“And King Guaire followed him there and asked him to come back where he could sleep upon a bed and not be laying his head upon a hard fir tree in the night time. But Marbhan would not leave the place he had chosen, for he said he was well content with the little cabin he had in the wood, and that no one had knowledge of except God.” – Lady Gregory (A Book of Saints and Wonders. 1906)
The sixteenth letter of the Ogham is Ailm. In its tree form this is Scotch Fir or Scots Pine.
There is a lot of confusion as to which tree should be assigned to Ailm. The Ogham tract says that it is the “Fir” tree. The Fir tree is also listed within the tract as a possible choice for Gort, the Ivy, as well. Robert Graves named the tree representing Ailm as the Silver Fir based on this mentioning of the Fir tree within the text[i]. This choice is often accepted as being correct.
The first Silver Fir, however, is not believed to have been introduced into neighbouring Scotland until 1603[ii]. One of the places the Ogham Tract appears is within the Book of Ballymote which is believed to have been written around 1390[iii]. Before the 18th century the Scots Pine was also known as Scotch or Scots Fir[iv] so the mention of the “Fir” within the Ogham Tract is most likely a reference to the Pine[v]. The Scots Pine is native to the British Isles and would have been better known in Ireland. Pine is also mentioned within the Ogham tract, but various names for the same tree are found for other letters as well. For example the Yew is also the Service Tree, Blackthorn is also Sloe, and Quicken is also the Rowan. In J.F. Campbell’s 1890 book Popular Tales of the West Highlands vol.1 we are also told that a Fir cone grows into a Pine tree. It is likely that both Pine and Fir refer to the Scotch Fir or Scots Pine interchangeably.
Firs and Pines -as well as Spruces, Cedars and others- are part of the same family known as Pinaceae. These conifers share a prehistoric heritage as members of the first trees growing in many areas upon the land of our planet. The close relation -and primordial ancestry- make them more akin to one another than many other types of trees.
The kenning for this letter speaks of the “loudest of groaning.” John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman interprets this as meaning “misery.”
Robert Ellison in Ogham: Secret Language of the Druids says that this letter represents being “far seeing and knowing the future.” Ellison uses the Silver Fir to represent Ailm in the Robert Graves tradition. Ellison also calls the Fir the “oldest in the forest.”
Caitlin Mathews in Celtic Wisdom Sticks lists a number of important attributes for the Fir tree. Within her divination system Ailm represents nobility, judgement, investment and patience. The general theme seems to be wisdom and clarity.
The conifers -being the trees of the ancient forest- do seem to reach out to us in the form of the Cailleach, the hag or crone aspect of the goddess that speaks to us from the times immemorial. These trees, the Pine, Spruce or Fir, are strong and green even in the midst of winter and were in fact some of the very first trees to climb out of the oceans[vi].
Contrary to what I had said in the previous Fir and Pine post, this tree does make several appearances in Celtic myth and folklore. It is usually associated with fairies or giants.
In the 1917 book Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald Mackenzie we are told of two fairies that live in the Fir woods. Interestingly, both of these fairies are described as being “fairy exiles.” The Ghillie Dhu is described as the “dark servant.” The second fairy is simply called “the dummy” and lives beneath a cairn in a Fir wood. Despite being exiles, both of these fairies are friendly and helpful.
In the 1881 book Notes on Folklore of the North-East of Scotland by Walter Gregor we are told of a botched fairy raid. The fairies had intended on stealing a smith’s wife but were “sained” and disaster was avoided. The family found an image of the smith’s wife that was left behind by the fairies. This image had been made from Fir wood and was left behind when the fairies fled.
In Celtic folklore the lines between the fairies and the dead often becomes very blurred[vii]. In the 1914 book True Irish Ghost Stories by John Seymour and Harry Neligan we find an interesting, though only peripherally related, reference to Fir:
“A gentleman […] often received warnings from his dead father of things that were about to happen. Besides the farm on which he lived, he had another some miles away which adjoined a large demesne. Once in a great storm a fir-tree was blown down in the demesne, and fell into his field. The wood ranger came to him and told him he might as well cut up the tree, and take it away. Accordingly one day he set out for this purpose, taking with him two men and a cart. He got into the fields by a stile, while his men went on to a gate. As he approached a gap between two fields he saw, standing in it, his father as plainly as he ever saw him in life, and beckoning him back warningly. Unable to understand this, he still advanced, whereupon his father looked very angry, and his gestures became imperious. This induced him to turn away, so he sent his men home, and left the tree uncut. He subsequently discovered that a plot had been laid by the wood ranger, who coveted his farm, and who hoped to have him dispossessed by accusing him of stealing the tree.”
