The Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay Economics of the Heather - Besoms and Scrubbing
As has already been stated, the Heather derives
its botanical appellation from the Greek Kalluno, to adorn, to sweep.
This designation was given to the Calluna on account of its usefulness
in the manufacture of besoms and other kitchen utensils.
The Heather harvest occurs in the early weeks of
autumn. Then the Heather cutter and thatcher appear armed with
thin-bladed knives and tarred string. The Heather is cut and tied in
bundles; that for thatching being about two feet in length, and as much
as one can grasp in the hand, while for besoms the sheaves are longer
and thicker. Sometimes it is sent distances, and the railroad station is
then beautified by trucks of brilliant blossoms, the bundles being
packed stems inmost. Tiny sprays of Heather litter the iron way, and the
bees not fortunate enough to have been sent to the hills hum their
appreciation of the feast afforded them as they circle round the purple
But even the tramp, and the gypsy, "the heathen of
the heath," have reason to bless the Heather, as it helps them to a
livelihood by making of brooms, if only they can obtain or take the
right of common wherever the Heather grows. In his "History of the
Gypsies," William Simson tells us that among the chief occupations of
the gypsies "a few of the colony employ themselves occasionally in
making besoms, peat basses, etc., from heath, broom and bent, and sell
them at Kelso and neighboring towns."
That their industry was not such as to put them in
the millionaire class may be gleaned from one of the street cries of old
Edinburgh as follows:
Fine heather reenges, better never grew; Fine
heather reenges, wha'll buy them noo? Besoms for a penny, reenges
for a plack; If ye winna buy them, help them on my back.
Burns also gives us an idea of the profits of the
business of besom making, which he evidently considered about the last
extremity to which one in hard luck could reach. He thus tells Dr.
I hae a wife and twa wee laddies, They mann hae
brose and brats o' duddies, Ye ken yersel my heart right proud is
I need na vaunt, But I'll sned besomsthraw saugh woodies, Before
(The word "sned" signifies to cut brooms, to
render "snod," or put in order. Sned is also Anglo-Saxon for a handle or
It has been said that Heather stems have been
imported into America, but very little of this material is received
In the southern counties of England the gypsies
who vend the Heather besoms are named "broom squires." A story is
narrated, and is referred to by Kingsley, to the following effect: At a
county fair One "squire" demanded how the other could afford to
undersell him by offering Heather brooms at one penny each, adding: 'I
steals the Heather and I steals the stales (handles) and I steals the
withs, but yet I can't sell mine under three ha'pence." "Ah!" says the
other, "but I steals mine ready made."
In the Irish legend of "Smallhead and the King's
Son," these two worthies metamorphosed themselves in the village on a
market day into two Heather brooms, and set to work to brush up the
road. The crowd acclaimed them as "the mercy of God," and as "a blessing
from heaven sent to sweep the road for us." They then changed into two
doves and took their flight.
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.