17 October, 2013
I have recently been working at Elcho Castle, on the Tay near Perth, and at Mavisbank, in Midlothian near Lasswade. Both sites have adjoining land which holds a feast of fruit and berries. These were an important source of food for our forebears. Early settlers in Scotland after the last Ice Age would have identified fruit-growing sites and visited them annually. This is equally true for many of our native wild animals.
Mavisbank lies along the valley of the River North Esk. The south-facing valley is an ideal site for brambles (also called blackberries), and they grow in profusion along the wooded slopes – though it is probably to late too pick them now.
Brambles are rich in tannin, and this increases as they ripen, giving them, eventually, a bitter taste. This may have given rise to the superstitions associating brambles with the Devil. Old Michaelmas Day (probably 10 October), is also called ‘Devil Spits Day’. It’s the last day on which these berries should be picked, according to old British folklore.
Although Michaelmas is celebrated on 29 September, the calendar was reformed in 1752. This was when Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar which determines the date when Easter falls. Old Michaelmas Day was considered to be the day when the Devil came to earth.
He fell from the skies, straight onto a bramble bush, whose barbs presumably inflicted grievous injuries. According to tradition, he cursed the fruit, scorched them with his fiery breath, stamped on them and then spat on them, making them unfit to eat.
A different myth exists in Scotland. In our version, the Devil poisons the brambles a fortnight earlier, on Old Holy Rood Day. This is a festival marking the discovery of the Holy Rood – the cross on which Christ was believed to have been crucified.
This remarkable find is credited to St Helena, the mother of Roman emperor Constantine the Great. The feast celebrates the presentation of this sacred relic to the people, in a magnificent church built by Constantine at Jerusalem, on 14 September 335.
Many churches in Britain were dedicated to the Holy Rood, notably Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh, part of which survives next to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Holy Rood Day was a day of much sacred observance all through the Middle ages. It is referred to in an old Scottish rhyme:
Oh weans! Oh weans! The morn’s the Fair.
Ye may na eat the berries mair.
This nicht the Deil gangs ower a’
To touch them with his pooshioned paw.
(Oh children! Oh children! Tomorrow is the Fair.
You must no longer eat the berries.
Tonight the Devil steps over all
To touch them with his poisoned paw.)
Returning to Elcho, this is one of two sites in Historic Scotland’s care where orchards have been recreated on sites where they previously existed. Certain historical evidence has been discovered for an orchard on the plot just west of the castle. This would have kept the earls of Wemyss and their guests well stocked with juicy apples.
The other site is Aberdour Castle on the south coast of Fife, where the notorious Regent Morton lived in retirement, presumably scrunching enough apples to keep the doctor away until his services were rendered redundant by the removal of Morton’s head.
There is also a famous orchard close to Melrose Abbey in the Borders. Priorwood garden, managed by the National Trust for Scotland, grows apples of all eras from Roman to the present day. They include the ‘White Melrose’ apple, probably grown first by the monks in the 1500s, which has a sweet taste with a hint of melon.
Today, orchards are important for their varied and abundant biodiversity. A well tended orchard provides a patchwork of habitats for creatures like beetles, bats, weasels, shrews, badgers and butterflies. For this reason, orchards are recognised in the Government’s Biodiversity Action Plan as a priority habitat.
Britain’s foremost nature writer Richard Mabey, author of the excellent Food for Free, recommends mixing apples with dark berries – for example brambles, elderberries or sloes. Half-and-half is his preferred proportion, though this can easily be varied, as a basis for autumn pudding: a devilishly good dish.