Despite beautiful weather more than twenty people were willing to come inside to celebrate Hazel Day at Stoer Village Hall on Thursday 21st February. The hazel was chosen as it has played one of the biggest roles in the development of our civilisation than almost any other plant species and goes largely ignored. From walking sticks to hurdles, from cookies to charcoal, hazel trees have been used in one form or another for thousands of years. This celebration of the hazel was aimed at raising our awareness, appreciation and understanding of the tree. The day was run by CALL (Coigach Assynt Living Landscape) as part of a wider move to restore native woodlands and improve natural habitats. Through training and relearning rural skills one of CALL’s aims is to create employment opportunities that will be linked to the land and a more sustainable future.
The day eloquently kicked off with Mandy Haggith’s poems ‘under the lichen-garlanded hazel/ there is space to lie back and look up/ through the lattice of buds and branches/ waiting their long winter wait/pausing before they erupt into catkins….This poem was called ‘letting light in.’ Botanist Ian Evans introduced us to hazels in Assynt. He explained the unique and rare qualities of our hazels here in Assynt as they are home to some of the rarest mosses, liverworts, lichens and fungi – even that some species like the lichen Tree Lungwort are more luxurious here than anywhere else in Europe. Ian Evans called for better coppicing practices and awareness of the special nature of our trees now known as Atlantic hazelwoods or the Celtic rainforest. He suggested that instead of drastic coppicing techniques that may eventually kill these trees, a more sensitive approach should be taken. He also explained that overgrazing will eventually kill a tree off.
The day moved on to a film screening of ‘intimate with hazel’ by Bill Ritchie. Refreshments took the form of hazelnut cookies and nutella cupcakes. We then had a spell in the sun while some people tried their hand at hurdle making while others planted hazels and read out snippets of folklore. Back inside again, this time with Historic Assynt and archaeologist Graeme, to learn that hazel has been used here in Assynt for at least 4,000 years as the charcoal remains from the recent burnt mound dig at Stronecrubie have proved. The slides of ancient hurdles and basket houses showed us just how much hazel has been used in the past. As the Celtic tree of knowledge it was appropriate that the hazel day taught us many things and perhaps most importantly not to take the hazel tree for granted just because it is small and has always been here. The completed hurdle was taken home at the end of the day to be used as a wind break in a participant’s garden.