Part 1 of this blog explored the sensory excitement of foraging for your own food and discovering an array of delicious plants in the same way that our ancestors did, even in the heart of the city. Part 2 ventures deeper into the philosophical wildwood of orchard culture in Scotland looking at Gaelic stories and place names associated with orchards…
In the last blog, we followed a short but inspirational foraging journey in a small meadow-orchard-woodland oasis of North Kelvin Meadow in the urban West End of Glasgow, right near the river Kelvin. In this blog, I want to reflect on my own connection to the story of place, as someone who grew up in Skye as a Gàidhlig speaker, helping out on my parents’ croft, and who has moved to Glasgow as many Highlanders have done. The old tales I heard when growing up made an impression on me I am excited to discover their relevance in relation to orchard culture today.
The etymology of the place-names of much of Glasgow, are from the Cumbric, a now extinct language related to modern Welsh. For example Kelvin, meaning reed-river, contains a Cumbric word related to the Welsh celefyn (reed, stalk, stem); Barlanark means ‘Woodland clearing of the boars’ and ‘Glasgow’ itself means ‘Green hollow’. Just a little upstream along the Kelvin from our urban foraging site, we find a fascinating place-name of particular interest to our story: Gartnavel. This is a Gàidhlig name, Gart-nan-abhal, and is indicative of a new layer of meaning in the landscape as Gàidhlig become the dominant language of the area from the 11th century and Cumbric gradually died out. Gart-nan-ubhal means ‘Yard or enclosure of the apple’. It is not clear how far back an orchard existed at this location, but in 1814 an asylum was built there, with extensive grounds containing fruit trees; today at the expanded Gartnavel Royal Hospital, some veteran fruit trees still stand, including a magnificent pear tree of at least 120 years of age. Even today there is a continuing connection with apples – the name and history of Gartnavel recently inspired a major new apple tree planting project in the grounds of the hospital.
These early place-names still have a hold on us today: they paint a vivid picture of a very different Glasgow, one where wild boar roamed the woods and subsistence would be a mixture of agriculture, foraging and hunting. At the earliest point in history a community orchard would be difficult to distinguish from the surrounding countryside. It must have been quite a significant shift when the hunter-gatherer became a farmer: going from harvesting the natural bounty of the landscape to purposefully moving favourable plants and tree saplings to within easier reach and enclosing them in yards. However, we haven’t left our hunter-gatherer selves behind in the march of progress – they are still part of us, and even if we think we have redefined ourselves as the digital human. Our ancestral experiences, such as foraging for food in the wildwood, still resonate today as fundamental traits. We may have supplanted the definition of the word ‘blackberry’ in our children’s dictionaries, but that doesn’t stop raspberries and blackberries (or ‘brambles’ in Scotland) delighting each new generation of kids to come home with huge grins and purple fingers and faces, continually renewing our 8000 year connection with this wild fruit.
Yet there are fewer and fewer folk that do know how to recognize even the most common of fruits and plants. I see the community orchard movement as indicative of a desire to forge a different connection with the land, one that allows us to combine the joy of discovery that is foraging with the purposeful design and sustainable harvest of the gardener. The community orchard is a tiny wildwood in the concrete jungle wherein resides 90% of the UK’s population. It is a place where we can rediscover the history of this land to see what surprises we can discover about the treasures we didn’t know we had. Let us continue on our orchard exploration of Glasgow, and further afield.
The Kelvin, which we have already visited, is a tributary of the Clyde, that famous river that became so synonymous with Glasgow’s shipbuilding industry. Today we are realizing the older and less tangible wealth of that river as an artery that supports numerous ecosystems – and not insignificantly in the story of community orchards, as the remnants of large scale traditional orchards that once supplied Glasgow are still to be seen up the Clyde valley to Lanark, along with a number of traditional apple varieties such as ‘Clydeside’, Cambusnethan Pippin, Golden Monday and others.
