Elm: The Tree of the Underworld

IMG_4369The Woods by Hamish Napier

Hmmm, I wonder what kind of tree that is?

The one on the corner of the Anagach Hill turn-off down the Old Spey Bridge road in Grantown.

I’ve cycled passed it every day on my way to school most of my life and never given it a moment’s thought.  But it’s HUGE.  Now having been away for 16 years, I can no longer fail to notice the imposing beast.  It’s impressive.

Tall and twisted, its long spooky arms and countless finger sprawl out in every direction from a distorted, gnarled, swollen trunk. The folds of bark have the look of one of those manky old wine-bottle candlesticks caked in generations of candlewax that you find on the shelves of a mountain bothy. The lower branches are unnaturally thin, like badly chosen sticks for the arms of a melting snowman.

In summer its dull green leaves flap about clumsily. Each one are coarse to the touch and almost rectangular in shape with a spiked tip. The tree app confirms that it’s a

Wych elm.

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I always like to direct folk to the beautiful ‘Trees for Life‘ website for info and pictures of Scotland’s native trees. Here’s their page on elm.

In the Scottish Gaelic tree alphabet (related to the ancient Celtic Ogham alphabet), ‘A’ is for AILM [Ah-lam], Wych Elm, slamhan, liobhann, or in Scots elme, in Latin it’s Ulmus glabra.

Elm trees love open spaces like parks, fields and forest edges. They are now scarce in the Caledonian forest but can be found near the river in Grantown. The Wych Elm gets its name from the use of its wood for storage chests, or ‘whycches’. The wood was also used for coffins and therefore is associated with death and burial grounds. In the Highlands people believed that an early fall of elm leaves foretold cattle disease the following year. The spread of Dutch elm disease throughout Britain is a risk to Scotland’s native elm.

On my album The Woods I wrote a lament, or maybe some kind of dark, harrowing, mournful dirge for this wonderful tree:

This track tells of a tragic tale from the 19th century, about Allan, the son of a poor widow, Christy Grant. They were one of the many families working in forestry who made their home deep in the woods of Strathspey. Allan had charge of the Loch Eannaich sluice gates. In her ‘Memoires of a Highland Lady’, Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus wrote,

index.17“A quantity of timber being wanted at Druie mouth for the Spey floaters who had come up to make their rafts, a run was determined on, and this lad was sent up to the Glen to open the sluice. It was a wild night, wind and hail changing to snow, and he had 12 miles to go through the forest, full of paths, and across the heath that was trackless. Poor old Christy! She gave him a hot supper, put up a bannock and a little whisky for him, and wrapped his plaid well round him. She looked after him as he left the house in the driving sleet; such risks were common, no one thought about them. Early in the morning down came the water, the weather had taken up, and the floating went merrily on, but Allan did not return. He had reached the loch, that was plain, but where then had he wandered? Not far. When evening came on and no word of him, a party set out in search, and they found him at his post, asleep seemingly, a bit of bannock and the empty flask beside him. He had done his duty, opened the water gate, and then sat down to rest. The whisky and the storm told the remainder. He was quite dead.”

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