Retiring May to lovely June

The majestic Hawthornden Castle dates back to the 15th century. Photo: The Bryce Collection
The majestic Hawthornden Castle dates back to the 15th century. Photo: The Bryce Collection

Winnie Stevenson (Roslin Heritage Society) continues her series of articles exploring Roslin Glen’s flora and fauna 100 years ago.

“They blow
With such a simple loveliness among
The common herbs of pasture”

Wherever the winter rains have worn out channels down the steep banks of the wood, there we may depend on getting the Meadow Sweet flowering luxuriantly.

Their crowds of cream, foam-like flowers, in striking contrast to the reddish shade of the stem and their strong almond-like odour make them show up boldly, decidedly “Queens of the Meadow.”

This strong odour serves to attract insects, though in their search for honey, these are doomed to disappointment with the meadow-sweet.

Indoors the scent very soon becomes oppressive and unpleasant and the poison from the juices of this plant has been known to bring on illness through a large bunch being kept in a bedroom.

Yet we have it on the authority of an old writer that on account of its pleasing perfume “Queen Elizabeth of famous memory did more desire it than any other herb to strew her chambers withal.”

With all due deference, however, to the tastes of the famous English Queen, the poison in the plant is an indisputable fact. It is the same poison indeed as is to be found in bitter almonds and in the liquid known as almond flavouring and all who use these know that they have to be used very sparingly.

It is said to have been widely used in England at one time for flavouring beer, and as beer was then known as mead, it has been thought that it got its name in this way. For the sake of the flower we will still keep it Meadow Sweet.

Now burgeons every maze of quick

About the flowering squares

Like the meadow-sweet, the Hawthorn belongs to the rose family, and though so pretty at this time of year, the scent is peculiar and denotes the presence of the same poison we have referred to above.

Many people find the scent most unpleasant.

Hawthorn is not common in the Glen and even in the Hawthornden Grounds to which it gives its name, many of the trees have apparently been planted recently.

In England hawthorn is known as the “May” because it flowers in that month and a short time ago a controversy was waged in one of our papers on the subject of the old rhyme –“Ne’er cast a clout, till May is oot.”

The point of dispute was whether May in this case referred to the month or the tree. We leave it to the judgement of our readers. In other parts of the country it is know as Whitethorn to distinguish it from Blackthorn, but neither of the names is appropriate for the stems, though relatively light and dark are by no means white and black.

It has also earned the name “Quickset,” or “Quick” as Tennyson calls it, in virtue of the rapidity of its growth which makes it so valuable as a hedge.

Hawthorn, the name by which it is best known in this locality is a compound of haw and thorn. Haw or “haig,” as the red fruit is called, is a cognate form of hedge and most likely the fruit took its name from the hedge in which it is most generally found.

The presence of the thorn on the hedges is too well known to require any notice, except that it might be pointed out that the thorns are quite different from those of, say, the wild rose or bramble. The latter are merely thickened hairs, while in the hawthorn they are of the nature of small pointed branches.

The hawthorn bounding pasture grounds as it does, protects itself in this way from horse and cows which would otherwise crop them bare.

It was a common belief not so long ago that when a plant, as the hawthorn or nettle, had the power of inflicting injury, it produced also the means of alleviating the pain it had caused and in this way we find it given that the most potent remedy for a scratch or wound from the hawthorn was to apply water distilled from the flowers of the plant as being “cooling and drawing.”

This theory was widely known as the “Doctrine of Signatures.” So with the nettle, holly, rose and so on.

The hawthorn in England was the favourite flower in the decoration of the May-pole at the time when May-day customs were universally observed in rural parts, and the servant who was the first to introduce a branch or the hawthorn in full flower into the farmhouse was entitled to a dish of cream for breakfast.

All these customs have now fallen into abeyance. It is known also the hawthorn was the private emblem of the Tudor family and it is to the following incident that the old proverb applied –

“Cleave to a crown, though it hung in a bush.”

“On the 22nd of August, 1485, was fought the famous battle of Bosworth Field. The royal troops were disheartened, but Richard fought more fiercely than before. Sir Wm Hanley rode up with his followers and Richard, fighting fiercely, was borne to the ground and slain.

“The body of the king was stripped of his rich armour. Richard had ridden into battle with a golden crown upon his helmet. When he fell, the crown rolled away and could not be found.

“At last it was discovered lying under a hawthorn bush. Sir Wm Stanley brought the golden circlet to Henry of Richmond and there on the field of battle, placed it on the conqueror’s head, hailing him no longer as Henry of Richmond but as Henry VII, King of England. So fell Richard of Gloucester, the last of the Plantagenet Kings.” – Arnold Foster’s History of England.

In an account of a visit to the Holy Land an old writer describes how he was shown the actual crown of thorns that was made for our Saviour’s brow, and that the crown was made of the branches of Whitethorn.

This Whitethorn or Holy Thorn, as it is sometimes called, is a relation of our hawthorn and it is credited with many virtues.

Any person carrying a branch during a thunderstorm was supposed to be secure from danger. A ship which had a branch aboard was safe from the tempest, and a house decorated with Whitethorn was immune from all evils.

In some countries a large branch was hung over the door as country people here hang up a horse-shoe to keep away witches and their attendant dangers.

•This is the seventh in a series of articles, sourced by Winnie Stevenson (Roslin Heritage Society), which appeared in the Midlothian Journal in 1914.