Heather

(Calluma vulgaris) A Welsh comment on heather's habitat translates: Gold under the bracken, silver under the gorse, famine under the heather (Condry), though, like silverweed, the tops of young heather shrubs were fairy food, according to Lowland Scots tradition (Aitken). Perhaps that is why it is an unlucky plant in Welsh belief. Bringing it into the house was a token of misfortune, even death (Trevelyan). All over Scotland, it is said that burning the heather in spring would bring down the rain (Banks).

"In the Highlands of Scotland, the poor inhabitants make walls for their cottages with alternate layers of heath, and a kind of mortar, made of black earth and straw. They also make beds of it, and their houses are thatched with it ..." (Taylor). George Buchanan, in 1582, approved highly of beds made of heather: "... they form a bed so pleasant, that it may vie in softness with the finest down, while in salubrity it far exceeds it ..." (quoted in Beith) (see also Hartley & Ingilby, for similar usages in the Yorkshire Dales). Besoms too were made of it, and it has been a dye plant for a very long time, giving yellow to orange, and, with indigo, green (Pennant, Shaw). It was wound into ropes called Gadd on the Isle of Man, strong enough to be used for mooring boats (Mabey. 1998).

There is a widespread belief that the Danes made heather beer, and that the secret of how to make it died with them. The story is that there remained alive only a father and his son. When pressed to tell the secret, the father said, "Kill my son, and I will tell you our secret"; but when the son was killed, he (the father) cried, "Kill me also, but our secret you will never know". This is an Irish story, but very similar ones occur all over Scotland, there relating to the Picts. Nevertheless, Pennant, after visiting Islay in 1772, said that "ale is frequently made in this island from the tops of heath, mixing two-thirds of that plant with one of malt", and he repeats Boethius's story of the loss of the secret of making ale, with the extinction of the Picts, the inference being that the ale being made in the 18th century was not the famous heather beer.

Heather used to be quite important in medicine; it is a diuretic, and is still used in homeopathy for the treatment of infections of the kidneys and urinary tract (Schauenberg & Paris). An infusion of four or five flower sprays in a pint of boiling water is drunk as a tea for insomnia; it was even just applied to the head for insomnia, and a heather pillow is still used to give refreshing sleep (Beith). It is also good for calming the nerves and the heart. A stronger brew sweetened with heather honey is an old Highland remedy for coughs and colds (A W Hatfield). (see also WHITE HEATHER)

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