Leslie Smeathers, Corresponding Secretary for Clan Irwin Association

16 April 2024

Welcome to the inaugural post for the Clan Irwin Association’s new blog, Holly Branches.  The blog posts will be submitted regularly.  My goal is to post something weekly, but life gets busy sometime!  You will find this blog to be an eclectic mix of information on Scotland, Gaelic, Celtic Myth and Folklore, Customs, Clan Irwin facts/history and whatever else catches my eye.

This blog has been christened Holly Branches Blog as part of an ongoing theme of Clan Irwin Association’s correspondence with members.  The Association produces a quarterly newsletter, The Holly Leaf Chronicle and a one-page bulletin, The Holly Berry Bulletin. We wanted to stick with the Holly theme because of its special meaning for Clan Irwin Association.

While the Clan Irwin Association has members from many branches of the name, there are two main branches that can be traced back to Drum Castle (Irwins/Irvines) on the Royal Deeside and Bonshaw Tower (Irvings) in the Borders region.  Both Clans have holly represented in their Clan crests.  Clan Irvine’s crest for Drum descendents depicts a tied bunch of Holly branches with the motto, Sub Sole Sub Umbra Virens (Vigorous both under the sun and shade).  The crest for the Bonshaw branch has a hand in a mail gauntlet holding branches of holly with the motto Haud Ullis Labentia Ventis (Yielding under no winds).  Clan Irwin Association’s Coat of Arms includes is also of holly with the motto “Let Irwin Flourish”, and the plant is also holly.

The Irvings of Bonshaw were neighbors of Robert the Bruce’s family.  A son of Bonshaw was armor-bearer and secretary to Bruce and served him through his campaigns until he became King in 1306.  The Bruce rewarded Sir William de Irwyn for his loyalty and service with the lands in the Royal Forest of Drum in Aberdeenshire.  Legend has it that the King gave the Irvings Hollin (holly) leaves for arms and holly leaves have been used by both branches of the family since before arms were registered.

Holly is important in Celtic, Pagan, Roman and Druidic history.  The Christians, after Constantine, associated holly with Jesus.  The thorny leaves represented the crown of thorns while the red berries represented the blood Jesus shed during the crucifixion.  The Celts believed that Holly represented rebirth, renewal and protection. Holly was one of the few plants that didn’t die in winter, therefore representing renewal. Generations of Celtic chieftains wore holly leaf wreaths for good luck.  They also believed that holly protected against mischievous fairies.  The Druids regarded holly as a symbol of fertility and eternal life and forbade the cutting down of a holly tree.  The Romans used holly heavily in their Saturnalia festivities as a sign of the end of winter and the return of light.  Scottish lore tells that it was used in ancient times to protect against evil influences. Even the indigenous people of Pennsylvania used the berries for decoration and barter.


“The Irvings of Bonshaw and the Irvines of Drum”

Edward J. B. Irving, KLJ, CMLJ


November 22, 2023

Holly: Legends, Customs and Myths


November 15, 2022