It is not easy to trace a straightforward history of community orchards in Scotland – the placing of fruit trees within enclosures is not so obvious within the historical record. The best preserved histories and fruit varieties are from large scale orchards kept originally by monastic communities or wealthy landlords. For example some of the oldest apple varieties such as Arbroath Oslin or White Melrose are considered to have been brought across from France in medieval times by monks, and many of the well known fruit varieties come from the still extant orchards of country estates, such as Stirling Castle, Stobo Castle or Coul Blush (apples), or Gordon Castle (plum). It is always exciting to follow these traces back when orchards still exist in those places – such as the recent discovery of an old apple tree, believed to be a Cambusnethan Pippin, by Friends of Cambusnethan Priory (in the Clyde valley). Perhaps the best example of an historic community orchard in Scotland is the village of Newburgh in Fife which was established in 1266 near Lindores Abbey (founded 1191). When the abbey was disbanded in the sixteenth century the orchards were incorporated into the expanding town, with each house being appointed a strip. Today the Newburgh Orchard Group continues the tradition, holding harvest and pruning events and recently planting a new community orchard.
A community orchard is a fascinating space because as well as a great venue to come together and celebrate a shared resource it can become a container symbol for hope and imagination of how things could be. By planting a tree today that is going to live for a 150 or even 250 years, we are creating an orchard grove that will outlast us and witness unknown cultural shifts of the future. As we awaken to the reality of climate emergency, we have to stay optimistic and have faith in human nature. I like to look to the past for what can inspire us for the future.
Living in Glasgow, there is a clear historic influence from large scale immigration of Highland and Irish people particularly throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. This is of particular relevance to the community orchards of Glasgow and the West of Scotland as the apple – and many other trees – have a central place in the shared Gàidhlig/Irish culture and folk tales, an echo of an earlier pan-celtic value system.
If you read any of the old Gàidhlig, or Irish tales, apples or hazel nuts feature frequently. If a strange lady dressed in green presents you with a silver bough – a branch bearing silver apples and silver blossom – beware, as she may be the queen of the faeries trying to tempt you off to land of eternal youth, Tir nan Òg; synonymous with Avalon (Isle of Apples) of Arthurian legend, in which you will have such a good time that you will forget to return, or if you do, you will find that one year there was 700 years here.
In the Irish myth cycle of the Fianna (shared with Gaelic Scotland), hazel nuts are an integral part of the story of the Salmon of Knowledge – a story I remember vividly from my childhood. The Salmon of Knowledge swims in a pool which is the source of the river Boyne, and above that pool grow nine hazels that bear the nuts of knowledge. The salmon eats the nuts that fall in the pool thereby gaining ultimate wisdom, and whoever tastes the salmon will gain it too. The mythic hero Finn Mac Cumhail, apprentice to the poet Finnegas who had being trying to catch the salmon for 7 years, inadvertently achieves this wisdom when cooking the salmon for Finnegas and placing his thumb in his mouth after burning it on the hot fish.
I was lucky to be introduced recently to the work of Gàidhlig scholar Scholar Michael Newton, who wrote the thesis ‘The Tree in Scottish Gaelic literature and tradition’, in which I was delighted to discover a wealth of orchard-related lore, as well as fascinating insights into the high value placed on trees in traditional Gàidhlig culture.
The most common tree named in eulogy is abhall [the apple tree], one of the seven chieftain trees. The apple tree and its fruit often appear in Gaelic poetry, a reflection of its Otherworld connotations and its corresponding high status in the original tree taxonomy. (Newton, M, 1998 p54)
Newton mentions the ‘Chieftain trees’ above, which were Oak, Hazel, Apple, Yew, Ash and Holly. He analyses poems, texts and eulogies that show the once sacred status that trees held in Irish and Gàidhlig culture, where certain trees were considered particularly noble and were reflective of the structure and order of society itself. The images of trees and especially apple trees were used over and over in the bardic and song tradition in songs of praise and eulogy, usually for chieftains or warriors, but also in very personal laments or love songs. One of the most well known of these, first recorded from oral history in 1869 and verses of which are still popularly sung today, is Craobh nan Ubhal, The Apple Tree, which is a moving song that tenderly addresses a lover.
