As a child, I used to watch the swaying branches of a hazel tree in my grandparents’ garden. I played with the catkins, and in autumn I picked and ate the hazel nuts – usually, in my impatience, before they were ready.
When I was looking for a title for my magazine, ‘The Hazel Tree’ came to mind. I liked the image it created, and when I looked a bit deeper, I was fascinated by some of the stories that I found…
Hazel trees have been present in Britain since ancient times. It’s believed that Mesolithic people carried hazel nuts as a source of food, and this in turn assisted the spread of the trees. Ripe hazel nuts attract red squirrels and woodpeckers, and they’re also an important source of food for dormice.
In Celtic folklore, hazel nuts represented wisdom and poetic inspiration. Hazel shafts were used for water divining, and this practice evolved into the making of pilgrims’ staffs, shepherds’ crooks and walking sticks.
Known as the Tree of Knowledge in Norse mythology, the hazel was sacred to the god Thor; in Irish and Welsh folklore, the hazel was believed to be a fairy tree, and it still grows near many holy wells. Tara, the seat of ancient Irish kings, was located close to a hazel wood; and it is said that members of the Fianna, a legendary band of Irish warriors, learned to defend themselves with only a hazel stick and a shield.
According to an ancient Irish legend, the branches of a hazel tree overhung the Well of Wisdom. Nine hazel nuts fell into the pool, and were eaten by salmon, a fish revered by the druids. The fish developed bright spots on their scales according to how many nuts they had eaten.
Later, while cooking one of these fish for his druid master, a young lad called Fionn mac Cumhaill ate some of the salmon’s flesh; in doing so, he gained the salmon’s magical knowledge and grew up to become one of the most heroic figures in Irish mythology.
At Ballachuan on Seil Island, an ancient and beautiful hazel wood stretches right down to the loch shore. Even in bright weather, the woodland is damp and dimly lit. The hazel trees’ thick, gnarled branches are festooned with ferns and lichen, and the place has a wonderful sense of timelessness.
So… whether you liken yourself to a druidic salmon, consuming the nuts of wisdom, or whether you just share my interest in the natural world, I hope you’ll find something to inspire you under the branches of The Hazel Tree!
Photos copyright © Jo Woolf