Updated: Aug 3, 2022
Like the stiff dram from the same country, the Scotch Pine tree is native to Scotland – found in the ancient, old-growth Caledonian pine forest. Named by the Romans, who called Scotland Caledonia, these majestic trees arrived in Scotland after the last Ice Age, around 7000BCE, and by 5000BCE, the pine forest had grown to cover an estimated 1.5million hectares.
Over time, changing weather conditions saw the decline of these forests, as did human interference – the wood of the Scotch Pine fed the charcoal industry in the medieval period, when iron mongers’ forges needed this fuel to make and repair swords and shields – such as those used by William Wallace (you may know him as ‘Braveheart’) during his battle for Scottish independence. However, the Scots did not cut down trees willy-nilly, or with total lack of regard – their preferred method was coppicing, a practice of repeatedly cutting down trees at the base, which leaves the root system intact and allows quick regrowth – thus a sustainable supply of wood. This practice has been dated back as far as the Stone Age, and was in use in Scotland by the 13th Century, enabling the forest to regenerate, grow and be serviceable for years.
Then why did the forest shrink, to the 35 remnants left today?
With the growth of wealthy medieval monastic estates, and the need for large tracts of lowland territory to farm their cattle and sheep, land needed to be cleared, and previously coppiced trees, with their new re-growth, would have been eaten by the livestock, and men who previously coppiced as a way of life would have become farmers. By the 1500s, large parts of the forest were replaced by the moorlands we associate with Scotland today, with most scholars agreeing the forest is now reduced to 180km squared.
Being named by the Romans, one can imagine this ancient forest has seen some incredible events in history. It caused the Romans no end of grief, being a hiding place for the Scots and Picts during Roman invasions. It also saw the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, which marked the boundary between Roman Britannia and unconquered Caledonia to the north.
So symbolic of the countryside, in 2014 the Scotch Pine was voted the national tree of Scotland – a land once awash with mystical, magical lore. Unlike Greek and Roman mythology, which focuses on goddesses and gods, Scottish lore centres on nature, and the fey beings that lived in bogs, lochs, marshes and forests. Chief among these is the fairy folk, and one such myth relates to a particular pine tree – the Fairy Tree – at Doon Hill.
It is said that the Reverend Robert Kirk, a 17th Century minister at Aberfoyle, was, like so many of that era, obsessed with the supernatural – woodland folk in particular - and penned a famous book, going by the glorious name of “The Secret Commonwealth of Elves and Fairies - an essay of the nature and actions of the subterranean (and for the most part) invisible people heretofore going under the names Elves, Fauns and Fairies’.
This book is still available today: here is the actual summary from Goodreads –
“In the late 17th century, a Scottish minister went looking for supernatural creatures of "a middle nature betwixt man and angel." Robert Kirk roamed the Highlands, talking to his parishioners and other country folk about their encounters with fairies, wraiths, elves, doppelgangers, and other agents of the spirit world. Magic was a part of everyday life for Kirk and his fellow Highlanders, and this remarkable book offers rare glimpses into their enchanted realm.” (https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/572121.The_Secret_Commonwealth)
However, the book had to be published posthumously. In 1692, Kirk – mysteriously? - fell and died on Doon Hill, where he had spent many hours searching, for he believed it to be the gateway to the fairy realm. Some believe the reverend perhaps knew too much, and by writing a book of his findings, he had angered the fairies. Some say he was spirited away to serve as chaplain to their queen – most believe his spirit is trapped forever in an old Scotch Pine, either as punishment, or to act as mediator between the human and spirit realm, helping to have wishes granted. Certainly it is a site for pilgrimage and offerings. There is a famous clootie well here too, where people can tie their wishes written on strips of cloth.
It also has relevance in Celtic mythology, where the Pine tree was associated with the coming of the sun, signifying the end of winter. Its sister tree, the Yew, represented the death of the old, and the pine, the birth of the new. Bonfires of pine wood were lit at the winter solstice, to encourage the sun to come back and bestow warmth, life and fertility to the land following the cold and dark winter.
