Alette Willis

The History Press | Dancing with Trees

Dancing with Trees. By Allison Galbraith, Alette J. Willis ISBN: 9780750978873. Published: 03-04-2017

Jack and the Dancing Trees
Scottish Traveller Tale

Once upon a time, there was a young man named Jack who worked on the estate of a wealthy Laird.  Although this Laird had lots of money, he held onto it tightly, paying Jack just one penny a week for all his hard work.
For the most part, Jack didn’t mind.  He lived in a cosy stone cottage with his mum, who was a canny old woman.  She knew how to harvest berries from hedgerows to make jams, how to spin fine yarn from the scraps of fleece left behind on bushes, and how to make potent poultices out of the most ordinary plants.  Between his penny and the coins his mum gathered selling her jams and yarn and cures, they lived quite comfortably.
But on the day this story took place, which just happened to be the longest day of the year, Jack was sitting watching his Laird’s sheep and thinking about Jennie.  Jennie worked as a maid in the Laird’s big old mansion house and Jack fancied her.  Jennie had just the other day made it clear that she fancied him right back.  But it would take a lot more money than Jack could save on a penny a week to make a life for him and Jennie.
As this problem was going around in his head, there was a commotion of wings flapping and bird voices calling out from the grove of trees that grew on the small hill near the field where he was sitting.  Jack had learned the language of the birds from his mum so he listened closely to what they were saying.
“Tonight’s the night,” the sparrows were chirping.
“These trees will dance,” agreed the crows.
“With no thought for the feathered folk,” creaked the Magpie fluffing out her feathers.
“It only happens once every hundred years,” trilled the blackbird.
“Dancing trees,” chatted the jackdaw.  “What will they think of next?”
And with that, all the birds took off out of the trees and flew away. 
Jack was intrigued.  What did his feathered friends mean by dancing trees?  He spotted his mum making her way across the field, carrying some bread and cheese for his lunch.  He met her and told her what he’d overheard.
She nodded her head wisely.  “I’ve heard tales that the big old oak tree up there pulls himself out of the ground every hundred years on Midsummer’s Eve and goes dancing with the young birch maidens that grow so coyly around him.” 
She looked carefully around to make sure no one was there.  “It’s also said that the trees keep treasures hidden amongst their roots.  But a treasure-seeker has got to be careful not to lose himself in the seeking, or he could end up flattened.  Here, take a ball of my yarn,” she said with a wink. “You never know when it might come in handy.”
As she walked back across the field, gathering stray bits of fleece as she went, Jack looked at the ball of yarn.  It seemed ordinary enough; what had his mum meant?  He shrugged and shoved it in his pocket.
“Jack,” someone called. He turned and there was Jennie hurrying down the path from the mansion house.  He waved and went to join her.
“I’ve come to warn you,” said Jennie, a bit breathlessly.  “The Laird’s in a right old state, tearing about the place, muttering ‘today’s the day’ and getting crabby with everyone he comes across.  You’d better be on your best behaviour today.  Better yet, avoid him altogether.  I’ve no idea what’s gotten into him.”
“I think I know,” said Jack, and he filled her in on all he learned.
“Don’t do it,” said Jennie.
“Do what?” asked Jack.
“I know what you’re thinking, and it’s too dangerous,” she said.  Which was when Jack realised what he was going to do.  He was going to stick around till night time to see the trees dance.
Jennie tried to get him to promise to go home as soon as his work was done. “In the mood he’s in, if the Laird catches you snooping around his property, you could find yourself fired or worse,” she said.  She hurried back to the mansion, not wanting to be caught herself.
As dusk neared, Jack found a clump of bushes to hide behind and settled down to wait.  The evening was eerily quiet with the birds all fled, but as the sun sank towards the horizon, the notes of an otherworldly music filled the air.
There was a sigh and a moan, a crack and a groan and the huge oak tree, that some call Old Croovie, shook and rattled and heaved himself out of the ground, his huge ropey roots moving in time to the music.
The lovely white birch trees on the hill began to shiver and shimmy along with him until all twelve had shaken themselves right out of the soil too.  The trees danced down the hill and across the field, pounding the ground as they moved.
