Heather is perhaps as much a botanical symbol of Scotland as the famous thistle, especially in the Highlands where it grows in such profusion. But even before the Scots applied heather’s many uses to various walks of life, the Picts were renowned for their heather ale. This drink has been made for many centuries in Scotland, and archaeologists have found traces of a fermented drink made of heather flowers on a 3,000 year old Neolithic shard of pottery on the Isle of Rum. The Picts were reputed to make a fine ale from heather alone, without the addition of malt, hops (which don’t grow in Scotland) or any other sweetener, relying exclusively on the heather blooms and their nectar for the flavour, and to fuel the fermentation process. A legend relates how in the fourth century the Vikings (some say the Scots) defeated a Pictish army, slaying all but their 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 prince was quickly dispatched, and thrown from the cliff, upon which the Pictish king revealed that though he was sure he himself could keep the secret, he had had doubts about his son’s ability; and with that he grappled with the Viking chief and hurled both of them over the cliff.
The idea that white heather is lucky was popularised by the Victorians and their love of Scottish traditions. In 1884 Queen Victoria herself wrote about her servant Mr Brown, who “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.” White heather’s luck may have been attributed to it because of its scarcity, in the same way that four-leaf clovers brought other Celts luck. Other interpretations include the more romantic notion that white heather grows over the final resting places of faeries, or the idea that in a country of many ancient battles, white heather grew on patches of ground where no blood had been shed. Indeed white heather’s luck appears originally to have been associated mainly with battles; in 1544 Clan Ranald attributed a victory to the fact they had worn white heather in their bonnets, and Cluny of Clan MacPherson attributed his escape after Culloden to the fact that searchers had overlooked him whilst he slept on a patch of white heather.
Heather was put to many practical uses. Where long leggy stems could be harvested it was used for durable thatching, though burning and grazing is said to yield heather which branches too much, making it less suitable for thatching. A yellow dye was derived from it, strong ropes which withstood the effects of seawater were twisted from it, and it was gathered together in bundles to make a variety of besoms and brooms – heather’s Latin name Calluna is derived 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 the medicinal properties of an infusion of heather tops were used to treat coughs, consumption and to soothe the nerves, and heather tea and ointments were used to treat arthritis and rheumatism. ‘Moorland tea’ made from heather flowers, was reputed to be a favourite of Robert Burns. The soporific aroma from the dried flowers was also put to use to make heather mattresses, by packing long lengths of dried, flowering heather together in the bed frame, flowers uppermost and leaning slightly 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.”