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Tribal Totems and Clan Trees

Trees are sacred in the Celtic tradition. Within the tree family some were more noble than others. In this article Michael Newton speaks of the Gaelic tradition, in particular the Scottish clans, and the way each clan was closely associated with a particular tree.

By Michael Newton
Trees were of central importance in Gaelic tradition as metaphors, symbols and models for society made manifest in nature. In this article I will explore how the image of the tree is used as a metaphor for the túath (local tribe), the clan and even Gaelic society as a whole.

Many kindreds have divine ancestors or legendary founders. Some progenitors in Gaelic tradition have strong tree symbolism or associations. One Celtic tribe of Europe called themselves the Eburones, "people of the yew." Although it seems to be a late folk-etymology, one tradition about MacNivens of Islay says that they were descended from a child found at the root of a tree, and thus named "Mac Craoibh[e]an (the son of trees)." The Giuthas ("Fir") MacDonalds of Braemar were so named because of the time that clan's founder spent in the woods as a fugitive. There is a kind of pun in the Clan MacLaren's choice of the laurel (Gaelic
Labhras) as its clan's badge, referring to the name of its founder.

Tribal trees were so important to kings and túatha that some túatha took their names from them. The Feara Bile and Fir na Craeibe of the early first millennium are examples of this.

Sometime before the 16th century, clans adopted plant "badges" mostly treesto identify themselves. Kermack identifies a number of strands of belief which seem to play a part in the clan badge (suaicheantas) tradition. One strand takes some tree-type predominant in the homeland to symbolise the clan, such as the Clan Chattan did by using the fir "in commemoration of Rothemurchus from whence they came, and where there grows so many firs". Another strand of belief is the use of badges from a particular tree, possibly a survival of the earlier tribal bile, such as the Frasers did with the yew of Tomnahurich. A third strand sees the badges as a kind of amulet worn for protection (battle was the most likely occasion for wearing a badge), and a small charm mentioning the fir club moss of the Clan MacRae has been recorded as an example.
When they tore the roots from the soil In Gaelic's place is the stranger's tongue...

In the 12th century Life of Saint Flannan of Killaloe (in Ireland) a dynasty symbolically begins its hostile takeover of territory with the attack of the tribal yew tree. The association of special tribal trees as tribal symbols, and their use in kingship inauguration, has very ancient roots. Whatever its origin, the clan badges are certainly a well known and used clan epithet in later Scottish Gaelic tradition. After the battle of Inverlochy when the MacDonalds, whose emblem was the heather, beat the Campbells, whose emblem was the gale, or bog myrtle, they boasted that "now the heather was above the [bog myrtle]. Other such metaphors and images based on the badges can be met in Gaelic literature.

There are many examples of a clan or túath likened to a tree. One of the most famous warrior bands of early Gaelic literature was called the Craobh Ruadh, the Red Branch (of Ulster). A number of Gaelic tales liken armies to forests, and it is from this Gaelic literary inventory that Shakespeare borrowed the image of Birnam Wood in MacBeth.

In a seventeenth century poem on the Í Néill which likens them to a great yew (one of the noble types of wood) torn from soil by a storm (Ó Cuív):

...Iobhar re samhaltar sibh
...You are like a (certain) yew
do bhí ann aimsir éigin
there was one time
gur dheacar le comhchur a chleath
whose straight tops it was difficult to bend
feacadh a dhromchladh ndíreach
on account of the union of its branches
Oidhche don iubhar chédna
One night this same yew
fa neart síne soighnénda
under the stress of the thundering storm
do shéid ó néallaibh nimhe
which blew from the clouds
téid dá phréamhaibh puiblidhe
had its powerful roots torn

A seventeenth century elegy for Niall Og MacLean uses very similar imagery to describe the MacLeans:

Ach nam b'aithne dhomh t' áireamh

But if I know your measure
B'úr a' choill as na dh'fhás thu -
fresh the woodland you sprung from-
Siol nam failleanan árd bu mhór stoirm.
seed of the mighty trunks of great storm.

The destiny of a dynasty or clan is often twinned to that of a tree in Gaelic tradition. In the 12th century Life of Saint Flannan of Killaloe (in Ireland) a dynasty symbolically begins its hostile takeover of territory with the attack of the tribal yew tree. In The Golden Bough, Frazer records that the fate of the Hays of Erroll (in Scotland) was said to be tied with the life of a mistletoe that grew on a particular oak tree.

More examples can be found in the prophecies of the Lady of Lawers. The Lady of Lawers (of Loch Tay-side, a Gaelic speaking-area well into the 20th century) based the timing of some of her prophecies on the height of a tree near a certain church as it grew: when it was as tall as the ridge of the house of Balloch, the dynasty based there would be without an heir. When a broken branch from a fir-tree would fall on another fir-tree and then grow as part of it (i.e., grafting), in like fashion, the MacNabs would be added to the Breadalbane estates.

The symbol of the tree as the dynasty sometimes appears in folk tales, such as in Mac Cuain ("The Son of the Sea"). A pregnant woman dreams that a huge tree spreads over a house and covers it, and the king interprets this as meaning that her offspring will regain the throne of the kingdom.
The ri was thought of as being the over-arching tree of the túath, its shelter, protection and intermediary to the higher powers. Much Gaelic terminology associated with "family-trees" and lineage uses tree words. The word craobh not only means tree, but can be used as a verb meaning to propagate. The term craobh-seanchais, literally tree-knowledge, is used to mean the knowledge of one's lineage and descent. Similarly the term craobh ghinealaiche is used to designate one's genealogical tree.

