Cicely Mary Barker, from Flower fairies of the trees, 1961
In one of my earliest postings, I discussed the curious link between fairies and elder trees. I’d like to return to that with some fresh evidence, mainly drawn from the Isle of Man.
Elder trees are widely seen as having some sort of magical or spiritual properties. For example, in Herefordshire there was a taboo upon burning elder wood for fear of bringing misfortune, whilst its inner rind was used to cure cows of jaundice. Witches were said to dislike the tree, so its pith was fed to those believed to have been bewitched. In Shropshire elder was never used as firewood as it would bring misfortune, even death, to the household. The wood shouldn’t even be brought into the house, as it could cause a cow to lose its calf, nor should cattle be driven with an elder stick. The juice of the plant would be used to protect the threshold and the hearth.
On the Isle of Man, the same ideas prevailed as on the British mainland. Whilst the tree was said to be the haunt of the fairies, it repelled witches and, accordingly, there was hardly to be found an old well (tholtan in Manx) near which there didn’t grow an elder tree, according to Agnes Herbert in a guide to the island written in 1909. If you carried elder leaves with you, the islanders believed, you would be protected against witchcraft.
These are but the first indications of the supernatural associations of the tramman tree on the island. The fairies live in the trees and when the branches of the trees are seen to bend in the wind at night, it is in fact the fairies riding upon them. Given their status as fairy residences, interference with the trees can be dangerous. Evans Wentz heard the story of a woman from Arbory parish who one dark night accidentally collided with a tramman. She was instantly smitten with a terrible swelling which all her neighbours agreed was the consequence of offending the fays by her clumsiness. Another local account told of a man who cut down an elder and was driven to suicide by the aggrieved fairies, Walter Gill recorded in 1932.
The Manx fairies living in the ‘tramman’ are plainly very similar to the Old Lady of the Elder tree that I described before. It’s not clear, though, whether or not they’re identical. The Old Lady seems to personify the tree in some way- to be its spirit- whilst the Manx fays live in, or at least gather in, the elders, but may not actually embody them. Regardless of the detail, the supernatural associations are very clear and persistent and- what’s more- can be seen across Northern Europe from Denmark to the British Isles.