What holly is to Christmas, the rowan is to Beltane.
Beltane Eve, cargoes of rowan were brought from the woods, and branches
were hung up in the home. A wand or sucker, or sometimes a cross-tied
with red wool, was placed above the lintel of house, barn, byre,
sheepfold, and stable, and special care was taken to insert one in the
midden, which was a favourite rendezvous of the black sisterhood. A
sprig was coiled into a circlet and placed beneath the milk-boyne to
prevent the milk from being spirited away. Ivy and bramble were used
for the same purpose, either separately or intertwined with rowan. In
the Highland especially, young girls washed their faces in may-dew and
carried sprigs of rowan.
both Beltane and Hallowe’en, the people of Strathspey made a hoop of
rowan tree through which all the sheep and lambs were to pass in the
morning and again in the evening; and in Breadalbane it was customary
for the dairymaid to drive the cattle to the sheilings on Beltane
morning with a wand of the tree cut on the day of their removal. The
wand was afterwards placed above the door, where it remained until the
cattle returned to the winter-town at Hallowmas. In some districts
sprigs of rowan were tied with red thread to the cows’ tails before
they were driven out to the pastures. In the North of Scotland, the
herds cut staves of rowan-wood on Maundy Thursday and put a cross-piece
in a cleft at one end. The crosses were laid by until the first of
May, when they were taken out and adorned with wild herbs, and were
then fixed above the door of the byres.
cross of rowan is an instance of the blending of pagan and Christian
symbols. The rowan and the red thread are, of course, pagan charms,
and their association with the Christian symbol of the Cross can be
traced to the attempt made by the Church to merge the pagan festival in
the ecclesiastical one, the Invention of the Holy Cross.
(spinning-wheels) and spindles were commonly made of rowan wood, and it
is recorded of an old woman who lived in Selkirk in the middle of the
nineteenth century that regularly, every Beltane, she procured a new
rowan-tree pin, which served her as a talisman for the twelvemonth.