The Norns Watering the Tree of Life by William Bell Scott (1811-90). Left: Oil on canvas, 68 ⅞ x 45 1/16 inches (175 x 114.5 cm), signed and dated “W. B. Scott 1876,” lower right and signed with WBS monogram, centre left. Private Collection. Middle: etching in black ink on cream laid paper; inscribed in the plate “1876 W. B. Scott,” lower right; 14 ¾ x 10 ⅝ inches (37.4 x 27.1 cm) – sheet size; 9 13/16 x 6 ½ inches (24.9 x 16.7 cm) – image size. Private Collection. Right: Study for painting, pen and ink with brown and grey wash on tracing paper, 9 ½ x 6 ⅜ inches (24.2 x 16.1 cm). Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, accession no. D 4715.54. Click on images to enlarge them.

Scott’s painting The Norns Watering the Tree of Life, one of his best Pre-Raphaelite paintings, illustrates a poem that he submitted to The Athenaeum in 1876. The poem later featured in A Poet's Harvest Home, Being One Hundred Short Poems by William Bell Scott that was published in 1882.

Within the unchanging twilight
Of the high land of the gods,
Between the murmuring fountain
And the Ash-tree, tree of trees,
The Norns, the terrible maidens,
For evermore come and go.
Yggdrasill the populous Ash-tree,
Whose leaves embroider heaven,
Fills all the grey air with music—
To Gods and to men sweet sounds,
But speech to the fine-eared maidens
Who evermore come and go.

That way to their doomstead thrones
The Aesir ride each day,
And every one bends to the saddle
As they pass beneath the shade;
Even Odin, the strong All-father,
Bends to the beautiful maidens
Who cease not to come and go.
The tempest crosses the high boughs,
The great snakes heave below,
The wolf, the boar, and antlered harts
Delve at the life-giving roots,
But all of them fear the wise maidens,
The wise-hearted water-bearers
Who evermore come and go.
And men far away, in the night-hours
To the north-wind listening, hear,
They hear the howl of the were-wolf,

And know he hath felt the sting
Of the eyes of the potent maidens
Who sleeplessly come and go.
They hear on the wings of the north wind
A sound as of three that sing,
And the skald, in the blae mist wandering
High on the midland fell,
Heard the very words of the o'ersong
Of the Norns who come and go.
But alas for the ears of mortals
Chance-hearing that fate-laden song!
The bones of the skald lie there still,—
For the speech of the leaves of the Tree
Is the song of the three Queen-maidens
Who evermore come and go.

The painting was initially in the collection of Scott’s mistress Alice Boyd at Penkill Castle until it sold at the Penkill Castle sale held by Christie’s on December 15, 1992. It recently resold at Bonhams, London, on February 20, 2019, lot 60. In Scott’s obituary, published in The Academy in 1890, it describes this painting as "his last easel painting of importance" and “the subject of one of his finest ballads, and an etching which has been published in (we think) English Etchings” (529). The etching was in fact published by Williams and Norgate in The Etcher, Volume 1, 1879, plate 3.

William Bell Scott, like his friend William Morris, was fascinated by the ancient Nordic myths and legends, a theme that Scott portrays in this painting that depicts the Norns watering Yggdrasill. The Norns, three Nordic goddesses who, as dispensers of fate, represented the past, the present, and the future. They were charged with tending the Yggdrasill, a mighty ash tree that supported the whole universe. This tree of life had three main roots, one of which extended into the dwelling of the gods, known as Asgard. Beside this root was a spring from which the Norns constantly watered the tree.

Six preparatory drawings for the finished oil are in the National Galleries of Scotland collection. These drawings provide interesting insights into how Scott developed his composition. Two of the drawings are intricately detailed watercolour studies of the ash tree's foliage and bark. Three others are pencil drawings of the Norns themselves and clearly indicate that at one stage Scott had intended for one of the goddesses to be leaning forward while holding onto the handle of a large urn. The most finished study is a cartoon worked in pen and ink with subtle brown and grey washes on tracing paper that shows the final composition with the three Norns, the two ravens above and the two swans below, in the same poses as in the finished painting and etching. Either the sun or the moon can be seen in the left background.


Scott, William Bell. A Poet's Harvest Home, Being One Hundred Short Poems. London: Elliott Stock, 1882.

The Academy 38 (December 6, 1890).

Last modified 21 July 2021