ancient Bards considered the Rowan the ‘Tree of Bards’, bringing the gift of inspiration. Rowan is one of the nine sacred woods burnt in the Druids’ Beltaine fire. Rowan is also associated with dragons and serpents – sacred Rowans were once guarded by dragons.
In America, the Rowan is usually referred to as Mountain Ash. Most sources maintain that the word ‘Rowan’ is derived from the Norse word rune, which means charm or secret, and runa, which is Sanskrit for the magician. However according to Elizabeth Pepper, Rowan is a Scottish word, derived from the Gaelic rudha-an, which means ‘the red one’.
Rune staves were often cut from the rowan tree for amulets by the Norse people who invaded Scotland. In the Christian era, the twigs have been used for protection against witches, sorcery, negative magic and the Evil Eye. Twigs tied in a cross with red thread are affixed to doors and barns to keep the inhabitants and livestock from being enchanted, saying this charm, ‘Rowan tree and red thread, will put witches to their speed’ . Walking sticks made of rowan are used to protect the user from the spirits of the woods.
Rowan is also called the Witch Tree, or Wicken Tree, and can be used for divining precious metals, just as hazel can divine water. Witches used Rowan to increase their psychic powers, for spells of healing, success, protection and often used the wood for their magic wands.