We are now in May, the last month of Spring and the landscape has well and truly awakened from its winter slumber. The leaves have unfurled on the trees, the wildlife is thriving, and the colourful blooms have appeared. We’ve seen snowdrops in February, wood anemones in March, primroses in April and now it’s time for the carpets of bluebells to appear in the ancient woodlands across the Peninsula. This wildflower spectacle is a magical sight and one that leaves you with a feeling that these woodlands with carpets of blue are indeed enchanted.
In Celtic folklore, bluebells have a strong association with spirits and faeries. They are often called faerie flowers and their small bell-shaped flowers are believed summon the faeries when rung. This is not necessarily a good thing because faeries are believed to hang their spells on the bluebells to dry and disturbing them may unleash wild magic upon you, leaving you dazed by enchantment and unable to find your way out of the woods. It can be even more serious for children who pick bluebells because it is believed that they could be snatched away by the faerie folk, never to be seen again.
So, if you do visit a bluebell wood, just remember to stay on the path and to not pick or disturb any of the flowers. Besides risking the wrath of the faeries, another good reason to avoid disturbing them is that they are poisonous, and this might be the reason why there are so many old tales and legends warning people away from them.
However, these beautiful little flowers have also been valued for their useful properties and have been used over the centuries by herbalists to prevent nightmares and to treat leprosy, spider bites and tuberculosis. They contain at least 15 biologically active compounds that provide them with protection against insect and animal pests and in recent years, some of these compounds have been investigated as possible treatments for HIV infection and cancer.
Bluebells have practical uses as well. They produce an exceptionally sticky sap which was used by our Bronze Age ancestors to make a glue that they use for attaching flights of feathers to their arrows. This glue has also been used for several centuries by bookbinders to make and repair books, while in Tudor times, starch was extracted from crushed bluebell roots and used to stiffen the ruff collars that were very much the fashion back then.
Finally, some bluebell folklore gives a positive impression of this beautiful little flower. For example, some believe that by wearing a wreath made of the flowers, the wearer can be compelled to speak only truth while others believe that if you can turn one of the flowers inside out without tearing it, you will eventually win the one you love.
Hyacinths and Harebells, one a spring flowering woodland plant and the other a summer flowering grassland plant. Both are tied together in legend and lore by a common name that is “Bluebells”. Both are to be admired with care, for fear of summoning the faeries, the witches or even the Aul’ Man himself….
A Mesmerising Sight
As my fourth Spring of living here on the Peninsulas comes to an end and we move towards Summer, I find myself reflecting on a sight that never ceases to mesmerise me during April and May. It is the sight of delicate Bluebells creating intense blankets of colour in the woodlands, on the hillsides and along the verges throughout the length and breadth of the peninsulas. However, things might not be as they seem. Are these really bluebells that I am seeing in this incredible wildflower spectacle?
Bluebells, Hyacinths and Harebells
Legends and Lore
There are many legends and much folklore associated with both the English Bluebell (Hyacinth) and the Scottish Bluebell (Harebell). Over the years, both have been referred to as the same thing, so it is often difficult to decide what tales apply to which flower.
However, it would appear that many of the English Bluebell tales involve dark fairy magic with bluebell woods being portrayed as scary, forbidding places that should be avoided. They say that if you do enter, you should never pick or step on a bluebell. This is because the faeries hang their spells on the bluebell flowers and if you break their spells, they get extremely upset and seek you out. It is believed that once visited by an upset faerie, you will be led astray and find yourself wandering lost in the woods for evermore.
Legend and folklore say that you need to be equally careful with the Scottish Bluebell as its alternative name, Harebell, has its roots in magic. As well as being called the Harebell, the Scottish Bluebell is also referred to as Witch's Thimbles, Witch Bells, Fairies’ Thimbles, Dead Man’s Bells, Aul’ Man's Bells, the Devil’s Bells, and Milk-ort to name but a few.
Some would argue that Harebell was the name given to the flower because witches would turn themselves into hares and hide among them. This may also be the reason why the names Witch's Thimbles and Witch Bells were used.
Fairies' Thimbles was given to it because it was widely thought that fairies live among the flowers, while Dead Man's Bells arose from the belief that fairies cast lethal spells on those who would dare to trample on or pick the delicate blooms.
“Aul’ Man” is an old Scottish nickname for the Devil himself and was used as a way of naming the Devil without invoking him by speaking his name. So Aul’ Man's Bells and the Devil’s Bells were used as some thought that if the flowers were disturbed, they would ring and this would attract evil spirits, including the Devil himself.
Finally, Milk-ort (meaning "milk herb), was sometimes used because Harebells (Scottish Bluebells) produce a white milky sap which was thought to be an element in the hallucinogenic “flying ointments” used by some witches.
A Second Coming of Blue
So there you have it. Hyacinths or Harebells? English Bluebells and Scottish Bluebells? What’s in a name?
I’m left thinking it doesn’t really matter because, as the wonderful carpets of English Bluebells in our damp and shady woodlands begin to fade, I’m looking forward to a second coming of blue as the Scottish Bluebells emerge from the dry, grassy places that fringe our sandy beaches.
If lockdown allows, I’ll venture to these beaches out to the west of me to capture their delicate papery flowers nodding in the sea breeze, all the while taking care not to summon the faeries, the witches or indeed the Aul’ Man himself.
You will find other images of Bluebells (Wood Hyacinths) in the woodlands of Sunart in the “Sunart” image gallery on this website. If you’d like a print of any one of them, please feel free to get in touch. Also get in touch if you’d like to arrange some photography tuition.
Hi, I’m Steven Marshall, a Scottish landscape photographer based at Rockpool House in the heart of the beautiful West Highland Peninsulas of Sunart, Morvern, Moidart, Ardgour and Ardnamurchan. Get in touch for photography tuition, tours and print sales.