Posted by: christinelaennec | February 14, 2015

Valentine’s Day: blackbirds, and the magical properties of trees

In her February 14th essay in A Garden in the Hills, Katharine Stewart describes the joy of listening to the blackbird’s song:  “My valentine arrives in the form of a burst of song from the top of the tallest cyprus opposite the window….  It’s now the full-throated song. … It’s a moment of magic.”  (p. 44)  As her earlier essays talk about her life with her husband and children on the croft, I presume that by the early 90s, Stewart was widowed.  I’m glad that there was a blackbird to give her a Valentine.

I have continued, after more than 22 years, to celebrate Valentine’s Day the American way.  I make handmade Valentines for family and a few Scottish friends who are used to my startling ideas.  In Britain, Valentine’s Day is only for lovers.  I’ve always thought that was quite ridiculous and hurtful (sorry, lovers!).  The Dafter is now of an age where she too thinks the amount of heartbreak generated by Valentine’s Day – oh I’m all alone, I don’t have anyone to give me a Valentine – is ridiculous.  Apparently there are more relationship breakups in the days leading up to February 14th than at any other time of year.  Who needs the pressure?!  So I’m glad I’ve maintained the understanding that Valentines are an expression of affection for anyone that you love.   Here’s what my Valentines look like this year:

This year's Valentine.

This year’s Valentine.

Some chocolate will also be involved.  And do we have blackbirds singing a Valentine’s greeting here in Glasgow?  I haven’t heard any, but I will continue to listen out.  I did, however, see crocuses!

Crocuses!  Up, but not open as there was no sun.  11 February 2015, Glasgow.

Crocuses! Up, but not open, as there was no sun. 11 February 2015, Glasgow.  As I took the photo, a man came out of a nearby house and joked “That’ll cost you a fiver!”

Katharine Stewart goes on to write about trees, their healing powers and significance.  “It has taken us a long time to accept what our forebears knew generations ago – that native plants, including trees, may provide cures for even the worst of human afflictions.  The bark of the willow, long known to contain healing powers, is now being studied as a possible cure for cancer.” (p. 45)  Is this the drug combretastatin?  Perhaps there are others derived from willow as well.  She mentions the name “salley” for willow, as in Yeats’ poem “Down by the salley garden” (which I had only known as the traditional song).  I believe that a variation of “salley” – “sauchie” – gave Sauchiehall Street its name.  The Willow Tea Rooms was named accordingly.

She writes also about the rowan tree (mountain ash):  “It’s a tree with magical properties.  I had a neighbour not long since, who would never burn wood from a fallen rowan on her fire, though she would use it outside to heat food for her hens.  Every house had a rowan by the door and a small branch would be fixed over the lintel of the byre and the stable to ensure protection for the beasts against evil.  … [Rowan berries] certainly make a wonderful wine, with a touch of magic in it, and a good red jelly.” (p. 45)

It’s not just in the countryside that the rowan was considered to be a protective tree.  I was told by a neighbour that when our houses were built, a rowan was planted in each front garden.  You can still see some of these old rowans about the neighbourhood.  We ourselves have planted a rowan in our back garden.  Our reasons for doing so were that it’s a native species, has good fall colour, berries for the birds, and won’t grow to be too huge.  But it’s good to know that it’s magic as well.

Amongst other trees, Stewart writes about the hazel:  “In Celtic legend the nuts of the hazel tree contained all knowledge.  It was said that the salmon in the pool ate the nuts that fell from the hazel and so became the ‘salmon of wisdom,’ having eaten the ‘hazel nuts of knowledge’.  To divine water the hazel-twig was always considered the most appropriate.” (p. 46)  Have you ever tried dowsing for water?  I bought some metal dowsing rods on my mother’s last visit to Scotland, and we tried them out.  Her father, my Grampa, had often dowsed for water to find where to dig a well.  We balanced them gently on our palms and walked about our back garden.  It was quite amazing how they slowly crossed when near a source of water!  She was so entranced with them that she took them back to Portland with her.

I will finish with a photo of some lovely anemones and daffodils:

Beautiful anemones.

Beautiful anemones.

