R: Ruis, Elder in the Scottish Gaelic alphabet.
Elder, called the”Queen of Herbs” for its usefulness in herblore, the "Fairy Tree" (like the rowan), and the "Bore-tree" was often planted at the back door as rowans were at the front, the belief being that its presence would prevent evil from entering. In fact, there actually is an aroma in the leaves that repels flies, so not a bad thing to have near food preparation areas! Its position outside also made it handy for getting twigs to make into crosses over lintels, to prevent evil from entering the byre (barn). Every part of it was used: take out the pith of the branches to use as tinder, and you had fairly straight, hollow cylinders to use in bellows, flutes or pipes (the fairy folk supposedly loved instruments made of that best). The bark, berries and blossoms were used in various remedies—modern scientists have found that it may be efficacious in treating influenza—for any number of ailments, from irritated eyes, kidney problems, epilepsy, wounds to warts! Hearse-drivers carried whip-handles made from the wood, to ward off evil influences. One sign of a witch (who could turn herself into an elder tree) was her use of a broom made from that wood, instead of the usual ash decent housewives used. Revered by the Druids as another symbol of rebirth and regeneration, elder was demonized by early Christians, who said both that it was cursed for being the tree Judas had hung himself on and the one on which Christ was crucified. My granny once remarked dryly that whoever had that notion clearly didn’t know the tree—it was far too small and lightweight to have borne the weight of a grown man, let alone caused Christ to groan under its weight on His way to Gethsemane.
When I was thinking of what to write about for the letter R, the word “riddle” popped into my mind. Other than the riddling game used down through the centuries, the best known today the contest between Bilbo Baggins and Gollum, the first Scottish name that came to me connected to riddles/riddling was Robert the Bruce. With William Wallace and Rob Roy MacGregor, he is one of the Three Great Heroes of Scotland. A noble descended from families in Scotland, Ireland and England, Robert was both a patriot and yet was believed by many to be a turncoat (although Mel Gibson got it wrong: there is no evidence whatsoever that he betrayed Wallace outside of the script for Braveheart, a movie marred by its many inaccuracies. I refrain from a rant about that with difficulty!) A man who wanted to go on Crusade, Bruce was excommunicated for sacrilege. Merciless in harrying his enemies, by the end of his reign he was called “King Robert the Good.”
So who was this enigma? He was born into a time when Scotland was in thrall to King Edward of England, whose officials were merciless in pillaging it and its people.
|"Toom-Tabard," John Balliol|
|14th Century Brass Spurs|
Something about the bag made Robert certain that it had been left by his friend, Sir Ralph de Monthermer, who had not dared leave a written message. What was the meaning of the riddle posed by those objects? Bruce, later called a master of warfare, unraveled its meaning: he could remain, and be imprisoned (and probably executed) within twelve hours or twelve days—or he could flee on horseback to Scotland. He chose the latter, his squire at his side.
|King Robert I, Coronation|
This does not mean that Bruce had won; he had still to force the English out of Scotland, gain recognition of Scotland as a kingdom in its own right instead of a land ruled by outsiders, and win over the majority of his people, many still committed to other factions.
|Bruce & the Spider at the Cave|
Another is that in Galloway, near the Motte of Urr, he was challenged by an English knight, Sir Walter Selby. As the two were fighting, the clash of their swords and grunting brought the wife of a man named Sprotte from where she was preparing the morning porridge. Whether she tackled the Englishman or simply pulled out some of his hair, she brought him to his knees. To her disgust, Bruce refused to take advantage of her aid to kill Selby. Instead, the two men declared a truce and went to her home for some breakfast.
May you discern the true meaning of the riddles in your life, whether or not you eat porridge!