Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What's in a name?

From Flower Fairies of the Autumn, by Cicely Mary Barker
Click photo to enlarge

Every farm needs a name and we started thinking of one shortly after the “sold” sign went up.

We knew some locals referred to our place as “the old Dunn farm,” after the former owners who lived there for 30 years and sold to the people we bought from.

But we wanted to give it a new identity for the next 30 years.

We tossed around a few ideas but nothing really seemed to stick. Then one night while watching a DVD from the BBC production, All Creatures Great and Small, based on James Herriot’s novels about a veterinary practice in rural Yorkshire in the 1930s and 1940s, I watched a scene where the lead characters find their dream home. It was named Rowangarth.

I loved it instantly, partly because we’d once considered naming our son “Rowan” but also because it just sounded “right.” But I wondered, what did the name mean?

Turns out the word “Garth” is old Norse for “keeper of the garden” and “Rowan” is Gaelic for “little red one”. Etymologically speaking, it seemed like a good fit, considering our red house and barn and my horticultural plans.

But what really convinced me wasn’t the etymology, but the dendrology. Simply put, it wasn’t the meaning of the word Rowan, but the mystical properties attributed to the tree of the same name.

The Rowan tree, Sorbus aucuparia (commonly known in North America as mountain ash), has a long-standing history as a protector from evil spirits. The Celts believed it could bring good fortune, repel negative energy and when planted close to the home, offer protection against witchcraft and enchantment.

Seems like a good tree to have around.

So we chose the name Rowangarth Farm. And while we don't have our own rowan tree yet, we already have a place to plant it by the door, to keep our house from harm.


Mama Pea said...

Rowangarth. How enchantingly lovely! I always wondered how you came up with that name.

Mungo Says Bah! said...

Rowan trees are my second favourite trees (Birch is first).

When I was a kid, we had one of these growing on the front lawn. It had grey, smooth bark and I loved to climb it. I would grab handfuls of the berries and throw them about.

At the time, my Dad worked at Rowntrees (chocolates) and I thought that the tree was a Rowntree-tree. It made sense at the time, but I often wondered how it came to be that we had a tree named after my Dad's work in the front yard.

Great post, by the way!


MaineCelt said...


Rowans are dear to me, as well. There is quite a sizeable body of folklore about them in the British Isles. Two of my favourite traditional singers, Alison McMorland and Geordie McIntyre, titles one of their recordings "Rowan in the Rock." The tree appears on the cover and its song-ode is almost achingly beautiful.

"Rowan Tree" is also one of the first tunes most pipers learn. The tune comes from a Scottish folksong in which the tree is the hub around which all aspects of farm life revolve.

And then there are all the fun things you can do with the fruit... did you know you can cross or graft Rowans with pears? My godfather's plant nursery, (Raintree Nursery, in Washington State), sells one of the hybrids, a tree with a Rowan's growth habit but extra-large fruit. The idea of this hybrid fascinates me!

We have plans to put Rowans in our dooryard, too...as soon as we get far along enough in our house-building to stop worrying about potential tree-damage from large equipment.

Thanks for a great post!

Fiona said...

Thanks for the great comments, all of you!! You've just made that tree even more dear to me. Thanks for sharing...

Maggie said...

I'm so glad you told us the story of the name of your farm - I've wondered and oddly enough, never asked! What a meaningful name, and so fitting for all of the reasons you mention, some explicit, and others more subtle...

Om Mama said...

So, this is why you were so excited that day at the library, when you found the book!

Nice post! Glad you have taken it up again!

Thistledog said...

I like that. Naming a farm isn't a task lightly taken; your instincts led you right to yours. Great story! Great name.

Anonymous said...

Hi Fiona! I moved to Sweden a few years ago...for many of the same reasons you moved to Canada. And I think your blog is great! I didn't realize the Rowangarth tree was what we call Rönnbär in Swedish. It is a great tree and here in Sweden we believe if there are many berries on the tree, then it will be a hard winter (thus, many berries for the birds to eat). I study gardening here and have learned that there are many new varieties of Sorbus aucuparia...with orange berries and white berries. Here is a link with some pics...the site is in Swedish but hopefully it gives you an idea of the different types that might work in your climate. God Jul. /Jessica

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