(Hollyburn Fir, BC. The tree is 43 metres in height and believed to be 1100 years old[viii])
In the 1892 book Celtic Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs we are given a much more poetic image of the Fir. It should be noted, however, that the type of tree stated here does change from one recount of this myth to another. It is not always Fir:
“The king ordered the body to be raised from out the grave and to be buried on the other side of the loch. It was done as the king bade, and the pit closed. Thereupon a fir shoot grew out of the grave of Deirdre and a fir shoot from the grave of Naois, and the two shoots united in a knot above the loch. The king ordered the shoots to be cut down, and this was done twice, until, at the third time, the wife whom the king had married caused him to stop, this work of evil and his vengeance on the remains of the dead.”
Fir is also often associated with giants. In the same text as above, Finn carves a staff out of Fir for his journey home to see his wife. His wife then tricks a rival giant into not wanting to fight Finn.
In the 1773 book Scottish Fairy and Folktales by Sir George Douglas a giant magician takes on the form of a Fir tree standing on a road.
Also found within Celtic Fairy Tales, a “king’s son” needs to climb a Fir tree described as “the greatest tree in the wood” in order to steal 5 magpie eggs for the meal of a certain giant. He needs to do this in order to win the giant’s daughter as his bride. Unfortunately, the tree is 500 feet tall and as smooth as glass. The giant’s daughter tells the king’s son to kill her and use her bones as a ladder so that he can climb the tree:
“Now you must kill me, strip the flesh from my bones, take all those bones apart, and use them as steps for climbing the tree. When you are climbing the tree, they will stick to the glass as if they had grown out of it; but when you are coming down, and have put your foot on each one, they will drop into your hand when you touch them. Be sure and stand on each bone, leave none untouched; if you do, it will stay behind. Put all my flesh into this clean cloth by the side of the spring at the roots of the tree. When you come to the earth, arrange my bones together, put the flesh over them, sprinkle it with water from the spring, and I shall be alive before you. But don’t forget a bone of me on the tree.”
Of course the king’s son forgets one of the daughter’s fingers in the tree. This results in her having only nine fingers. This later becomes an advantage, however, when he has to choose her out of three identical sisters!
In the 1881 book Notes on Folklore of the North-East of Scotland by Walter Gregor we find a ritual where Fir is used to protect an infant from the fairies:
“On the birth of the child, the mother and offspring were ‘sained’, a ceremony which was done in the following manner: A fir-candle was lighted and carried three times round the bed, if it was in a position to allow of this being done, and, if this could not be done, it was whirled three times round their heads; a Bible and bread and cheese, or a Bible and a biscuit, were placed under the pillow, and the words were repeated, ” May the Almichty debar a’ ill fae this umman, an be aboot ir, an bliss ir an ir bairn.” When the biscuit or the bread and cheese had served their purpose, they were distributed among the unmarried friends and acquaintances, to be placed under their pillows to evoke dreams.”
This is immediately followed by:
“Among some of the fishing population a fir-candle or a basket containing bread and cheese was placed on the bed to keep the fairies at a distance.”
This “fir candle” is elsewhere described in the text as being made from thin strips of bog fir “one to two and a half or three feet long.” This candle was fixed in a type of candle stick called a peer man. This peer man could be of various forms but a common one is described in the text. The stone is round and a three foot piece of wood is placed in it. On top of the piece of wood is a piece of iron on which the Fir candle would be fixed “with the flame towards the door[ix].”
“Said Father Winter: ‘If Beira scolds you, give her these flowers[x], and if she asks where you found them, tell her that they came from the green rustling fir-woods. Tell her also that the cress is springing up on the banks of streams, and that the new grass has begun to shoot up in the fields.’ Having spoken thus, Father Winter bade the princess farewell and turned away.” – Donald MacKenzie (Wonder Tales of Scottish Myth and Legend. 1917)
[i] The White Goddess.
[iii] Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. The Book of Leinster was written even earlier around 1160.
[iv] Firefly Encyclopedia of Trees.
[v] Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom, says that Fir and Pine seem interchangeable within the Ogham tract text, most especially the Irish word gius which seems to apply to them both. Her statement seems to support my belief that this was and still is the same tree.
[vi] For more on the Cailleach please refer to the previous Fir and Pine post at https://livinglibraryblog.com/?p=208
[vii] Katherine Briggs. The Fairies in Folklore and Tradition.
[ix] The meaning of this last phrase does not appear any clearer within the book. The text does say that the iron was “cleft,” however. Perhaps the author meant that the Fir candle was placed at a 90 degree angle and would have been burned horizontally?
[x] These are earlier identified as snowdrops within the text.