Throughout the canon of Gàidhlig literature trees and people are frequently closely associated and the one is used to represent the other. Newton tells us that this symbolism points to a deeper association of trees as central to life, characterised by the word bile (sacred tree; pronounced BEE-luh).
The bile (‘sacred tree’) had a particularly important cosmological role in Gaelic culture as an axis mundi, connecting Heaven and Earth. The bile has its human counterpart in the social leader of Gaelic society who had a sacred role in connecting his people to the Otherworld powers. […] These motifs are clearly articulated in Scottish Gaelic poetry at least into the eighteenth century. (Newton, M, 1998, p21)
There is a fantastic story from Ireland of the origin of these sacred trees, having been brought to Ireland by a giant tree-like creature bearing a branch from which grew an apple, an acorn and a hazelnut, and the sacred groves of early Ireland and later the highlands of Scotland may well have included orchards. However the flip side of the bile trees representing the dynasties of chiefs and kings is that, at least in the early period, this was motive for violent attacks destroying the trees and groves of enemies. So in the case of community orchards, be mindful that any vandalism that you might experience to your trees might have a deeper motive than you realise!
To go back to the foraging roots of this blog, it is perhaps in part due to their many fruits and harvests that trees have made such a deep impression on the people of these islands in times past. As well as the prized hazelnuts and apples, traditionally celebrated at Samhainn (Halloween), the original Celtic apple day (Latha Meas nan Ubhal) there were many seasonal tonics drunk in the Highlands of Scotland that might provide inspiration for the community orchards and forest gardens of today. Here Michael Newton gives a thorough account:
The sap of trees was also used as a drink. The virtues of tree sap were such that it was practically the first thing a human being tasted: ‘In many parts of the Highlands, at the birth of a child, the nurse or midwife, from what motive I know not, puts the end of a green stick of ash into the fire, and, while it is burning, receives into a spoon the sap or juice which oozes out at the other end, and administers this as the first spoonful of liquors to the new- born babe. While the sap may have had a perceived dietary function, this ritual of birth resembles many around the world in which a connection is made between the new-born and a token of the Tree of Life.
A ‘wholesome diuretic wine’ was made from the birch, and Alexander Carmichael tells us that ‘Spruce beer was obtained from the spruce tree, as whisky was obtained from the birch tree’. The Old Statistical Account entry for Kirkmichael in Banffshire tells us that the Highlanders used to ‘extract a liquid from the birch called fion na uisge-a-bheithe, which they considered as very salubrious and conducive to longevity’. The name uisge-a-bheithe seems also to be a pun on the Gaelic term uisge-beatha, literally ‘the water of life’, and the name normally given to whisky. ‘The Highlanders formerly used to distill the fruit [of the rowan] into a very good spirit.’ ‘The berries [of the elder] were fermented into a wine, which was usually drunk warm.’
Even leaves were considered to impart essential minerals to water, as is reflected in the proverb ‘Uisge donn na duillich, tha e ro mhath do na fearaibh og [The brown water of foliage is very good for young men].’ These examples may also reflect an underlying belief in the tree as a source of life from which people can draw.
(Newton, M, 1998. P135)
To sum up, we began this journey following Mark Williams round a one acre orchard and woodland meadow in urban west-end Glasgow, and we lost him somewhere along the way when we fell down a rabbit hole of folklore, myth and an archaic tree-reverence. We cannot comprehend fully the roles that trees and orchards had for the people of Glasgow or wider across Scotland in times past, but we can surely draw inspiration from this surviving cultural heritage for our community orchards today – and hopefully inspire others to delve into the historic and cultural roots orchards might have in their area.
I will leave you with one last thought. The older Gàidhlig and Irish value of the tree as sacred is something that is common to many cultures across the world. There is a resonance with recent discoveries in ecology that show that trees are much more complex than previously thought, communicating with each other underground via the mycelium network, exchanging nutrients, supporting their offspring and keeping alive neighbouring old stumps that have been felled years ago.
It is imperative that we develop a new understanding of our natural world other than as units of economic value to be exploited for profit, and perhaps the blossoming orchard movement is part of that shift.