The Heritage of Blackthorn Walking Sticks

Our Blackthorn walking sticks are quite a rarity and have a very handsome looking finish. Straight blackthorn stems have traditionally been made into walking sticks or clubs (known in Ireland as a shillelagh). In the British Army, blackthorn sticks are carried by commissioned officers of the Royal Irish Regiment; the tradition also occurs in Irish regiments in some Commonwealth countries.

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Blackthorn walking sticks are among the most sought after of all traditional walking sticks: for their appearance, heritage and scarcity. 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. It grows particularly well in Ireland and England, where blackthorn sticks cut from hedges have been popular for many centuries.

A close relative of the blackthorn stick is the blackthorn shillelagh, which is about 16 inches long and generally has a large, heavier head than a walking stick. By popular tradition, Irish giants carry shillelaghs. Every Irish pub is said to have one of these behind the bar, to help keep order if required.

The bark of the blackthorn walking stick can be any colour from reddish-brown through to almost black. The spines, which can cause extremely sore poisoning if the stick cutter impales his hand on them, are cut back and sanded to produce a distinctive stick. A particular characteristic of blackthorn is that the arrangement of the thorns forms a spiral shape around the shaft of the stick. On the very best blackthorn sticks, it is possible to see that the thorns are arranged in little groups of three.

The heritage of blackthorn walking sticks

In Ireland, the blackthorn walking 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 reason to carry a blackthorn walking stick! It is also believed that St Patrick took shelter from the inclement Irish climate under a blackthorn bush, which promptly flowered to help protect the saint. This is said to be the reason the blackthorn produces flowers before leaves each spring.

In England, blackthorn has long been thought to have magical properties and, according to West Country folklore, our 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 burnt any men as witches since, so owning a blackthorn staff is thankfully somewhat safer for the modern man!

Growing and manufacturing blackthorn walking sticks

Blackthorn is natable in the hedgerow for the clouds of creamy white flowers it produces each spring. Later in the year, it produces its small black fruits, the ‘sloes’, which can be picked after the first frost of the year to make into warming sloe gin. Finally, in winter, its shoots can be harvested as raw material for walking sticks. This is a skilled job that requires the stick cutter to have an appreciation of how each individual piece of raw material will later be made into a walking stick. There are many subtleties to cutting high quality sticks; it is not simply a matter of ‘getting one out of the hedge’. Many hedges are now cut with flail mowers, so it is increasingly difficult to find suitable raw material for blackthorn walking sticks. Stout, thorn-proof gloves are essential too. if a stick cutter hears the well-known biblical quotation: “There was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan, to buffet me.” (Paul of Tarsus, Corinthians Chapter 12, Verse 7), he naturally thinks of blackthorn spines.

One of our suppliers in Somerset, cut their blackthorn from December through to March, taking every precaution to avoid the messengers of Satan. The raw material is then graded and stored in the drying room for a minimum of one year. No heat is used as this would make the sticks dry too quickly and become brittle. Instead a dehumidifier removes water from the air as it evaporates from the sticks. When the raw material is sufficiently dry, it will progress through our workshop where it will be made into blackthorn walking sticks. The most common styles of blackthorn walking sticks are:

Blackthorn Knobstick

The stick has be grown upside down, usually in a hedgerow or on a coppices blackthorn shrub. There is a great art to shaping the handle so that it is comfortable to the hand. The handle part is prone to splitting, so it is common to see small splits that have been filled with wood filler. This is unavoidable sometimes and doesn’t warrant loosing an otherwise perfect stick and we believe it adds some character. The handle and shaft are varnished and a hardwearing metal ferrule added to the tip.

Blackthorn Derby

There are two variants of the blackthorn with derby handle: the country derby and the reduced and polished derby. The country version has its bark on and has a pleasing rustic appearance. The reduced and polished version has had its bark removed, an elegant taper applied to the shaft, and a high quality polish and varnish to bring out the beauty of its colouring. he contorted grain and thorn pattern of the blackthorn wood results in a very unusual and eye-catching stick. The derby handle itself will be made from another type of wood, often beech or maple.

Blackthorn Thumbstick

A blackthorn thumbstick or more than 120 cm (or four feet) in height is a special stick because blackthorn is a shrubby bush and it is difficult to find straight sections of blackthorn as long as this. A natural ‘V’ in the wood makes it comfortable to old the stick with either the user’s thumb or forearm resting in the ‘V’.