The learned Gaelic orders were exceedingly fond of schematas and taxonomies, and frequently projected their social and intellectual schemes onto nature. Thus, like the organisation of Gaelic society itself, the poets classified all sorts of objectsanimals, food, trees, etcinto noble and servile groups, selecting them according to their physical features and traits.

Having classified and symbolised the natural world, poets could choose a member of one of these sets, depending on what was appropriate for the occasion, as metaphors and symbols with which to compare the subject of their poem.

This is how trees were classified:

The "chieftains" among trees, according to an ancient Irish tract, are dair, oak; coll, hazel; cuileand, holly; abhull, apple-tree; uindsin, ash; ibur, yew; gius, fir. The "servile" trees are:fern, alder; sail, willow; bethi, birch; lemh, elm; scé, hawthorn; crithach, aspen; caerthand, rowan. A poem in Silva Gadelica gives an account of trees that are, or are not, proper to burn. In it feithlenn, woodbine, is the king of trees; rowan is the tree of the druids; willow is the noble tree (sáir); yew is the wood of feasts.

The great poet Alexander MacDonald makes punning allusion to this classification when he says slyly of Colin Campbell of Glenure (which means "Glen of Yew"), "I wish he were yew and not alder"i.e., the noble yew tree of his territorial title rather than an ignoble tree.

The ri was thought of as being the over-arching tree of the túath, its shelter, protection and intermediary to the higher powers.

There was a strong continuity in this symbolism which was passed on to the chief of the clan and other important leaders of society, as illustrated in this seventeenth-century elegy to the Laird of Applecross:

A' chraobh thu b'áirde anns a' choille
You were the highest tree in the forest
Thar gach preas bha thu soilleir
over every thicket you stood distinctive
A' cumail díon air an doire
affording shelter to the oakgrove
Le d' sgéimh ghuirm fo bhláth dhuilleag;
with your vigorous beauty under heavy foliage;
Cha b'e mháin Clanna Choinnich
not only Clan MacKenzie
Bhiodh mun cuairt dhuit ma Challainn
at New Year gathered around you
Bhiodh gach fine agus sloinne
for each tribe and lineage
A' teachd le cáirdeas ad choinneamh
came to see you with good wishes
Bhiodh fir Eireann 's nan eilean mud' bhórd.
with men of Ireland and the islands about your board.
The symbolism of society as the tree has survived in Gaelic poetic imagery to the current day. In discussing the propagation of the moral code through the hierarchy of Gaelic society, Ronald Black mentions the frequent symbolism "in which the kindred is regularly portrayed as an all-protecting tree, with the common ancestors as the trunk firmly rooted in the soil, every family and its individual members as the branches, twigs and leaves, and the chief as the highest, sweetest apple of them all" (West Highland Free Press). This symbolism of society as the tree has survived in Gaelic poetic imagery to the current day. In Murchadh MacPhárlain's rally to the Gaelic language, Canan nan Gáidheal, he likens Gaelic society and Gaelic itself to a tree which has resisted the elements from all directions, except from the South:

Cha b'e sneachd is a' reothadh bho Thuath
It's not the Northern snow or frost
Cha b'e 'n crannadh, geur; fuar bhon Ear
It's not sharp, withering cold from the East
Cha b'e 'n t-uisge, is an gailleann bhon lar
It's not the Western rain and storm
Ach an galair a bhlian bhon Deas,
But the blight that withers from the South
Blath, duilleach, stoc agus freumh
Bloom, leaf, trunk and roots,
Cánan mo thréibh 's mo shluaigh...
The language of my people...
Nuair a spion iad a fhreumh ás an fhonn
When they tore the roots from the soil
'N áite Gáidhlig tha Cánan a' Ghoill...
In Gaelic's place is the stranger's tongue...

Somhairle MacGill-eain (Sorley MacLean), probably Scottish Gaeldom's best known bard of the twentieth-century, has used the image of the tree in several of his poems, but probably most effectively in his poem "Hallaig" (MacGill-eain), in which the native inhabitants of Raasay, long since dead and evicted from their homes, are seen in the form of trees:

...Ann an Screapadal mo chinnidh
...In Screapadal of my people
far robh Tarmad's Eachunn Mór
Where Norrman and Big Hector were
tha 'n nigheanan 's am mic 'nan coille
their daughters and sons are a wood
ag gabhail suas ri taobh an lóin...
going up beside the stream...
Tha iad fhathast ann a Hallaig
They are still in Hallaig
Clann Ghill-Eain 's Clann MhicLeóid
MacLeans and MacLeods
na bh'ann ri linn Mhic Ghille-Chaluim:
all who were there in the time of Mac Gille Chaluim
Chunnacas na mairbh beó...
The dead have been seen alive.

About the ancient roots of this tree imagery, John MacInnes has written "I have the feeling it is also a poem that would have been understood a thousand years ago and more. The mandarin caste of mediaeval society... might not find 'Hallaig' as mysterious as modern readers". I hope that I have helped reveal some of the symbolism so deeply entwined in traditional Gaelic thought.
  Thanks to Ronald Black for comments and help.

Michael Newton is researching his doctorate at the Celtic Department, University of Edinburgh.

First published in Reforesting Scotland, Issue 14, Spring '96. Republished with permission. Our thanks - Ed.

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