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The Burning Heart of Scotland’s Yule – Charring the Old Wife

Plant lore is the verdant heart of Scottish folk holidays and traditions. The Yules are no exception, even though at Yuletide the greenery has all but gone, the ground grasped in winter’s frozen embrace.  If we look beyond this, nature’s gift and sacrifice is found in the burning heart of Yule – the Yule log of ash or birch.

“While Santa keeks doon frae the mantle above,
the Yule log crackles oan this Christmas Nicht,
waurmin’ hearth an’ hame by burnin’ sae bricht.
We coorie thegither, my wife an’ I,
voicin’ oor thouchts aboot the day ganged by.
A’ wheest in the daurk we savour oor love.”
‘When the Yule log Crackles’ – Francis Kerr Young

Nowadays, we tend to think of Yule as a single day. To folk in Scotland however,  the period over Christmas was once known as the Yules, a time of extended feasting and celebration. This idea is reflected in names like Nollaig mhòr, ‘Big Christmas’ – given to Christmas Day – and Nollag bheag, ‘Little Christmas’ or ‘New Year’s Day’. Other traditional names for the season allude to the light it brings to hearth and home such as Oidhche Choinnle , ‘Candle Night’.

For communities, this time of year was all about the feast, propitiation and divination and a rest from work. Charity to others in the community was also a big part of Yule.

“Yule’s come and yule’s gane
And we have feasted weel
Sae Jock maun to his flail again
And Jenny to her wheel.”
Popular Rhymes in Scotland

Recipes for such foods as the Ye’el Bannock or Yule Bannock, ‘sour cakes’ or ‘soor poos’ are still around today. These foods, along with plentiful meat, featured heavily in the celebrations, and every effort was made to obtain flesh and eat it after the sun had set on Yule. If you didn’t, the cattle would suffer come the following year, or so folk believed.  Traditionally the Yule bannock and other dishes should be cooked over the heat from the Yule log burning in the hearth throughout the festive time.

The Burning Heart of Yule

There is an old Scottish saying, ‘He’s as bare as the birk at Yule E’en’, alluding to having no clothes or being poor. The birk in this case refers to the birch tree. When stripped of its bark, the birk, or birch, was dried for burning over the Yules.

The gathering of the Yule log was announced with much drama and mirth. Sometimes the log was decorated with evergreens and only brought into the house on Christmas Eve. On the practical side, as long as the Yule log burnt, the feasting would continue, so Scottish folk always tried to get the biggest log to burn. In some cases it had to burn continually from the 24th of December until Old Christmas Eve on the 5th of January. On farms in 18th century Norfolk the best cider was served only as long as the Yule log burnt. Master and servant alike would drink from the good stock. As soon as the Yule log stopped burning it was back to the bad cider. It’s easy to see why in some cases the Yule log was nigh on a tree trunk.

In Stromness, Orkney, up until 1936, a tug of war would ensue over the biggest Yule log. The tree had to be gathered secretly from someone’s garden without them noticing or knowing. The huge Yule log was carried into the middle of town and ropes and chains attached. A contest between Northenders and Southenders would then start, each team tugging and pulling their side. The winners were the team who could drag the Yule log to their side of the town. That side of the town would then supposedly ‘hold the luck’ for the year.

In Scotland, folk used to sit on the Yule log before it was burnt, and, if it was big enough, when it was on the fire. Each took turns: singing and toasting to a great Yule. Some believe this might represent a way of giving thanks to the tree for its gift of light and heat. Others say it might be a way or propitiating the spirits, like ‘knocking on wood for luck’, or perhaps reminiscent of earlier sacrifices carried out at this time of year.

It never stops to astonish me how often the Cailleach appears in Scottish folk traditions. The Yule log – called the Cailleach Nollich, the Christmas Old Lady or Oldwife in Scotland – derives from a female figure chalked onto the log. (Interestingly a figure of a man was chalked in a similar fashion in Cornwall). The outline of the chalked woman would burn away as the fire grew – charring the old wife. Some suggest this replaced the proprietary sacrifice required at this time. This ‘sacrifice’ helped keep death at bay until next Yule. A gift demands a gift. A life demands a life. Or so the story goes.

Similarly, in parts of Somerset, Ashen Faggot Night was celebrated, where ash replaced the birch. Divinations were made according to the burst and snap of the willow, hazel or green ash bands around the log as it swelled in the fire. Because green wood was used, it would have made quite a loud noise when it did snap. A toast would be raised to the snapping of bands, and the festivities would continue. Linked but distinct from this, Welsh folk looked to their shadows cast by the Yule log from the fire, looking to see who would appear on the walls as headless shadows. Those that did were destined to die. A life demands a life. A gift demands a gift.

Soot for the De’ils breakfast

Regardless of the type of tree burnt, folks would ensure they kept a piece of the burnt Yule log throughout the year that followed. Some traditions kept the ash from the Yule log in the cellar, protecting from witches and bringing good luck. In Somerset, folk placed part of the left over Yule log in the byre to create good fortune for calf rearing. This ‘saved’ part of the log was said to protect houses from burning down and if kept under the bed was even said to protect from chilblains. Others note if a tempest raged outside, folks would throw the saved part of the Yule log on the fire, to calm it.

If the household managed to retain the bit of old Yule log they would use it to light the new one. The old wood was lit, then the new log was placed on top. This is so the ‘old fire and the new fire burn together’.  You can see this idea echoed in the poem by Robert Herrick (1591 – 1674):

‘With last year’s brand
light the new block,
and for good successe in spending
On your psalters pray
That sweet luck
Come while the log is tending.

