O! Rowan Tree, O! Rowan Tree

At this time of year (halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox) the Celtic peoples observe a festival called Imbolc. This observance has spread out with the people, and is also observed here in the United States, where it is sometimes called Groundhog Day.

Apparently, the festival has traditional links with the Rowan Tree, the ubiquitous tree of the Highlands. Not surprisingly, there are tunes about the Rowan Tree. The best known is the 4/4 march of that name, a standard for any pipe band. Perhaps not so well known by pipers is the fact that the tune has words, and very beautiful ones at that. Here is the first stanza:

Oh! rowan tree, oh! rowan tree,
Thou’lt aye be dear to me,
En twin’d thou art wi’ mony ties
O’ hame and infancy.
Thy leaves were aye the first o’ spring,
Thy flow’rs the simmer’s pride;
There was na sic a bonnie tree
In a’ the countrie side.
Oh! rowan tree.

The tune and words date from the early 19th century, and the focus on family ties the words to the Imbolc celebration, which tended to be one of family and community. One of my extended family of friends has a daughter called Rowan. I used to play The Rowan Tree to her before she was born. (I’m sure this is the deep-seated reason she has such a love of music – at 2 3/4 she is a self-described opera diva.)

More recently (in piping terms), Pipe Major Donald MacLeod composed an elegant piobireachd called Lament for the Rowan Tree. I am trying to find out more about this tune. Superficially, it sounds as though it may be based on the familiar song, but I don’t have the sheet music and it’s not that easy to tell. I will pick the (multiple) brains of the piping forums.

In any case, the days are lengthening and that’s always a welcome sign.

One Reply to “O! Rowan Tree, O! Rowan Tree”

  1. This song has always had a special place in my heart as well. It was the first song I learned to play, and it was especially exciting because my mum, being from Scotland, could sing the words.

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