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Scottish Charms and Amulets
Crosses of Rowan-Tree used as Charms

The Rev. Dr Gregor of Pitsligo has presented to the Museum a facsimile of a cross of the rowan-tree or mountain-ash (Sorbus aucuparia). Such crosses were formerly held in high repute in Scotland as powerful preservatives against witches, ghosts, and kindred evils. Among the Icelanders the rowan (Icel. reynir) was a sacred tree consecrated to Thor. In Sweden a staff of the rowan (Sw. rönn) protected one from sorcery, "and on board a ship the common man likes to have something made of rönn-wood, as a protection against storms and watersprites." In Scotland the virtues of the rowan-tree are embodied in the following rhyme :

"Rowan-tree and red thread,
Puts the witches to their speed."

According to Stewart a safeguard against ghosts consisted in forming a cross of the wood with a red thread, which was to be inserted between the lining and cloth of a person’s garment, and so long as it lasted no ghost or witch would ever have the power to interfere with the wearer. In the last century it was customary among the Highlanders to carry branches of mountain-ash decked with wreaths of flowers, with "shouts and gestures of joy, in procession three times round the fire" of Beltane. "These branches they afterwards deposite above the doors of their respective dwellings, where they remain till they give place to others in the succeeding year." In Banffshire boughs of the mountain-ash were placed over byre-doors on the 2nd of May, in Pennant’s time; and in the district of St Fillans, Perthshire, so late as 1887, to keep the cattle free from disease. In Angus, on the evening preceding Rood-day (May 3rd), a piece of a branch cut and peeled and bound round with red thread was placed over the byre-door, to avert the evil eye; and in Aberdeenshire, in 1862, crosses of rowan-tree were similarly placed on the same evening as a protection against evil spirits and witches. In Kirkcudbrightshire and on Speyside, it was common to bind into a cow’s tail a small piece of mountain-ash, to protect the animal against witchcraft. In Jura, a stick of the tree was kept as a protection against elves, and a rowan-tree growing in a field protected the cattle from being struck by lightning.

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