It’s June and summer is finally upon us. This means milder weather and longer days, with the longest day of all taking place on 21 June, the day of the Summer Solstice. As the Sun sets so late and rises so early, it barely gets dark at this time of year. Indeed, this month’s image, which was taken shortly before 11:00 pm on a night close to the Summer Solstice, shows just how light it can be. I spent quite some time then, sitting on a small promontory facing west over Loch Sunart and watching the slimmest of crescent moons traverse the twilit sky as midnight approached. There sure is something magical about these light nights and it is little wonder that the summer solstice and midsummer have been celebrated for time immemorial
This year, the summer solstice occurs on 21 June at 10:13 am. It is the exact moment when the North Pole is at its maximum tilt towards the Sun, when the Sun reaches its highest position in the sky and when the Sun rises at its closest to north-east and sets at its closest to north-west.
Although the summer solstice is a precise moment in time, many people refer to it as the “Longest Day” because it is the day when the number of hours of daylight are at their maximum and the number of hours of night are at their minimum. For instance, on 21 June this year, our sunrise here on the Peninsula will be at 4:27:36 am and our sunset will be at 10:22:23 pm, giving us 17 hours, 54 minutes and 47 seconds of daylight.
While the summer solstice marks the astronomical start of our summer, it has traditionally been celebrated in Scotland as midsummer, the halfway point in the growing season and a time when people hoped for bountiful harvests. The celebrations began as a Celtic fire festival when bonfires would be used to bless crops and beasts. Animals would be walked around the fire in a sun-wise (clockwise) direction and torches would be lit from the main fire to then be carried around homes and fields, also in a sun-wise direction, to bless families and the crops.
Also, people used to gather herbs at this time, and either scatter them into the fire to complete the ritual, wear them along with flowers to ward off evil spirits, or place them under their pillows as good luck charms to manifest good dreams. Birch branches were sometimes hung above doors for protection. This was also believed to be the best time to collect honey from beehives, which is why the first full moon in June was called the “honey moon”. Unsurprisingly, this became the traditional month for weddings.
With the coming of Christianity, many pagan midsummer celebrations were moved to the feast of St John the Baptist on 24 June, with bonfires remaining central to them. People would light the bonfires on midsummer eve and then stay up until midnight to welcome in midsummer day. They continued to gather herbs and flowers to protect themselves from evil spirits and one of the most powerful plants was ‘chase-devil’, which is now called St John’s Wort. It was used in potions and woven into garlands because people believed that this would provide them with protection.
Finally, herbalists continue to use St John’s Wort in medicines to this day. It contains many chemicals that act on messengers in the brain that regulate mood and there is some strong scientific evidence that it is effective for mild to moderate depression.
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.
I took the following photograph on a late winter afternoon as light fell on some of the hundreds of moss-covered boulders that lie amongst the trees in Ariundle Oakwood near Strontian and couldn’t help being reminded of the faerie mounds where the sídhe are said to live. Read on to find out more about these mythological creatures….
What’s in a Name?
If you take a walk through Ariundle Oakwood, you’ll see a woodland floor covered with hundreds of moss-covered boulders which, with a little bit of imagination, could be mistaken for mounds that are home to the mythological sídhe, a supernatural race comparable to the faeries or elves. Indeed, the nearby village of Strontian got its name because of the faeries. In Scottish Gaelic, it is called Sròn an t-Sìthein, which translates as the ‘nose of the fairy hill’ and means a knoll or low round hill inhabited by the sídhe.
Going back to Strontian, or Sròn an t-Sìthein, the term sìthein (pronounced shee-an) often referred to small conical hills with hollow interiors containing an invisible world within which it was believed that faeries coexisted with the world of humans. They were thought to have had a huge influence on how successful the annual harvest would be and if a crop failed it was sometimes thought that someone had violated or upset them. So, before you decide to go walking in the fields or forests by yourself, it is perhaps best if you know a little bit about the various faeries, their significance and how not to upset them.
Respect, Honesty and No Green
Most important of all is to never let a faerie overhear you calling them faeries as they do not like this. They prefer to be called ‘fair folk’ and are very sensitive creatures, so do not be rude, or you might suffer the consequences. Also, you should always be honest with a faerie as they will know if you have lied to them, and not surprisingly, they don’t take kindly to that either. Finally, wearing the colour ‘green’, is also not advisable, as faeries see this as a colour that belongs to them.
There are many different kinds of fairies. Some take on human form, some take the form of creatures, some can fly, and all can appear and disappear at will. Some will fool you with comical antics, some will lure you with beauty and some will just plainly let you know how they feel about a human intrusion.
Coming across ‘fair folk’ like Buachailleen, Brownies, Gnomes, the Gruagach, Heather Pixies, Pixies and Seelie Courts can be a very rewarding and magical experience, as most of these faeries enjoy being mischievous, shy and friendly. The same cannot be said for the Ghillie Dhu, Kelpies, Nucklelavees or Fachans. Most of these faeries dislike humans intensely and an encounter with one of them folk could end badly for you. In particular, make sure you avoid the Black Angus or Cù-sìth, which means "faery dog". If this large black dog with yellow eyes and sharp fangs shows itself to you, the legend says that you will die in a fortnight.
Belief in the ‘fair folk’ continues to this day, with stories being told in the early twentieth century of unwary humans being lured inside the sìthein at night, only to emerge the following morning and discover that decades had passed in the outside world. Other tales detail the abduction of unbaptised babies, or doomed romances with the fairy folk, and the various ills which befell those who dared to refuse them hospitality.
Even as recently as January this year (2020), plans for a fish farm in Loch Pooltiel off the north-west coast of Skye were rejected after campaigners warned that fishermen could be lured to their deaths by Ashrays. Also known as Asrais, these faeries are completely translucent water creatures and are often mistaken for sea ghosts. A group of campaigners called Friends of the Eilean Fhlodaigearraidh Faeries warned that workers' lives could be put at risk by the creatures, who could 'lure them with promises of gold and jewels into the deepest part of the ocean'.
It’s not all bad though, because as long as you respect the faeries and stick to the rules how not to upset them, then you should be safe on your walk through the oakwoods. Remember to call them ‘fair folk’, do not be rude or dishonest and finally, don’t wear green.
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.