A sprig of heather calls up Scotland

October 14, 2002|by Dorry Baird Norris

To be in the Highlands of Scotland in August is to revel in the glory of heather. The moors and hillsides are aglow with the rich pink and purple of the bell-like blossoms.

It is said that heather, once white-flowered, was stained by the blood of the Picts slaughtered in battle.You remember the Picts, don't you? They were the early tribe that stained themselves blue with woad and later became associated with the Scots.

In the language of flowers, heather is supposed to symbolize admiration, wishes come true, and protection from danger. Perhaps this is why, since the earliest times, a sprig of heather was worn behind the crests of their bonnets by the MacAlsiter, MacDonnel, Shaw, Farquharson, MacIntyre and MacDonald clans.

White heather was worn by the MacPhersons - a sprig of which is reputed to grant any wish that is persistently desired.


Three plant genera, belonging to the Ericacae family: Calluna, Erica and Daboecia appear under the heading heather. Calluna vulgarus is the common heather of the Scottish moors. Botanically the heather of Scotland is Calluna (from the Greek kallune - to brush - or kallunein, to beautify, referring to the usefulness of the twigs as brooms) and vulgarus, meaning common.

The plant is often referred to as "ling" from the Norse Lyng or the Anglo Saxon Lig - both mean fire.

Heather is widespread, prolific and eminently useful. A single plant may produce up to 150,000 seeds in a season. These seeds are produced over a six-month period, assuring that at least some will find favorable germinating conditions.

Heather is adaptable - it survives in acid soil that is poor in minerals and in everything from soggy peat soil to soil that is free-draining and relatively dry.

It's said that heather imparts a lovely flavor to lamb that has grazed on it. Heather land that is used for grazing is often burned to prevent other shrubs and trees from taking over the ground. The time for burning is carefully regulated to cause the least distress to birds nests, red deer, rabbits and hares as well to other animals that rely on these plants for food. After burning, the heather plants regenerate from the base of the stems.

Heather was traditionally used as a building material in Scotland. Walls were built of heather branches and daub (a combination of heather and mud or clay) and surfaced on the outside with stone.

Thatching, pegs and ropes have all been made from heather roots and wood. If your house was thatched with heather, you definitely were living in a classy place - a well made heather thatch is reputed to last 100 years!

Long stalks of dried heather were laid with heads facing toward the head of a bed to form a comfortable and fragrant mattress - a bit more appealing than the corn husks with which our early colonists stuffed their mattresses.

Heather, gathered in the spring, was bunched together and stuffed into a slit in a wooden handle to make a broom. Smaller stems were bound together and used as pot scrubbers. Even today, chimney sweeps claim that the only proper way to clean a chimney is with a heather broom.

Door mats, baskets and rope all can be made from heather.

Heather wood was carved with intricate designs and used for dirk handles. After World War II, when wood was in short supply, compressed heather stems were formed into handsome floor tiles in much the same process as we today see wood chips compressed with a bonding agent to form beams.

In July and August, at the height of the heather blooming season, the Scottish bee population must be in seventh heaven - their golden brown heather honey is a sweet treat, the perfect adjunct to scones, oat cakes and oatmeal.

We were charmed by the heather, the honey and the scones.

Dorry Baird Norris is an herbarist who lives in Hagerstown.

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