the may is going over
At this time of year, you often hear the saying. ‘Cast ne’er a cloot til May be oot.’ The ‘May’ here is the folk name for the hawthorn, not the month. It means, don’t shed a layer of winter clothes until the hawthorn is out in flower.
The may trees began to flower three or so weeks ago. For about 10 days the sun shone. Oh joy. We gleefully yanked off our woolly ‘cloots’, threw them to the back of the cupboard, and told each other, ‘feels like summer’s on the way.’
Within days, the wind turned north and east. Even when the sun was out, the wind behind it felt ice sharp. After a heavy shower, may petals lay like white table cloths spread out beneath the thorny branches, suggesting an abandoned picnic.
That this old folklore about may blossom is still in our mouths links us, through the saying, to the women and men walking here before us – who said it to each other – and to other things the hawthorn meant to them.
Mostly, we just enjoy it as a sign of Spring. They hacked off branches of the may’s hard, close grained wood, to whittle into the handle of a spade or hoe.
They grew it into hedges – thick, thorny, impenetrable to sheep and cattle.
When people fell sick, they might sail across the Beauly firth to the Clootie well near Munlochy. Cloots – cloths – still hang on hawthorns growing round the healing well, their roots fed by its water. It’s a pagan well, dedicated to a Christian saint.
As a more self-help approach to healing, they used the may’s leaves and flowers to treat an irregular heartbeat, and to stabilise blood pressure.
The famous Glastonbury thorn in Wiltshire is said to have been planted 2000 years ago by the uncle of the Virgin Mary when he came trading here. It blossoms twice a year, May and December. 400 years ago, King James I was given a sprig of its December flowers as a Christmas gift. They are still sent to lie on the Queen’s table at Christmas. Or they were. Someone just removed it.
I picture the holy Glastonbury thorn’s little white blossoms the size of shirt buttons, shivering minutely in the frosty moonlit air, delicate symbol of rebirth at the winter solstice, the deadest time of the year. Century after century. So life layers up around all of us, everywhere, symbolically and pragmatically.
May flowers symbolise hope of all sorts. The pilgrims looking for a New World called their ship The Mayflower. Some say, hawthorn heals a broken heart. The presence of a hawthorn marks an entrance to the fairy Otherworld. It can bring you bad, even fatal, luck to cut one down.
I wonder who came to our trees, their trees, to press their heads against the trunk of the may in times of stress, standing at the door, to ask the cunning folk for help.
In my last blog I quoted research that says we naturally incline to walk in ever decreasing circles. But, the research also said that one thing stops us doing so – that is, the existence of external points of reference.
The hawthorns on the farm are my external point of reference today – an entrance into parts of the otherworlds in which our forebears lived. A symbolic doorway to link their work, hopes, fears and desires with ours.