Blackthorn Antler and Ram’s Horn Sticks

The beauty of blackthorn makes it an obvious choice on which to mount beautiful stag antler and ramshorn handles, producing a fantastic contrast in colours. It is a skilled craft to prepare and dress the horn and to ensure the wood meets in a neat and smooth join. Top quality blackthorn horn sticks command high prices and demand always exceeds supply.

The Trouble with Blackthorn

Blackthorn walking sticks are highly sought after and appreciated. Blackthorn sticks command higher prices for several reasons.

1. It is hard to find. Blackthorn is very rare these days and it is becoming more and more difficult to find longer or thicker pieces. Many customers like a stout blackthorn knobstick with a large rounded handle and more still like the long blackthorn hiking sticks.

2. Blackthorn is difficult and dangerous to cut. The coppicer has to wrestle with branches covered in sharp, long thorns. If you look at a blackthorn walking stick, you will notice all the bumps all over the shank. These bumps are were the thorns once protruded out up to 5 cm. If you have ever tackled a mature mass of brambles you will appreciate the difficulty.

3. In Britain deer like to eat blackthorn and this is reducing the available stock.

4. Splits in the Blackthorn walking stick knob handles. Due to the size and area of wood, the part used to make the blackthorn stick handle is prone to splitting.

We supply blackthorn knobsticks that are made from one blackthorn branch in a slim and a stout version with a (sometimes) large ball handle. This handle often has a crack through it and the stick makers fill this crack with either wood filler, epoxy resin or plastic wood and then apply a dark wax.

These cracks are completely unavoidable and we find they add character to the stick. The cracks usually happen during the drying process and it is quite unpredictable. Even blackthorn blanks that were cut thirty years ago and stored in an outside unheated barn will most likely split when taken into a warm workshop for work to begin.

Cracks also appear due to another property of wood. Wood expands and contracts in different directions when it absorbs and looses moisture. When the wood is cut and left to dry for two to three years, it looses its moisture content but it can also absorb water when conditions become more damp or humid. Thsi means that the water content of dried sticks is still about 20%.

I think the way we need to look at it is the same way we love old oak beams in a tudor pub. Some of these beams are twisted where the wood has moved and have cracks wide enough to put your hand through. When making and buying products made from natural materials we need to expect, embrace and love these features and not expect seamless perfection.

5. Blackthorn wood is a very hard and dense wood and can ruin the stick makers tools and machinery. The long and numerous spiky thorns also cause a hazard in the workshop when the stick maker attempts to remove them.

I expect the love/hate relationship between blackthorn, stick makers and stick buyers will always be part of the story of this amazing wood. When you have a finished blackthorn walking stick in your hands, all the trials and tribulations fade away. The rich, dark colours are second to none and the dense heaviness is most reassuring.

Blackthorn Walking Sticks
Blackthorn Knob Stick

Blackthorn Bush Walking Sticks

When analyzing the search box statistics, i.e what our customers search for on our site, Blackthorn walking canes are usually one of the top searches. We have in stock a number of different Blackthorn walking canes, including knobsticks, hiking sticks, Derby canes, wading sticks and traditional Irish Blackthorn Shillelagh.

We have recently added a new page on the website, which groups all of the Blackthorn sticks together. Click on the following link to take a look: Blackthorn Walking Sticks.

Blackthorn wood from the Blackthorn bush (prunus spinosa) has been traditionally used to make walking sticks and shillelaghs for a long time.
The Blackthorn bush is common to the North European countryside with its dense spiny branches and familiar sloe berries in autumn.
The wood is cut in winter, usually December or January when the sap has gone. The stick is then seasoned, i.e left to dry out in a dry store, for several years and then the straightening and turning work begins.

When the branches are selected for stick making, the spikes can be left on the shaft or sanded down, leaving lovely bare wood circles all over the shaft. The colour of the bare wood against the dark purple/black of the bark gives a pleasing contrast.

Pistol Grip Walking Cane
Pistol Grip Walking Cane with Blackthorn Shaft

The natural range of the tree is Britain and Ireland and the Irish have been making Shillelagh for centuries.

Shillelagh, like the South African Knobkierrie, also spelled knobkerrie, knopkierie or knobkerry were used as fighting sticks. Today they are more of a collectible item.

The other parts of the tree that are used by humans are the sloes.
Sloes are covered with sugar and gin and result in a n almond-flavoured liquer. Cooked sloes are also used to make jams or jellies.