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The Biodiversity and Management of Aspen Woodlands
Aspen in myth and culture

The Biodiversity and Management of Aspen woodlands: Proceedings of a one-day conference held in Kingussie, Scotland, on 25th May 2001

Anne Elliott
Scottish Natural Heritage, Achantoul, Aviemore, Inverness-shire. PH22 1QD. Email: Anne.Elliott@snh.gov.uk


Why include a paper on the myth and culture of Aspen in the proceedings of a conference about Aspen biodiversity and management?

Put simply, we should not lose sight of the fact that Aspen has survived best in areas where it is valued by the people who live there, and it will only continue to survive, and spread, with their help. People value Aspen for many reasons, but the two main ones are its landscape and its cultural value. In Badenoch and Strathspey the golden autumn colours of aspen are stunning, and it contrasts beautifully with the bronze of the Birch and the sombre green of Scots pine. The cultural value of wildlife is often overlooked, but I would suggest that it is as integral a part of its value as its scientific interest.

The word Aspen derives from the Old English aespe or aepse, which is related to aspe in German, asp or baevreaspe in Danish and Swedish and osp in Norwegian. The alternative names zitterpappel in German and ratelpopulier and trilpopulier in Dutch, all mean 'quaking poplar' (Edlin 1964).

In Gaelic, Aspen is critheann, or critheach. The origin is crith, meaning to shake or quiver. The saying 'Critheann san t-sine' means 'like an Aspen in the blast' (Dwelly, 1998). In the Gaelic language, the letters of the alphabet are represented by trees, and Aspen signifies the letter E, 'eubh'. The derivation of this practice is uncertain, but it is thought that it may have acted as ateaching aid in the oral tradition, prior to the introduction of the standardised, Latin alphabet. Eighteen tree and shrub species are used to represent 18 letters or sounds (Edlin, 1950)*.

In Irish, Aspen is arann-aritheach (McBain, 1982) or criteac and eada (Edlin 1964). In Early Irish, it is also crith (McBain, 1982). Aspen is also given several names in Welsh, where the proper name is aethnen (Edlin 1964) or aethnea (Nodine 1995). McBain (1982) states that in Welsh it is cryd, and in Old Welsh, cirt. Two Welsh colloquial names are coed tafod merched and coed tafod gwragedd, both meaning 'the tree of the woman's tongue' (Edlin 1964).

Aspen is occasionally called the 'quaking tree' in Badenoch and Strathspey (various pers. comm.), or elsewhere in Scotland 'quaking ash' or 'old wives' tongues' (Jonathan Willet, pers. comm.). Aspen's Latin name is Populus tremula, which is the name for the family, Populus, and from the Roman tremula, meaning to tremble, or shake (Edlin 1964).

Aspen is occasionally referred to as an element in place names. Crianlarich is possibly the 'Aspen tree (critheann) of the ruined house (lariach)' (Darton, 1994). A Gaelic name for Aspen, crann critheach, has given rise to Killiecrankie, 'wood of the Aspens', in Perthshire. In Sutherland, Ospisdale is thought to mean 'Aspen valley' (Edlin 1964). In England, Aspen is found as a place name element in Aspenden in Hertfordshire, meaning valley where the Aspen trees grow, from Old English aespe and denu. Similar cases arise with Aspley in Bedfordshire, meaning 'Aspen wood or glade', and Aspull in Greater Manchester, meaning 'hill where the Aspen trees grow' (Mills, 1991). Espley in Northumberland and another Aspley, in Warwickshire, are further examples (Edlin 1964).

The Greek name for Aspen is aspis, and means shield. The Celts apparently used Aspen timber for making shields, and these shields were more than mere physical barriers between warrior and enemy; they were imbued with additional magical, protective, qualities to shield the bearer from psychic as well as physical harm. The magically protective nature of the 'shield tree' extended to the general population too and Aspen, like the rowan tree, was a popular choice of tree to plant close to a dwelling (Trees for Life 2001). However, this may not have been the only reason why Aspen was planted or encouraged next to settlements. When taken in concentrated form, the bark of Aspen is reputed to have abortive properties and this may have been used to terminate unwanted pregnancies in rural communities (Peter Cosgrove, pers. comm.).

