The Silver Bough is an indispensable treasury of Scottish culture, universally acknowledged as a classic of literature. There is no doubt F Marian McNeill succeeded in capturing and bringing to life many traditions and customs of old before they died out or were influenced by the modern era.
This, the first volume of The Silver Bough, deals with Scottish folklore and folk-belief. There are chapters on the ethnic origins of the national festivals, the Druids, the Celtic gods, and the slow transition from Druidism to Christianity. There are accounts of magic, the fairy faith, second sight, selkies, changelings and the witch cult, including tales of “witches” being hung, or worse. There are old familiar rhymes and a wealth of information on the Scotland of old, now gone for ever, where the people feared witches and “faeries”. Readers are bound to find something fascinating about somewhere in Scotland they didn’t know before.
As man makes greater and greater advances in the understanding and control of his physical environment, the river between the known and the unknown gradually changes its course, and the subjects of the simpler beliefs of former times become part of the new territory of knowledge. The Silver Bough maps out the old course of the waterway that in Celtic belief winds between here and beyond, and reveals the very roots of the Scottish people’s distinctive customs and way of life.
The Silver Bough is a large and important work which involved many years of research into both living and recorded lore. Its genesis lies, perhaps, in the author’s subconscious need to reconcile the old primitive world she had glimpsed in childhood with the sophisticated modern world she later entered. How much more so can we, today, echo the words of the author:
“I do not believe that you can exaggerate the importance of the preservation of old ways and customs, and all those little things which bind a man to his native place. Today we live in difficult times. The steam-roller of progress is flattening out many of our old institutions, and there is a danger of a general decline in idiom and distinctive quality in our Scottish life. The only way to counteract this peril is to preserve jealously all these elder things which are bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. For, remember, no man can face the future with courage and confidence unless it is solidly founded upon the past. And conversely, no problem will be too hard, no situation too strange, if we can link it with what we know and love”
F Marian McNeill