Both juniper and the Gaelic language were once more widespread in the Scottish Highlands. The Gaelic names for this shrub or small tree were Aittin or Aiten, and Samh. These words are still with us in place names such as Attadale in Wester Ross and Samhan near Mull. The writer Hugh Fife suggests that juniper was sometimes referred to as mountain yew. As such some place names incorporating the Gaelic word Iubhair (yew) may in fact be referring to juniper.
People have known the practical uses of juniper for millennia. It is perhaps surprising then that it doesn’t have a strong presence in ancient mythology. Juniper was a symbol of the Canaanites’ fertility goddess Ashera or Astarte in Syria. In the Old Testament, a juniper with an angelic presence sheltered the prophet Elijah from Queen Jezebel’s pursuit. A later biblical tale tells of how the infant Jesus and his parents were hidden from King Herod’s soldiers by a juniper during their flight into Egypt.
It is for its culinary, medicinal and ritual properties that juniper is best known. The first two of these properties relate to the juniper’s berries. Strictly speaking these are in fact tiny fleshy cones. They can be crushed and ground for use, as one would do with a peppercorn, as well as pressed for any juice. Its culinary uses are many and varied. Scottish and English recipes include ground berries added to sauces and especially to game dishes. They add a bitter, spicy flavour. People also used them to flavour bread and cakes in the north of England.
The best known use of the berries is in flavouring gin, and indeed the words gin and juniper have a common root. In the nineteenth century Highland juniper bushes were more prolific. People gathered berries by the bagful and took them to markets in Inverness and Aberdeen. They were then exported to the Dutch gin distillers. The berries are also used to flavour other alcoholic beverages such as a Swedish health beer and a French beer-like drink called ‘genevrette’. People made the latter drink from equal amounts of juniper berries and barley.
In mediaeval times the berries were also used in Scotland to flavour whisky. It could be that the whisky may just have been used as a pleasant way to administer the medicinal benefits of juniper. Similarly juniper berries may also have been added to food for their medicinal properties. They were said to aid digestion and to be a cure for various stomach ailments. The earliest recorded medicinal use of juniper berries occurs in ancient Egypt. A papyrus dating back to 1500 BC contains a recipe to cure tapeworm infestations. The Romans too used the berries for purification and stomach ailments. The mediaeval herbalist Culpeper recommended them for many conditions including flatulence.
Chemicals in the berries also stimulate contraction of the uterine muscles. They could be administered during labour, but the same properties were also used to abort an unwanted pregnancy. There was a phrase used in Lothian in the Middle Ages of giving birth “under the savin ( juniper) tree”. This was a euphemism for juniper-induced miscarriage.
Practical uses of the juniper’s wood are few, and it was most commonly used to burn. This wasn’t so much for its heat, but rather for its smoke. Though burning juniper wood gives off only minimal visible smoke, this smoke is highly aromatic. In ancient times people used it for the ritual purification of temples. The ancients believed the smoke aided clairvoyance. It was burned for purification and to stimulate contact with the Otherworld at the Samhain festival at the start of the Celtic year. In central Europe juniper smoke played a part in the spring-time cleansing and casting out of witchcraft. Juniper was also burned during outbreaks of the Plague. In Scotland people would attempt to expel the disease by fumigating the house and occupants with the smoke. The house was then aired and the occupants revived with whisky!
Juniper’s use in alcoholic drinks and the use of its wood’s smoke are drawn together neatly in the tales of illicit Highland whisky stills. These stills were hidden away in the glens and juniper wood was a favourite as fuel. The near absence of smoke would help avoid attracting the suspicions of the local excise man.
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