Elsewhere, Aspen appears to have had a rather negative reputation. 'The people of Uist say that the hateful Aspen is banned three times. The Aspen is banned the first time because it haughtily held up its head while all the other trees of the forest bowed their heads lowly down as the King of all created things was being led to Calvary. And the Aspen is banned the second time because it was chosen by the enemies of Christ for the Cross upon which to crucify the saviour of mankind. And the Aspen is banned the third time because..(here the raconteur's memory failed him). Hence the ever-tremulous, ever quaking motion of the guilty, hateful Aspen even in the stillest air. Clods and stones and other missiles were hurled at Aspen by the local people. The reciter, a man of much natural intelligence, said that he always took off his bonnet and cursed the hateful Aspen with all sincerity wherever he saw it. No crofter in Uist would use Aspen about his plough or about his harrows, or about his farming implements of any kind. Nor would a fisherman use Aspen about his boat or about his creels or about any fishing gear whatsoever' (Carmichael 1997)*.

The understanding in the Highlands of Scotland that Christ's cross was made from Aspen appears to be longstanding. In 1777, Lightfoot wrote 'The belief amongst eighteenth century Highlanders, that the crucifix was made from Aspen, was evidenced by the fact that the leaves are always restless'*.

Aspen has an interesting place in religious superstition of the Highlands. Until recently, it was thought that the sound of the leaves rustling in the wind was able to induce prophetic insight (although Highland men were known to draw an analogy between the sounds and the incessant chatter of their wives!). This perhaps reflects early, Pre-Christian beliefs - the same that might be responsible for the taboo on this plant's use in farming or fishing. In Christian belief, the plant was cursed - a Gaelic saying translates to "Malison be on thee, O Aspen cursed, on thee was cru-cified the king of kings" (Fife, 19??).

According to the Trees for Life website, folk taboos, including those against the use of Aspen for fishing or agricultural implements, or for house building, suggest that Aspen may have been considered a faerie tree on a par with rowan, which has similar taboos. Trees important to pagan religions appear to have been deliberately demonised in later, Christian, teaching.

Despite these negative associations, Aspen did have some specific uses:

  • Its wood was used for making matches and arrows, and as a source of timber for gun-powder charcoal.

  • The wood was reputedly used for teething rings in some parts of the Highlands, as the wood of the cross was sacred (Jonathan Willet, pers. comm.).

  • Its timber is very lightweight when dried, and very buoyant, so it was used for oars and paddles. Its lightness also made it suitable for wagon bottoms and for surgical splints. Its softness and lightness, though ideal for sculpting, are not suitable for use in building, though floorboards were sometimes made of Aspen as a safety measure, as Aspen wood does not burn easily (Trees for Life).

  • Aspen was the badge of Clan Ferguson according to some (Dwelly 1998).

  • It gives a yellow dye (Thompson, 1969)* and a black dye from the young leaves, and brown dye from the bark (Jonathan Willet, pers. comm.).

  • The Bach Flower Remedies recommend extracts of Aspen to treat fears and apprehensions (Trees for Life).

  • Aspen leaves, bark and shoots are very palatable to grazing animals, and according to Trees for Life, hand gathered Aspen leaves were fed to cattle when other food was scarce.

This short paper demonstrates some of our cultural responses to Aspen. The strength of this response perhaps reflects its importance in the landscapes in those areas where it occurs in any numbers.

References

Carmichael, A. 1997. Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations Collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the Last Century. Floris Books, Edinburgh.

Darton, Mike. 1994. The Dictionary of Place Names in Scotland. Eric Dobby Publishing, Kent.

Dwelly, E. 1998. Dwelly's Illustrated Gaelic to English Dictionary. Gairm Publications, Glasgow.

Edlin, H. L. 1950. The Gaelic Alphabet of Tree Names. Scottish Forestry 4: 72 - 75.

Edlin, H. L. 1964. Wayside and Woodland Trees. Frederick Warne and Co Ltd, London.

Fife, H. 19??. The Lore of Highland Trees. Famedram, Gartochan.

Flora Celtica. The references marked * are direct quotes from the Flora Celtica, which has a web site run by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh and is highly recommended to those interested in the history and culture of plants. The web address is rbg-web2.rbge.org.uk/celtica/fc.htm

Lightfoot, J. 1777. Flora Scotica. B. White, London.

McBain, A. 1982. An Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language. Gairm Publications.

Mills, A D. 1991. The Popular Dictionary of English Place-names. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Nodine, M. 1995. English-Welsh Meta-Dictionary, available at www.cs.cf.ac.uk/fun/welsh/

Thompson, F. 1969. Harris tweed - The story of a Hebridean Industry. David and Charles.

Trees for Life, at www.treesforlife.org.uk, is an interesting web site for information on Aspen and trees in general.


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