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The Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay
Economics of the Heather - Heather Beds


Of this, auld Scotia's hardy mountaineers,
Their rustic couches form; and there enjoy
Sleep, which, beneath his velvet canopy,
Luxurious idleness implores in vain.
—Charlotte Smith

A Highland practice, that of sleeping on Heather nicely put together on the ground with the green tops uppermost, was reckoned very conducive to health.

In thus using the Heather as a bed, the Highlander was following the custom of the ancient Greek. Ruskin tells us in his "Prosperina" that "neither the Erice nor Aurora bear useful fruits. The Ericae are named for their consequent worthlessness, in the eyes of the Greek farmer; they were the plants he 'tore up' for his bed or signal fire, his word for them including a farther sense of crushing or bruising into a heap."

Buchanan, describing the Western Isles, says of the inhabitants: "In their houses they also lie on the ground; only they lay under them Fern or Heath, which they place with their Roots downward, and their Brush upward, so prettily that their Beds are almost as soft as a Feather-bed, but far more wholesome. For Heath being naturally a very great Drier, doth exhaust superfluous Humours, and restores Vigor to the Nerves, after it bath freed them from such noxious Guests; so that they who lie down in the Evening weary and faint, in the Morning rise up nimble and sprightly."

Cordiner, in his "Antiquities and Scenery of the North of Scotland," writing to Pennant from Moss-dale, Sutherlandshire, in June, 1780, subsequent to the latter's "Tour," gives his experience with the Heath bed as follows: "The inn where we are to sleep is supplied with all necessary articles of refreshment; they are soon to have even a feather bed for the accommodation of travelers; but I must sleep on heath, and the good woman tells me 'my sleep shall he sweet,' for the rushes that form the pillow were pulled with her own hand at sunset, fresh from the bog."

Smollett supports Buchanan's idea of comfort afforded by a Heather bed. In the "Expedition of Humphrey Clinker," in a letter written from Argyllshire, occurs the following passage: "Our landlord's housekeeping is equally rough and hospitable, and savours much of the simplicity of ancient times. The great ball, paved with flat stones, is about four to five feet by twenty-two, and serves not only for a dining-room, but also for a bedchamber to gentlemen, dependents and hangers-on of the family. At night half a dozen occasional beds are ranged on each side along the wall. These are made of fresh heath, pulled up by the roots, and disposed in such a manner as to make a very agreeable couch, where they lie, without any other covering than the plaid.

"My uncle and I were indulged with separate chambers and down beds, which we begged to exchange for a layer of heath; and indeed I never slept so much to my satisfaction. It was not only soft and elastic, but the plant being in flower, diffused an agreeable fragrance which is wonderfully refreshing and restorative."

To these indorsements Cordiner replies, and then narrates his own rather unusual and by no means comfortable repose on a bed of Heather. He says: "There is reason to suspect the validity of these remarks. Fatigue will lead to sound repose; fortunate hardiness of constitution, improved by exercise and toil, reconciles one to any place of rest; but the Heather is far from pleasant or easy. I felt, however, last night an additional inconvenience; the bed prepared for me was near the fireplace, consequently almost under that opening in the roof which answers Loth for the window and the chimney; it rained and the drft was blown plentifully in upon It; and I was surprised in the morning to find the mountains white with a new fall of snow; it was a midsummer treat I little looked for. The wind coming down from the hills, still bearing the sleet along, made the air intensely cold and piercing as in the dead of winter."

The Gaels traveling to any country rejected the feather beds and bedding of their hosts, wrapped themselves in their own garments and slept on the ground, careful indeed lest that barbarous effeminacy, as they termed it, should corrupt their native and inbred hardiness. The Heather bed was certainly well adapted for the camp both from the expedition with which it could be prepared and the excellent materials. Sir John Dalrymple remarks that this mode of preparing the beds was "an art which, as the beds were both soft and dry, preserved their health in the field, when other soldiers lost theirs."

In the novel of "Rob Roy" (Chap. 20) is given a description of the Heath bed. * * * "I remarked that Rob Roy's attention had extended itself to providing us a better bed than we had enjoyed the night before. Two of the least fragile of the bedsteads which stood by the wall of the hut had been stuffed with heath, then in full flower, so artfully arranged that the flowers being uppermost afforded a mattress at once elastic and fragrant. Cloaks and such bedding as could be collected stretched over the vegetable couch made it both soft and warm."

