Researching something else entirely, I realised I had gathered together a number of references to the connection between faeries and ash trees. I thought it was worthwhile pulling these together, simply to show the breadth of their ties to the natural world. We are used to reading about links to hawthorns and elders, and about their aversion to the rowan/ mountain ash, but the folklore is richer than this. There are, of course, the many herbs and flowers with faery associations as well as other trees- oaks, yews and- it seems- ash.
Visiting Largs in Ayrshire, Highland folklorist John Gregorson Campbell was told this story:
“A man cut a slip from an ash-tree growing near a Fairy dwelling. On his way home in the evening he stumbled and fell. He heard the Fairies give a laugh at his mishap. Through the night he was hoisted away, and could tell nothing of what happened till in the morning he found himself in the byre, astride on a cow, and holding on by its horns.”Superstitions of the Highlands & Islands, 1900, 78
The strong (we might say excessive) faery reaction to a branch being cut from the tree clearly indicates that they felt a strong affinity for the ash and wished to act to protect it. We are familiar with this behaviour in cases where people have sought to fell thorns or elders.
This story seems reasonably understandable, in itself, but it sits oddly with other folk traditions. For example, around Rhyl, North Wales in the late 1880s, it was recorded that ash sap was given to babies to stop the tylwyth teg taking them (Llangollen Advertiser, Nov.9th 1888). The same was reported for the Scottish Highlands in Choice Notes & Queries for 1859. The note added that the sap was a powerful astringent that protects against both faeries and witches. The practice was, as soon as a baby had been born, for the midwife or nurse to put one end of a green stick of ash in the fire. Sap will ooze from the other end, which was caught in a spoon and then fed to the neonate (see ‘Curious Creeds’ in Newcastle Courant, Sept. 6th 1890 page 1).
I have also read that the tree’s seeds, the ash keys, might be placed in cradles to guard against changelings. We have an apparent contradiction, then: the faeries will protect an ash tree, but they are also repelled by it. Perhaps there’s some almost homeopathic property being exploited here.
The role of the ash in human health in Britain seems well established. Gilbert White, in the Natural History of Selborne, recorded that sickly children might be passed naked through a cleft in a pollard ash before dawn in order to cure ruptures. The cleft would often be made specially for this purpose and would then be bound up again afterwards, healing over as the child also healed. There might even be a longer term link between the health and survival of the tree and that of the person. Harm to the tree would be reflected in the healed person’s body and life-span, meaning that people could become highly protective of the tree that had cured them. This custom survived in some rural parts of England (such as Somerset and Suffolk) as late as the 1880s and ’90s.
Sidney Hartland (author of The Science of Fairy Tales) wrote about these ash tree cures in the journal Folklore for 1896 (vol.7 pages 303-6). His accounts of ceremonies don’t mention any faery aspect, but they include fascinating detail: in both Suffolk and Somerset, the child was put through three times. In the first county, three different people had to do this; at Bishop’s Lydeard in Somerset the sick child was passed through from a virgin girl to a boy. The patient had to be face-up as this was done.
There may, too, be some much deeper tie with Norse and, possibly, Anglo-Saxon myths of Yggdrasil, the ash tree supporting the universe- which, of course, includes Alfheim, home of the elves. In fact, as Robert Graves records in the White Goddess, the ash tree has significance in Greek and Irish mythology as well. It seems that we only have the merest traces of something more complex and significant.
For a broader discussion of faeries, plants and the natural world, see my recent book with Green Magic Publishing on the subject.