The aspen is known in Scottish Gaelic as an critheann (the trembling tree) and in Scots as the quakin esp or quakin ash. Mythology associates it, like the rowan, with the netherworld of the fairies: it was believed that the aspen had magical properties that could encourage eloquence or even restore the faculty of speech . . .
The Laird of Logie took himself a wife, and she was the Laird of Kittlespindie’s daughter. Now Kittlespindie was a wealthy man, and Logie was not, so there was policy in Logie’s wooing of her but little else. Perhaps the girl suspected this and, understandably, resented it. At any rate, something was amiss with her, for from the day she crossed Logie’s door not a word issued from her lips. Nobody could tell if she was truly struck dumb or just plain thrawn; nor, if she was playing tricks, could anyone catch her out at it.
Several months of this caused Logie to become utterly dejected, and he took to walking the moors just to be out of the house, which itself seemed half-suffocated by his wife’s silence. One day as he walked, a tiny, beautiful lady came riding across the moor. She was wearing a green silk dress, her hair was bedecked with ribbons, and bells were braided into the mane of her horse. She stopped and asked why he looked so downcast. Was he not the Laird of Logie that had lately taken Kittlespindie’s bonnie daughter for his bride?
Logie felt an urgent need to confess his anguish and his sense of guilt, even though he had never seen the lady before. ‘You are right,’ he said, ‘but I married her for greed, not love, and now she does not speak, and I believe my deceit is the cause of her sickness.’
‘It is a sickness easily cured,’ the lady said. ‘You must go to the glen where the aspen stands, and take a single leaf from it. When your bride is asleep tonight, lay the leaf under her tongue. In the morning her speech will be restored.’
The lady rode on her way, and Logie set off for the glen, but as he went he thought to himself that the stranger had probably not understood how total his wife’s silence was. And so, to be sure that the cure was effective, he brought back three aspen leaves. That evening he was impatient for bedtime. When at last his wife fell asleep he carefully placed the leaves under her tongue.
In the morning he woke first, removed the leaves and then waited anxiously to see what would happen. Kittlespindie’s daughter woke with a yawn and immediately began to complain. ‘What a terrible, restless night I’ve had! I’ve hardly slept at all.’ ‘Oh, no,’ he said, who had lain awake most of the night, ‘you never stirred once. And look, you can speak!’ He tried to hug her in his happiness, but she pushed him away. ‘Speak?’ she cried. ‘What are you on about? Of course I can speak.’ And indeed she could. In fact she hardly drew breath, first scolding him for his foolishness, then rushing on without pause on every subject, both trivial and profound, as if all the words she had not uttered for months were bursting from her at once. Logie expected the torrent to diminish after an hour or so, but on the contrary it seemed to increase, and her words became ever more confused and deafening.
There was a strange comfort to him in the ceaseless whispering on the branches above his head.
Desperate to get away from his now too voluble spouse, he hurried out to the moor with the aspen leaves crushed in his fist. To his surprise, the same green-gowned lady came riding by. ‘You did not follow my instructions,’ she said, when Logie told her what had happened. ‘Now you must take those leaves back to the tree and bury them beneath its roots. And this time do exactly as I say.’
Logie obeyed, digging a hole at the foot of the quaking tree and burying the leaves in it. When he returned home, he found his wife restored to health, speaking neither too much nor too little, and he embraced and kissed her and resolved to love and respect her for the rest of their days. And so he did, and they grew happy and old together.
Each year, he would visit the quaking tree when its new foliage appeared, and sit below it for a while. There was a strange comfort to him in the ceaseless whispering on the branches above his head. He would think of the green lady, whose wisdom had been so useful to him but whom he had never seen again. And then he would go back home to his wife.
To this day the aspen’s leaves are sometimes known as ‘old wives’ tongues,’ a name that springs, perhaps, from some such tale as this.