It’s been a pretty good week.  As expected the Dafter felt horrendous and was in great pain on Monday, but has been a little bit better each day since.  Yesterday she was able to go into school for two hours, which is very good!  I have been enjoying choir very much.  We’ve been singing South African songs, which I really like.  Here is a link to an old video of Bright Blue singing “Weeping”.  It was written in 1987 as a protest against the apartheid regime, and incorporates the Zulu anthem “God Bless Africa,” which at the time was banned.  Have a listen, it’s nice (I think).

I wish you all a Happy Valentine’s Day, and a good weekend!



  1. I think aspirin is connected with willow – salicylic acid, isn’t it? (But science is not my strong point!)

  2. I really enjoyed the you tube video of Weeping, I had not heard it before. I much prefer the American way of Valentines and loved your heart. Glad to hear the Dafter is picking up a little. I was intrigued to hear about the metal dowsing rods.

  3. Christine I’m really enjoying your comparison of your current season with that of Katherine Stewart’s experience.
    It’s great to hear Dafter is coming back ‘to life again’ after her recent set back – it must take so much out of all of you. Warmer weather will warm your hearts ( not that they are cold lol) and put a spring in your step. Oh and don’t stop singing, it’s one of the best ways to lift your sprits – well at least I think it is 🙂
    Take care

  4. Happy Valentines Day! I much prefer your style of celebration.
    Praying health & strength continue to increase in ‘the Dafter’ xo

  5. Happy Valentines Day to you all. Not forgetting Tilly.x

  6. Wishing you a Happy Valentine’s day. Your Valentine is lovely.

  7. I remember my dad teaching me how to dowse with hazel twigs: I can still feel them moving (over the drains in our back garden!) and my surprise! Willows are of the family Salix, so probably where the name you have comes from? Hope the Dafter continues to steadily improve x

  8. Here in Sydney Australia, I am sad to report, Valentine’s Day is pretty much exclusively for lovers and would-be lovers…and card and flower companies.The crass commercial nature of it as far, far, far worse than even Christmas, and I could never participate. The day is contaminated. I admire your approach, but I’m not self-confident and bold enough to take it up!

  9. Thank you bringing back the memory of the Rowan tree which grew in the garden of the small stone cottage we stayed in in Scotland. Now I know there was a reason I found it somehow special.
    The beautiful image of daffodils and anemones remind me that it will soon be time to plant bulbs in the Antipodes .
    Alas, Valentine’s Day came and went uncelebrated in our household! Next year I will follow your example and use the day to give tokens of love and friendship to dear ones.
    Thank you for another inspiring post.

  10. I was amused on 14 Feb to see three different men walking home from the shops carrying very over-priced red roses. The advertising obviously works. But in our house it was a card to each other, both with a very nice picture of a cat. Mine from the husband of many years is a drawing by Elizabeth Blackadder (Scottish artist) of a fluffy grey cat lying on its back with paws in the air.

  11. Dear All, thanks for all the comments,

    Flora and happytobehere – of course! Salix! I hadn’t made the connection. I did know about aspirin, but had forgotten it is salycilic acid. To quote my Grampa (who said these until the last): “I learn something new every day.”

    I agree about the horrible commercialisation of Valentine’s Day. Flora, I like your cat-card-exchange. Elizabeth Blackadder was a brilliant painter of cats – I remember seeing some of her cat paintings at a retrospective exhibition of her work in Edinburgh a couple of years ago. She clearly loved and understood them.

    I really hate the overpriced long-stemmed roses in the supermarkets – they are flown in from Africa usually, usually not fair trade, and worst of all they have no scent! oldblack, it would take a lot of confidence to suddenly adopt the American understanding of Valentine’s Day. I just kept doing it out of ignorance that it was different here.

    Deirdre, I’m glad the discussion of rowan trees brought back good memories of Scotland.

    Lorraine and happyjustdoing, yes, dowsing is fascinating. Clearly there are energy patterns that current science doesn’t care to be aware of, but which people of the past – and not-so-distant – relied on.

    Cathy, I couldn’t agree more about the power of singing. And Lorraine, glad you enjoyed ‘Weeping’.

    Jill, Tilly sends her best to you! X

    And thank you Laura and everyone for your continuing interest in the Dafter’s progress. So far so good. We shall see what this week brings.

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