folklore, traditions, and stories from Scotland

Superstition and Syrup: The Lore of the Elder Tree

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The elder tree is a familiar sight in the Scottish hedgerow, with its flat-topped clusters of delicate cream flowers in late spring, followed by bunches of purple-black berries in autumn. It has perhaps the greatest number of practical uses of any plant, and a wealth of folklore and superstition surrounds it.

In Scotland, the elder was known as the bour-tree, or bower-tree, and ‘bourtree’ can be found in place names across the country. The Statistical Account of Killearn, Stirling (1791-99) states:

“The sambucus nigra, (elder tree, Eng.) is no stranger in many places of the parish. Some of the trees are very well shaped, and by the natural bending of the branches cause an agreeable shade, or bower, exhibiting an example of the propriety of the name given to that species of plants in Scotland, namely, the Bower-tree.”

John Jamieson, in the first volume of his Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808) suggests that the elder is in fact the bore-tree:

“…it has received its name from its being hollow within, and thence easily bored by thrusting out the pulp.”

John MacTaggart, in Natural Curiosities of the South of Scotland (1824) notes that hollowed out lengths of the tree were called bowertree-puffs, and were used by the ‘kill-men’, men employed to stoke the fires of the kilns, ‘to blow through, and rouse their seed fires, or fires fed by the husks of corn‘. The branches can also be used to make flutes and whistles, and the bark of the tree was used for chanter reeds before cane became widely available. Somewhat less practically, the hollow lengths were also used for ‘bootrie guns’, blowguns with darts of chewed balls of paper, as recounted by James Chapman Craig in his poem School Days, from 1821:

The time wad come when every ane
Wad a ha’e a ‘bootrie-gun’,
An’ chowin’ towe to mak’ the balls
Aye had its slice a’ fun.

The elder has long been associated with witchcraft and magic, and various superstitions and charms connect it to the Daoine Sith, the native fairies of Scotland. Standing under an elder tree at Beltane, Midsummer or Samhain allows you to see the Riders of the Sith, and sleeping under an elder will invoke vivid dreams of the fairies. The elder is thought to repel malignant spirits, so it’s often cultivated near houses, barns, and stables, while wearing elderflowers in your hair affords you the protection of benign spirits and keeps you from harm.

Witches are said to be able to turn themselves into elder trees, and each tree is thought to be inhabited by an Elder Mother. Her permission must be sought if you want to cut any wood from Her tree, traditionally by saying, “Elder Mother, let me borrow some of your wood and when I turn into a tree you can have some of mine.” The Elder Mother’s silence is her consent. A Scandinavian folk tale recounts that a cradle of elder wood was made without the permission of the Elder Mother, and each time the child for which it was intended was placed in it, the Elder Mother would pull him out by his legs until eventually the cradle was no longer used.

The crooked growth of the elder tree is attributed to a punishment imposed upon it for its use as the wood of the cross on which Christ was crucified. In The Popular Rhymes of Scotland (1870), Robert Chalmers recounts a rhyme addressed to it:

Bourtree, bourtree, crooked rung.
Never straight, and never strong.
Ever bush and never tree,
since our Lord was nailed to ye!

The elder was also thought to have been the tree from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself, and the ear-shaped fungus, auricularia auricula-judae, most often found on the elder, has the common name Judas’s Ear. The notion that Judas died on an elder was popularised by Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s Lost (Begin, sir; you are my elder / Well followed: Judas was hanged on an elder), and in Cymbeline, it serves as a symbol of grief (and let the stinking elder, grief, untwine / His perishing root with the increasing vine!).

Hippocrates referred to the elder as his medicine chest because of its wide and varied medicinal benefits, and the berries have been used as a remedy for cold and flu for centuries. In the 17th century, a whole book was written about its healing qualities. Numerous studies have proven the anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties of elderberries, and recent research has shown that they’re also an anti-inflammatory. They are rich in antioxidants and vitamins C and A, and contain a high level of immune-boosting compounds.

With cold and flu season just around the corner and elderberries ripe on the trees, this is the time to make up a big batch of elderberry syrup. Aside from the health benefits, it’s super cheap to make and tastes amazing. Take it daily throughout the winter months for an immune system boost, or hourly to quickly see off a cold that’s already set it. You can also pour it over ice cream or pancakes, use it as a baking ingredient in muffins or cupcakes, or drink it diluted with fizzy water – or prosecco!

Elderberry Syrup

Ingredients

  • 250 g elderberries (you can half this if using dried berries)
  • 1 litre water
  • 6 cloves
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 2 tbsp fresh ginger, grated
  • 500 ml honey

Instructions

  • Place the elderberries, water, cloves, cinnamon, and grated ginger in a pan and bring to the boil. Immediately reduce the heat and simmer for thirty minutes. or until reduced by about half.
  • Strain the mixture using a cheese cloth or an old pillowcase, being sure to squeeze out all the juice.
  • Add the honey to the warm mixture and stir until completely combined.
  • Carefully pour the syrup into glass bottles (it helps to pour it from the pot to a jug first), and keep refrigerated.

Notes

Dosage: take 1 tbsp of the syrup daily as a preventative through the colder months, or 1 tbsp per hour if you've already got the lurgy. Reduce the dosage to 1 tsp for children.
NB. If you're picking your own elderberries, be sure to only use the black berries. The green parts of the plant, including the unripe green berries, are mildly poisonous, as are the uncooked berries, so don't try eating them until after they're cooked!