Heather is perhaps as much a botanical symbol of Scotland as the famous thistle. This is especially the case in the Highlands where it grows in such profusion. The Gaelic for heather is fraoch. It appears in many place names including Allt Fraoch Coire (stream of the heather corrie) in Glen Affric.
This drink has a long pedigree in Scotland. Even before the Scots used heather in a wide variety of ways, the Picts were renowned for their heather ale. And older still, archaeologists have found traces of a fermented heather drink on a 3,000 year old shard of pottery on the Isle of Rum. The Picts made a fine ale from heather alone, without the addition of malt or hops (which they didn’t have). They relied on the heather blooms and their nectar for the flavour, and to fuel the fermentation process.
A legend relates how in the 4th century the Vikings (some say the Scots) defeated a Pictish army. They slaughtered all but the king and his son, whom they cornered on a cliff top. From these two the victorious chieftain hoped to extract the secret recipe for heather ale. After torturing the pair for a short while, the Pictish king offered to reveal the recipe if his son died a quick death. The captors obliged and threw the prince from the cliff. The Pictish king then revealed that though he was sure he himself could keep the secret, he had had doubts about his son’s ability. With that he grappled with the Viking chief and hurled both of them over the precipice.
The Victorians loved Scottish traditions and popularised the idea that white heather is lucky. In 1884 Queen Victoria wrote that her servant Mr Brown “espied a piece of white heather, and jumped off to pick it. No Highlander would pass by it without picking it, for it was considered to bring good luck.” The belief in white heather’s luck may be because it is scarce, in the same way that four-leaf clovers brought other Celts luck.
Other interpretations include the idea that white heather grows over the final resting places of faeries. There was also a belief that in a country of many ancient battles, white heather grew on patches of ground where no blood had been shed. Indeed, from early on, white heather’s luck appears to have an association with battles. In 1544 Clan Ranald attributed a victory to the fact they had worn white heather in their bonnets. Cluny of Clan MacPherson eluded his pursuers after Culloden. He believed his escape was due to the fact that searchers had overlooked him whilst he slept on a patch of white heather.
Heather had many practical uses. Long leggy stems made durable thatching. However burning and grazing yields heather which branches too much, making it less suitable for this purpose. People made a yellow dye from heather as well as strong rope which withstood the effects of seawater.
Heather was also gathered together in bundles to make a variety of besoms and brooms. In fact heather’s botanical name Calluna comes from the Greek kalluna, meaning ‘to brush’. On the Isle of Lewis, a particular kind of hoe drawn by a person had two rows of wooden teeth followed by a row of heather to smooth the soil.
In the Highlands people used this common plant as medicine. An infusion of heather tops were used to treat coughs, consumption and to soothe the nerves. Highlanders also made heather tea and ointments to treat arthritis and rheumatism. ‘Moorland tea’ made from heather flowers, was a favourite of Robert Burns.
The soporific aroma from the dried flowers was also put to use to make heather mattresses. Long lengths of dried, flowering heather were placed together in the bed frame, flowers uppermost and leaning towards the bed head. In the 16th century James VI’s tutor George Buchanan wrote that a heather bed was “… so pleasant, that it may vie in softness with the finest down, while in salubrity it far exceeds it … and restores strength to fatigued nerves, so that those who lie down languid and weary in the evening, arise in the morning vigorous and sprightly.”
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- Milliken, W & Bridgewater, S (2004) Flora Celtica: plants and people in Scotland. Birlinn: Edinburgh.
- Paterson, J.M. (1996) Tree Wisdom. Thorsons: London.
- Vickery, R. (1995) A Dictionary of Plant Lore. Oxford University Press: Oxford.