Casting Your Clouts (Because the May is Certainly Out!)

The 'may' is well and truly out in Ayrshire. 

'Ne'er cast a clout till may be out' says the old saying, with variations in different parts of the British Isles. Your clouts are your clothes. Don't take off your winter clothes till the may is out. Many people think it means 'till the end of May.' But much more likely is that it refers to the stunningly beautiful hawthorn blossom, otherwise known as may - and it seems to be especially, almost heartbreakingly beautiful this year.

Ayrshire is particularly blessed with hedgerows and the hedgerows are particularly full of wonderful old trees and shrubs as well as wildflowers in plenty: the more delicate blackthorn in April gives place to the rich, and richly scented may blossom.

Also, most of our councils here have given up weed killing or even over-cutting the verges, so they too are rich in wild flowers. As I look out of the window of the room where I work, I can see great clumps of sweet scented may in the field at the bottom of the garden.

When I was a little girl, in industrial Leeds, we used to catch a bus out into the countryside at the weekend, but even then, I knew that you didn't cut may blossom, didn't bring it into the house. My Irish nana was very firm about that. The more prosaic explanation is that the strong, heady scent attracts flies, but after all we bring lots of other flowers into our houses - although woodland hawthorn certainly smells unpleasant once cut. We did, however, used to eat the leaves, calling it 'bread and cheese.' And I've made jelly from the berries, later in the year. The more fascinating explanation is that this tree is sacred to the 'fairies' - the 'good people' of Celtic mythology, who are not 'little' at all. They are human sized, and dangerous. That's why you call them 'good'. In the hope that they will live up to their name!

In 13th Century Scotland, Thomas the Rhymer met the Fairy Queen beside a hawthorn tree and went with her to fairyland for what he thought would be a brief visit. Except that when he emerged from the underworld, he had been away for seven long years. The hawthorn or may tree is beloved of the fairies, and if you see a single hawthorn, standing alone, as you sometimes do in many rural areas, you must leave it strictly alone. These trees must not be cut, must not be damaged in any way - or not if you don't want to upset their supernatural inhabitants. And they make far better friends than enemies. You have been warned! If you want to know more about hawthorn mythology, have a look on the excellent Trees For Life website.  

Meanwhile, the cow parsley is also in bloom along all our verges and it's equally pretty, but very delicate. You can see why it's sometimes known as 'Queen Anne's Lace' can't you? By the way, although most of us here in Scotland have put our winter woollies away, some of us at least are getting them out again. The wind is incredibly chilly and a friend who lives on one of the outlying farms told me today that there was a ground frost in the night, so they were rushing to protect the tender young plants in their garden. Perhaps June will bring a bit more warmth.

Cow parsley is so pretty.