Heather grows freely and abundantly spreading it’s purple hues across around five million acres of Scottish moorland, glens and hills. The color of wild Scottish heather usually ranges from lilac to purple.
You can also find white heather growing wild but it’s much less common.
History & Traditional Uses
Heather has been plentiful in Scotland for as long as it’s history has been written (and probably before that too).
The Druids considered it a sacred plant. Even today some people consider it to have almost supernatural properties, sort of a ‘charm’, which is believed to offer protection from harm (especially rape or violent attack).
On a more mundane level it’s used in aromatherapy to relieve a host of different problems. Over thousands of years, the inventive, practical and resourceful Scots have found a whole host of uses for this natural bounty:
Especially on Scotland’s islands, heather played a major role in building construction. It was used in walls, thatched roofs, ropes, pegs and more. It also appeared in the thatched roofs of mainland houses.
Since ancient times dried Scottish heather was used as a sort of fragrant and bouncy mattress. Evidence of this has been found in a 4000 year old village on the island of Skara Brae in the Orkneys. Historically, heather beds were considered to be just as comfortable as feather beds because the dried stalks and flowers are so light and soft. A bed made from heather had the added extra of original aromatherapy, and the fragrant flower heads were usually placed towards the top of the mattress where the sleeper’s head would lie.
Heather stems are tough, strong and resilient and were used in making a whole variety of implements including brooms, farming tools such as hoes or rakes and ropes.
To dye cloth
Heather was perfect for dying roughspun cloth and wool. Depending on the type of heather used it could produce muted yellow, gold, bronze, gray, green and purple colors.
Heather was believed to have some amazing medicinal properties, and was used by ancient Scots to treat all sorts of conditions and ailments. These included nervousness and anxiety, coughs, consumption (now known as TB), digestive issues, poisoning, blindness, arthritis, rheumatism and more. It was made into a wide variety of different drinks, potions, ointments and salves. Today Heather is still used effectively in aromatherapy products to treat digestive upset, skin problems, coughs and insomnia. Also as an internal cleanser and detoxifier, due to it’s slightly diuretic properties.
And last, but not least, heather is used to create the most deliciously scented soaps, candles, perfumes and more.
The brewing of Scotland’s Heather Ale goes back thousands of years, and is thought to be one of the oldest types of ale in the world. On the tiny Isle of Rum, off the west coast of Scotland, 3000 year old shards of pottery have been found which contain traces of a fermented drink made from Heather!
It’s believed that the Picts developed a recipe for Ale that relied entirely on the Heather plant for its’ sweetness and fermentation. It was valued so highly that the recipe was kept a secret, with only the King and his first-born son knowing what went into it.
This ‘secret potion’ was then be passed on down through the generations.
This brew was immortalized in the poem entitled ‘HEATHER ALE : A Galloway Legend’ by Robert Louis Stevenson. It tells, in verse, the legend of the Pictish King who sacrificed both his life, and that of his son, to protect the secret recipe.
The first few lines of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem go like this…….
‘From the bonny bells of heather,
They brew a drink Langsyn
Was sweeter far than honey
Was stronger far than wine.’
Here’s a recipe, not the secret one but a recipe nonetheless.
The Last Pictish King & Heather Ale
One of the most well-known legends is centered around a confrontation between Viking raiders and the last surviving Pictish King.
Some accounts put it during the 4th Century AD, but as the Vikings didn’t actually appear on Scottish soil until the end of the 8th Century, this is unlikely….
After their army is defeated, the Pictish King and his son find themselves cornered on a cliff-top, where the Viking chief tortures them in an attempt to obtain the secret recipe for Heather Ale.
The King of the Picts is quick witted, but doubts that his son is strong enough to withstand the torture without giving up the recipe. So he makes a deal with the Viking Chief, saying that if his son is spared the torture and killed quickly, he himself will reveal the secret.
The young prince is then thrown off the cliff and into the sea where he drowns quickly. BUT, the Pictish King doesn’t uphold his end of the arrangement, and although it costs him his life he wins the battle and the recipe is safe.
In some variations of the tale the brave King takes the Viking over the edge of the cliff with him.
Bees work for months to collect enough pollen to produce this beautiful thick, golden Scottish Heather Honey with the unique and delicate taste of Scottish heather.
As well as being delicious, heather honey is rich in minerals and was traditionally used in medicinal drinks and potions.
I love this place for heather honey and various other uses of the heather.
Legend has it that in the 3rd Century AD, Malvina (daughter of the legendary Scottish poet, Ossian), was betrothed to a Celtic warrior named Oscar. Tragically, Oscar died in battle, and when Malvina heard the news she was heartbroken. The messenger who delivered the bad news, also delivered a spray of purple heather that Oscar had sent as a final token of his undying love for her. It’s said that when Malvinas’ tears fell onto the flowers in her hand, they immediately turned white, and this magical occurrence prompted her to say
‘although it is the symbol of my sorrow, may the white heather bring good fortune to all who find it.’
Other myths surrounding the magical properties of white Scottish Heather include:
• The belief that it grows only on ground where blood has not been shed in battle
•Also, more enchantingly, that it grows over the final resting place of Faeries.
•White heather is closely associated with battles and conflict, and is said to bring good luck to whoever wears it.
In 1884 even Queen Victoria commented on this character trait during a visit to the Scottish Highlands. Describing an incident which involved one of her personal servants, she said …..
‘… he espied a piece of white heather, and jumped off to pick it. No Hihglander would pass by it without picking it, for it was considered to bring good luck.’