This ash faggot Night
Is of peace, good and right
So those with ill will that needs mending
Let your heart be made clean
Drive out thought that is mean
Before the faggot has ending

Log burn
Wheel turn
Evil Spurn
Sun return’

Interestingly, there was a tradition in Buckie in Banffshire, Scotland, where fishermen would clean the chimney of the soot on the run up to Yule. The years worth of soot was said to be ‘soot for the de’ils breakfast’ and served to the de’il or devil on Yule morning.

Why Ash or Birch?

‘When the hallow days o Yule were come
And the nichts were lang and mirk
Then in and came her ain twa sons
And their hats made of the birk’

The above is taken from the ‘Wife of Usher’s Well’, found in English and Scottish Popular Ballads, collected by Francis James Child.  The ballad alludes to ‘wearing a birch hat,’ – a metaphor for death and the dead. The dead would come a knocking at Yule time. Necromancy and the dead are very common in Scottish folk magic, which you can read more about here.

The birch is a tree often associated with death. To dream of pulling the ‘birk sae green’ portends death in the ballad, ‘The Braes o Yarrow’. A wand ‘o bonny birk’ is laid on the breast of the dead in Sweet William’s Ghost.  In Somerset, there is a legend where ‘the one with the white hand’ (a birch it is believed) was a spirit haunting Taunton Moorland. Rising up out of the scrub of birch and oak, it drifted up to lonely travellers so fast they could not escape. She was deadly pale and wore clothes rustling like dry dead leaves. With her hand resembling a blasted branch, she would point a finger at your head and send you mad or put her hand on your heart, stopping it dead.

Birch is equally associated with protection and fertility. Today folks still whip themselves with birch twigs after a sauna, some say to increase fertility, others suggest it drives away evil spirits.

Ash has so much folklore surrounding it; it’s hard just to focus on a few elements. There is no doubt the tree was held sacred by the people of the UK and beyond. According to Hesiod, the people of the third age of the world (Bronze Age) were born of the Ash tree. Teutonic mythology argues the first people came from the Ash tree with links to Yggdrasil, the world tree, spine of the worlds. Ash and human birth are linked in many ways. In the Highlands, the midwife would make sure the first thing a newborn ate was ash sap. She did this by placing a green ash branch into the fire and letting the sap drip out the other end onto a spoon, feeding it straight away to the bairn just born.

Ash has long been associated with protection from witchcraft and the Devil. In Ireland the tree was burnt to banish the Devil, and may be why it features as a Yule log. In Lincolnshire, the female ash (called sheder) would protect against male witches. The male ash tree (heder) would protect against female witches.  Wreaths of ash were wrapped around cow horns, and English mothers rigged little hammocks for their newborns in ash trees, believing the tree would protect them from witches and wild animals whilst they worked.

Bringing in the Trees

There are a couple of ideas I’d like to share with you. One is for birch twig tea, the other for pickled ash keys. Creating a way for you to bring a little of the trees magic into your pantry.

Birch Twig Tea

To make birch twig tea is really simple. Find a birch tree and take off some of the small twigs found at the edge of the branches.  You need a small handful for one cup. Take them home and bring about two cups of water to the boil. Cut of the twigs into smaller pieces and place them in the now boiling water. Cover with a lid and decoct, simmering for around 20 mins. Leave the lid on. After 20 mins you will have a nice brown brew with maybe a little oil floating on the surface. It has a nice sweet winter green like taste. Some folk gently roast the twigs, which is said to make the brew a little sweeter.

Pickled Ash Keys

Ash is in the same family as the oilive tree (oleaceae). Ash keys, once pickled, are a bit like capers. Rather than write out the entire process you can find a great recipe here from the fantastic forager Robin Harford, based in Galloway.

Though nature is at its lowest ebb at Yule, we still find a way to bring the power of the landscape in to our homes and communities. Ash and birch are central and essential to the Yule celebration. Though emphasising different elements of life and death and perhaps holding different levels of cultural importance in Scotland and England. This Yuletide maybe bring a little of the protective magic of birch and ash into your home. Not only for the light and warmth but also to keep alive a tradition with roots far deeper than any tree.

References & Further Reading

Macculoch, J. (1824) The Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland. Containing descriptions of their scenery and Antiquities.
Parham, R. J. (2014) ‘Exmoor Traditions’, Folk Traditions Quarterly (2014) p41.
James, E.O. (1962) Sacrifice and Sacrament. Thames and Hudson.
Courtney, M.A. (1890) Cornish Feasts and Folklore. Penzance. Beare.
Chalmers, R. (1870) Popular Rhymes of Scotland. London. Edinburgh.
Beith , M (1995) Healing Threads.  Traditional medicine of the highlands and islands. Polygon. Edinburgh.
Ó’Súlleabhàin, S. Irish folk custom and belief. Cultural Relations Committee Ireland.
Baker, M (1980) Discovering the Folklore of Plants. 2nd ed. Princes Risbororough, Shire.

 

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Scott Richardson-Read lives in the Scottish Borders, deep inside Reiver territory under the shadow of ancient forest overlooked by the sacred Eildon Hills. He is an academic and an animistic folk practitioner (of sorts) writing primarily for www.cailleachs-herbarium.com. He’s currently signed to a publishing house in Glasgow for an upcoming book focussing on traditional Scottish folk magic practices crafted from deep dive research and folk practices long since forgotten. Due out in 2019.

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