In the days when both juniper and the Gaelic language were more widespread in the Scottish Highlands, the 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 furthermore that juniper was sometimes referred to as mountain yew, and as such some place names incorporating the Gaelic word Iubhair for yew may in fact be referring to local juniper.
Though the more practical uses of juniper have been known to people for several millennia, it features only sporadically in ancient mythology. Juniper was a symbol of the Canaanites’ fertility goddess Ashera or Astarte in Syria. In the Bible’s Old Testament, a juniper with an angelic presence sheltered the prophet Elijah from Queen Jezebel’s pursuit. Similarly a later apocryphal 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 (like other cones they take two years to mature), and as such 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. The berries were ground and added to sauces and especially to game dishes in England and Scotland to add a bitter, spicy flavour, and were used to flavour bread and cakes in the north of England. Probably 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 prolific enough for their berries to be collected by the bagful and taken to the Inverness and Aberdeen markets to be 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’ made from equal amounts of juniper berries and barley.
In mediaeval times the berries were also used to flavour whisky in Scotland, though 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, as 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 an Egyptian papyrus dating back to 1500 BC, in a recipe to cure tapeworm infestations. The Romans too used the berries for purification and stomach ailments, while the famous mediaeval herbalist Culpepper recommended them for a wide variety of conditions including the treatment of flatulence, for which juniper oil is still used today. Chemicals in the berries also stimulate contraction of the uterine muscles and could be administered during labour. However the same properties were also used to abort an unwanted pregnancy, and the phrase used in Lothian in the Middle Ages of giving birth “under the savin (an older name for juniper) tree” was a euphemism for juniper-induced miscarriage.
Practical uses of the juniper’s wood are few, and it was most commonly used to burn, though not for its heat, but rather for its smoke. Though burning juniper wood gives off only minimal visible smoke, this smoke is highly aromatic, and in ancient times it was used for the ritual purification of temples. The smoke was said to aid clairvoyance, and continued to be burned for purification and to stimulate contact with the Otherworld at the autumn Samhain fire festival at the beginning 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, and in Scotland the disease could be dispelled by fumigating the house with juniper smoke while its occupants were inside, after which the house was 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 hidden away in the glens, which used juniper wood for fuel so that the near absence of smoke would not attract the suspicions of the local excise man.