Scott also refers to this kind of bed in "The Lady of the Lake":

The stranger's bed
Was there of mountain heather spread,
Where oft a hundred guests had lain
And dreamed their forest sports again.
But vainly did the heath-flower shed
Its moorland fragrance around his head.

Allan Cunningham remarks: "A lover's plaid and a bed of heath are favorite topics with the Northern muse; when the Heather is in bloom it is worthy of becoming the couch of beauty. A sea of brown blossoms undulating as far as the eye can reach and swarming with bees is a fine sight"; a statement which Leigh Hunt said he could well believe, although never having enjoyed the scene.

The Heather on the open moorland and hills has often proved an acceptable couch to the clansman, the shepherd, the hunter, the botanist and tourist. The literature of Scotland teems with references to the wearied warrior who wrapped himself in his Highland plaid, and sought the soothing embrace of Morpheus amid the fragrance of the Heather bells. Ossian makes one of his characters in Fingal say: "We moved to the chase together, and one was our bed on the heath."

Macmillan, journeying in the Highlands, thus describes the advantages of the Heather bed on the mountains: "A Heather bed in the full beauty of its purple flowers, newly gathered, and skillfully packed close together, is as fragrant and luxurious a couch as any Sybarite could desire." He also tells us that Don, the botanist, that great enthusiast in Alpine plants, spent several months collecting these among the gloomy solitudes of the Grampians, his only food a little meal, or a bit of crust moistened in the mountain burn, and his only couch a bed of Heather or moss in the shelter of a rock.

Burt tells us that when a young couple were married, for the first night the company kept possession of the dwelling house or hut, and sent the bridegroom and bride to a barn or outhouse, giving them straw, heath, or fern for a bed, and blankets for their covering, and then they made merry and danced to the piper all the night long.

In describing how a party of poachers sleep out on the hillside, St. John, in his "Wild Sports and Natural History of the Highlands," thus remarks: "If snow is on the ground they just scrape off a small space; they then collect a quantity of the driest Heather they can find. The next step is for all the party except one to lie down close to each other, with room between one couple for the remaining man to get into the rank when his duty is done, which is to lay all the plaids on the top of his companions, and on the plaids a quantity of long Heather: when he has sufficiently thatched them in, he creeps into the vacant place, and they are made up for the night. The coldest frost has no effect on them when bivouacking in this manner. Their guns are laid dry between them, and their dogs share their masters' couch."

The Heather was the couch upon which reposed Scotia's ancient bards. Thus pleads Ossian: "Sit thou on the heath, O Bard, and let us hear thy voice; it is pleasant as the gale of the Spring that sighs on the hunter's ear when he wakes from dreams of joy, and has heard the music of the spirits of the hill."

And Hogg, in his "Queen's Wake," in the narrative of that never-to-be-forgotten bardic contest, draws a comparison between the primitive and more hardy methods of the nation's bards and those existing during the period of Queen Mary's reign, in this manner:

Unlike the bards, whose milky lays
Delight in these degenerate days;
Their crystal spring and heather brown
Is changed to wine and couch of down.
Effeminate as lady gay—
Such is the bard, so is his lay.

We are reminded, says Geikie, that poetry was born among the mountains; that the bards were hunters and cragsmen, familiar with the corries where the red deer pasture, and with the precipices where eagles build.

The Bed of Heath

"Soldier, awake, the night is past.
Hear'st thou not the bugle's blast?
Feel'st thou not the day-spring's breath?
Rouse thee from thy bed of heath;
Arm thou, bold and strong.

"Soldier, what deep spell hath bound thee?
|Fiery steeds are neighing round thee;
Banners to the fresh wind play—
Rise and arm—'tis day, 'tis day!
And thou hast slumbered long."

"Brother, on the heathery lea
Longer yet my sleep must be;
Though the morn of battle rise,
Darkly night rolls o'er my eyes.
Brother, this is death."

"Call me not when bugles sound,
Name me not when wine flows round;
Name me but amidst the brave;

Give me but a soldier's grave—
But my bed of heath."

—Mrs. Hemans.


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