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Thursday 3 August 2017

When you wish upon a tree... the curious tradition of wishing trees in Britain and Ireland

coin tree

Uley is a small village on the edge of the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire. It is overlooked by a large Iron Age hill fort named Uley Bury: rings of large ditches and earth banks that are over 2500 years old.

I got the chance to explore Uley a bit more through a guided walk with Cotswold Guided Walks. As we climbed up towards the hill fort, a fallen tree across the path revealed a strange decoration - dozens of coins hammered into it.

wish tree (coin tree) Uley

None of the coins seemed older than the twentieth century, indeed the tree would probably have rotted away by now if it had fallen that long ago. It was completely dead. Not all the coins were pocket change of low value either - there were a few commemorative coins bashed in, with their edges following the line of the woodgrain.

This is a wish tree. These particular ones are known as 'coin trees' and can be found all over Britain. People hammer coins in and make a wish, usually for the end of an illness. The trees may be stumps or fallen, or sometimes living. Apparently the metal toxins may sometimes even be concentrated enough to kill the living trees. 

It seems to be a surprisingly recent phenomenon, the first examples of these being recorded in the early eighteenth century. The one at Uley also shows an example of Christian and Pagan beliefs mixing, as some coins have been added in the shape of a crucifix.

coin tree mixing Christianity and Paganism

This wasn't the first coin tree that I'd come across. There are also some at Portmeirion in Wales. The coins inserted into some of these are so densely packed that, from a distance, they seem almost like a chainmail coat around the timber.

Coin tree Portmeirion

There is another kind of wishing tree in Britain and Ireland. These are the 'clootie trees'. Clootie trees are, I think, an older tradition than coin trees and are trees that are more usually associated with a place that pagans would consider to have particular power: springs of water, ancient burial sites etc. 

A clootie tree will have rags and ribbons tied into its branches, sometimes many of them. The name 'clootie' comes from the Scottish name for a small piece of rag or cloth.

Thorn trees (Blackthorn or Hawthorn) seem particularly likely to be so decorated, perhaps because they are quite commonly found and are also considered to be powerful trees in Paganism. A small clootie tree can be found directly in front of the blind 'entrance' to Bela's Knap Neolithic long barrow in Gloucestershire.

Clootie tree

This little tree is certainly not very old but is already decorated with brightly-coloured rags and ribbons.

clootie tree bells knap

I've also seen clootie trees at Berry Pomeroy in Devon and also the thorn tree on Wearyall hill in Glastonbury in Somerset, which I'm very sad to say has since been badly damaged by vandals.

Why tie things in trees? Some suggest that it could have similar roots to traditions in the Far East. For example, followers of Shintoism in Japan hang paper streamers called shide from ropes around or in trees that are considered especially important and sacred. The two could be an example of ideas spreading along ancient trade routes or may not be directly linked, being instead an example of similar traditions arising in different places.

I certainly like to come across a clootie or a coin tree on a walk: a strange testament to the way that humans perceive and interact with the power of trees.


  1. That's beautiful! Had never heard of this practice before... There are a lot of padlocks attached to the metal fencing on bridges here, literally until the whole structure heaves under the additional weight, but I like the idaa of coins more. Do these trees accommodate the coins as they do with barbed wire, when they grow around it?

  2. Excellent,I have seen this along the river Dove.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Some tree do seem to live with the coins in them, although others have apparently succumbed - some trees have so many coins in them that they really are covered. Glad you both enjoyed the post!