Despite the different focus in mythological tales from Scotland, the pine tree does also feature in Greek and Roman mythology.
Cybele, the earth goddess of Roman mythology, was in love with Attis, and when he was killed, he was said to have turned into a pine tree. For the spring equinox, Attis priests would cut a pine tree, to be laid down and covered with flowers to represent his body. Music and frenzied dancing would follow, building to a crescendo of a blood sacrifice, in order to resurrect the life force of Attis, thus renewing the fertility of Cybele, the earth goddess. The pine cone, the symbol of Cybele, the goddess of abundant benefits, was worn by her followers, symbolising health, wealth and power.
Bacchus/Dionysus was said to have carried a pinecone-tipped staff, the thyrsus. As we know, Bacchus and Dionysus were the gods of wine, pleasure and excess, and it was this staff could turn water into wine. I can't think of a better reason to fashion one of these for myself! Here again also, the pine cone represents immortality.
The pine tree is an evergreen tree that can live up to 700 years. It is called a pioneer tree, meaning it can thrive and regenerate in the poorest of soils and conditions. Used extensively as a Christmas tree, its needles resist drying, and if the tree DOES dry, the needles do not drop, making it a popular choice in homes at Christmas time. Its extreme resilience and endurance has allowed it to grow halfway around the world, and may have contributed to the common themes of immortality, life force, renewal and fertility that run through other myths associated with the pine tree.
Interestingly, the derivation of the word ‘Caledonia’ comes from a tribal name, ‘Caledones’, meaning ‘possessing hard feet’ – a literal translation which alludes to endurance and steadfastness. Fascinating that these themes repeat in various ways. The ancient Caledonian Forest, still present today after 10,000 years, attests to this endurance.
The essential oil of Scotch Pine, which has been distilled and in use as an essential oil since the Middle Ages, is appropriate for use as we progress through winter, one made all the more grim by endlessly dire virus warnings. Ron Guba states of Scotch Pine oil – ‘Well known to be of beneﬁt in respiratory complaints, with expectorant & anti-infectious properties. A stimulating, tonic essence, French practitioners utilise it for fatigue states and exhaustion’.
A warming and drying oil, Pine has been used by many cultures throughout history as a steam inhalation in hot springs, this invigorating oil helps detoxify and clear congestion of the lungs. According to Holmes, it also became an official remedy for throat conditions, in the 1872, London-based Pharmacopoeia of the Hospital for Diseases of the Throat.
With its deep and ancient associations with endurance, strength and fortitude, is it any wonder then, that the energetics of Scotch Pine essential oil reflect the same qualities.
Holmes, as always, states it beautifully – “With its exceptional longevity and vertical thrust to heaven despite rude climes, the pine tree in many cultures worldwide is an iconic emblem of the will to live, persevere and survive with complete uprightness in the face of adversity… as an olfactory remedy with deep pungent, woody notes… Pine oil can evoke the faculties of honesty, courage and will power in the individual. Pine is for the person whose soul strength has been crushed by severe hardships or harsh circumstances. The oil may help create enough soul presence and honesty to kindle a spark of courage and motivation to continue on life’s journey, despite all odds and opposition. Pine may revive the will to start over again, taking one day at a time, being content to just be alive, to exist”.
These are the very reasons this oil was chosen as this month’s feature oil. Starting over is something many people are having to face, after many years of upheaval and loss. As the world continues to be uncertain and precarious, I could think of no better oil that reflects the circumstances of so many, and could be of some small help when it feels like so much is lost.
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Loftus, James. 2021. A history of Scotland's forests. History Scotland. Accessed 15/7/22.
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Wikipedia. 2022. Caledonia. Accessed 15/7/22. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caledonia
Wikipedia. 2022. Caledonian Forest. Accessed 15/7/22. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caledonian_Forest