The Blackthorn has a long history of use as a fighting weapon, and there is a certain amount of prestige and prowess associated with carrying a blackthorn.
The coppicing system used results in a new crop of sticks every year without ever needing to fell the parent trees, so the system works in harmony with nature and provides a beneficial habitat for our native woodland flora and fauna.
The long spines (thorns) are cut back and sanded and the cudgel is then seasoned for one year before being finished by hand.
The Blackthorn, or Prunus spinosa, is a shrubby bush with vicious thorns and a suckering habit, so that it forms dense hedges through which livestock cannot escape. Indeed, the impenetrable forest in the fairytale Sleeping Beauty is said to have been a blackthorn thicket. It grows particularly well in Ireland and England, where blackthorn sticks cut from hedges have been popular for many centuries.
In Ireland, the blackthorn stick has a long history of use as a fighting stick. Thus, there is a certain amount of prestige and prowess associated with carrying a blackthorn stick. There are also many mentions of blackthorn in Irish mythology, not least that the 'little people' live in blackthorn bushes. They can take exception to their homes being cut down to make walking sticks. To avoid bad luck, the stick cutter should wait until a branch of the blackthorn has tapped him on the shoulder to give permission before the first cut is made. The hero of the 19th century Irish song, 'The Rocky Road to Dublin', cuts "A stout blackthorn to banish ghosts and goblins," which seems a good a reason to carry a blackthorn stick.
In England, blackthorn has long been thought to have magical properties and, according to West Country folklore, local witches used blackthorn sticks to aid them in their mischief making. The belief that blackthorn walking sticks were connected with witches persisted here until the time of the Second World War. They now have a more positive image; indeed, some British Army regiments carry blackthorn walking sticks on ceremonial occasions.
In Scotland, winter traditionally begins when the Cailleach (the winter goddess) strikes her blackthorn shaft on the ground. In the 17th century, the good people of Edinburgh burnt Major Thomas Weir as a witch, in part because they did not approve of his blackthorn staff, which his sister said had been given to him by the Devil. The staff is now said to roam the streets around the West Bow looking for its master. The Scots are not thought to have not burnt any men as witches since, so owning a blackthorn staff is thankfully somewhat safer for the modern gentleman.
Walking sticks are generally robust items suitable for active use. However, a little care and maintenance will improve the appearance of your walking stick or seat and may extend its working life. Some useful tips are as follows:
Wooden walking sticks should be regularly cleaned of mud and grime by wiping them gently with a damp cloth. They should be dried after use in wet weather and stored somewhere dry and warm but away from direct heat sources such as stoves and radiators. Please note: a shillelagh is natural wood product with imperfections being a feature of the natural hardwood. Blackthorn is naturally prone to splitting - this is looked upon as characteristic of the wood and not considered a defect. An occasional light polish with furniture polish or beeswax will also protect the wood and enhance the finish, although this should not be done with natural bark rustic sticks that have not been varnished (for example many bark ash sticks).
Ensure worn or damaged metal or rubber ferrules are replaced promptly, both for safety reasons and to prevent damage to the cane.