Jack was about to follow them, when he saw a dark shadow creeping up the hill towards the holes that the trees had left behind.  It looked like the Laird.
Jack snuck up the hill to find out what he was up to.  He got there just in time to see the Laird jump into the huge root hole that the oak tree had left behind.  Jack peeked over the edge.  The walls of the hole sparkled with gold and jewels, crowns and coins.  The Laird had a big sack and he was throwing treasures into it as fast as he could.
Jack crept over to the next hole, one left by a birch tree.  It was much smaller and shallower and there were fewer things gleaming in the moonlight.  He thought about his sweetheart Jennie and how much he wanted to marry her.  He thought about his mum and how hard she worked to put food on their table and to keep their house comfortable and warm.  Far in the distance, he could hear the strange music and the thumping of the dancing trees.  He’d just be down there for a minute or two, plenty of time to get back out before the trees returned.  He jumped in.
The hole was deeper than it had seemed and there were more jewels and gold than he’d thought.  He plucked a large blue sapphire out of the wall and put it is his pocket for his mum.  A sprinkling of soil trickled onto his feet.  He found a gold ring the perfect size for Jennie’s finger and pried it loose, sending down another cascade of dirt.
Just as he’d put the ring in his pocket, Jennie’s head appeared at the edge of the hole.  “Jack,” she called.  “You have to get out, now.  The sky is getting lighter and the sound of the trees is growing closer.”
Jack tried to scramble up the side of the root hole, but the loose soil kept coming away under his fingers.
“Quickly,” cried Jennie.
Jack remembered the ball of yarn his mum had given him.  He held one end and threw the rest up to Jennie.  “Tie this onto a sturdy bush,” he called.  She nodded and disappeared from view. She reappeared.  He tugged on the yarn.  It seemed strong enough.
Hand, over hand, he pulled himself up out of the roothole.  By the time he got out, the trees could be seen across the field, still dancing to the music, but heading back to their hill.
Jack ran over to the big hole.  The Laird’s sack was bulging, but he was still down there cramming more treasure into it.  “Laird,” Jack called to him, tying one end of the yarn to a bush and tossing the ball down into the hole.  “The trees are coming back, you’ve got to get out of there.”  But the Laird ignored Jack and the yarn, his wide eyes shone darkly as he continued to scrabble for jewels in the dirt.
Jennie tugged on Jack’s hand.  The trees were dancing up the hill.  Jack and Jennie ran as fast as they could down the other side.  They didn’t stop running until they got to the little stone cottage, where Jack’s mum had dinner waiting for them both.
They came back the next day and found the yarn Jack had left tied to the bush.  It disappeared under the huge roots of the oak tree.  There was no sign of the Laird.
Jack did not wait long to put the gold ring on Jennie’s finger and soon after that they moved into the little stone cottage.  Jack’s mum sold the sapphire and bought herself a house on a loch, where she lived happily ever after.
And the wealthy old Laird?  He was never seen again.  The estate was given to his son, who turned out to be a much more generous employer that his father and Jack and Jennie both got a big raise.

NOTES: Jack stories are common across England and Scotland.  They have even turned up in French speaking parts of North America as stories about P’tit Jean.  Jack is the working everyman, who tries to live rightly in relation to his employer, his family and the wider world he is a part of.  This story makes a good introduction to the complex topic of resource extraction and the concentration of wealth.
Both birch trees and oak trees are native to the British Isles, although oak forests are much more common in England than Scotland.  While we did not come across any dancing tree stories from England, we did find some from Germany, the Czech Republic and even the West Coast of America.
Birch trees are often depicted as female in stories and oaks as male.  The English Oak is the richest tree in terms of biodiversity, supporting the largest number of other creatures of any tree in Britain.  Its acorns support a number of mammals through the long winter and it provides habitat for birds and bats.  But it is richest in insects, supporting hundreds of species, which in turn feed other animals.  Its leaves break down easily forming a thick layer of humus, which feeds insects and fungi, so the soil in which an old oak lives can really be understood as containing the treasures of the tree.