Though unobtrusive all thy beauties shine, Yet
boast thou, rival of the purple vine I For once thy mantling juice was seen to laugh In pearly cups, which monarchs loved to quaff;
And frequent waked the wild inspired lay On Teviot's hills beneath the Pictish sway. —Leyden.
PROBABLY nothing in Heather history has created
more discussion, or given rise to more traditionary lore concerning the
plant, than Heather ale. There is abundant evidence in the literature
concerning Scotland to convince us that a potable liquor of some kind,
and a very agreeable one, was obtained from the Heather plant, and that
up to very recent times.
The statement of Hector Boethius, one of the
earliest Scottish historians, regarding this phase of the Heather, as it
appears in a volume published in 1526, and entitled "Scotorurn Regni,
Fol. XIII.," Linen LXX et seq., is as follows: "Per loca inculta &
sterilitate infcciida sponte sua enascitur, cfi ouibus, capris & omni
pecudum generi utilissima, Ut Columella inqt Cytisus, turn apibus in
prirnis gratissima. Florem enim fert mense Iulio purpurei colons
mellitissimf.i: unde Picti ohm potus genus cöficiere solebàt, ut ex
Iiterari monimentis accepima, no mine salubre quam delectabile. Cterü
quia eius faciendi artem (ne ea vulgata aut potus ipse minoris fieret,
aut materia eius pluris) celauerüt, ipsis postea a Scotis deletis, usus
eius potus idem qui & gentis finis extitit." (Columella was a Roman
writer on husbandry, and the name cytisus, according to old Latin
dictionaries, signifies a shrubby kind of clover; in modern botanies
Cytisus scoparius is known as Scotch broom. The old Latin Erice
signifies heath, broom, ling.)
Hector Boethius, or Boece, was a Canon of
Aberdeen, and his "Latin Cosmography and History of Scotland" was
translated by his contemporary, John Bellenden, Archdeacon of Moray and
Canon of Ross. Bellenden thus gives the passage relative to the Heather
in his chapter on "A Description of Albion:"
"Attoure in all the desertis and muris of this
realme growis ane herbe, namit hadder, but ony seid, richt nutritive
baith to beistis and fowlis; specialie to beis. This herbe, in the
moneth of July has ane floure of purpure hew, als sweit as huny. The
Pichtis maid of this herbe, sum time, ane richt delicius and hail-sum
drink. Noctheless, the maner of the making of it is perist, be
exterminioun of the said Pichtis out of Scotland; for they schew nevir
the craft of the making of this drink bot to thair awin blud."
Hollinshed, in 1571, thus translates Bellenden
into the English of that period:
"In like sorte in the deserted and wilde places of
this realm there groweth an hearbe of itself called hadder or hather,
very delicate, as Columella sayeth, for goats and all kind of cattle to
feed upon, and likewise for divers foules, but Bees especially. This
herbe in June yieldeth a purple flower sweete as hony whereof the Pictes
in time paste did make a pleasaunt drinke, and very wholesome for the
body; but forasmuche as the maner of making hereof is perished in the
hauocke made of the Pictes, when the Scottes subdued their countrey, it
lieth not in me to set downe the order of it, neither shewed they ever
the learning hereof to any but to their own nation."
Pennant, in his "Tour," tells us that in the
Island of Islay, "ale is frequently made of the young tops of heath,
mixing two-thirds of that plant with one of the malt, sometimes adding
hops. Boethius relates that this liquor was much used among the Picts;
but when that nation was extirpated by the Scots the secret of making it
perished with them." This information by Pennant has been often
repeated, and is found to-day in most encyclopedias and similar works
which treat on the subject of Heather.
"Picts Kilns," as they are called, are of frequent
occurrence in Wigton and Kirkcudbright shires, as well as in parts of
the neighboring counties. They consist of elliptical or pear-shaped
enclosures, measuring generally about sixteen feet in length and seven
or eight feet in breadth. Externally the walls appear to be of earth,
sometimes standing nearly three feet high. On removing the surface they
are found to be constructed internally of small stones, frequently
bearing marks of fire. They are popularly believed to be ancient
breweries reared by the Picts for the manufacture of Heather ale. Sir
Walter Scott suggests, with not much greater probability, that they are
primitive lime kilns. They are said to be invariably constructed on the
south side of a hill close to the margin of a brook and with the door or
narrow passage facing the stream.
Relative to this matter the editor of "Poetical
Remains of John Leyden" remarks: "From Heather, perhaps, with an
intermixture of Bog-gall they might prepare a weak, exhilarating and
intoxicating liquor. It is a common tradition among the peasantry
through almost all parts of Scotland that the Pechts brewed from Heather
a liquor greatly superior to our common ale. They point out tracts of
level or nearly level heath from which the stones appear to have been
carefully gathered away, as fields from which the Pechts moved and
carried the crop of heath to prepare ale from it by decoction. The
Gaelic words, too, for drinking are ol, elmi and lusadh, the latter of a
derivation which certainly implies the liquor drunk to have been a
decoction of herbs. It might be worth while for some curious antiquarian
to make a brewst of heather ale."
Logan, in "The Scottish Gael," says: "Many
extensive tracts of Muir are observable that are level and free from
stones, and they are believed to have been the fields cleared by the
Picts for the cultivation of the Heath, which they mowed down when in
bloom. This shrub, I have been told, made by a certain process produced
a good spirit, and a pleasant liquor is often made in the Highlands from
its flowers; but it differs from the ancient beverage in having an
addition of honey or sugar with other ingredients, whereas the Heather
ale of the Picts, it is thought, required nothing extraneous to bring it
to perfection.In the Highlands, it is an almost invariable practice when
brewing to put a quantity of the green tops of heath in the wash tub,
and when the plant is in bloom it adds much to the strength and flavor
of the beer. The roots also will improve its qualities, for they are of
a licorice sweetness, but their astringency requires them to be used
"Herb ale was a favorite 'brewst' with the women
of olden time. An ancient matron whose grandmother had often made it has
often descanted to me on its excellence, also that those who drank
heartily of it became speckled in the face like a salmon. Though only a
child when this was observed, she could not say what were the
ingredients, but as her ancestors were natives of Buchan, where the
descendants of the ancient Picts, according to Pinkerton, are to be
found, the secret was not perhaps entirely lost."
Sowerby is of opinion that perhaps the tales of
their Heath ale may have originated in some poetical allusion of the
Celtic or Saxon bards to the mead fermented from the Heath-gathered
honey, which gave its peculiar flavor to the beverage, which may have,
likewise, the tops of the plant infused in it.
Mr. Martin, a native of Skye, and a staunch
advocate of Highland virtues, says a writer in "Corn-hill," made a tour
through the Hebrides and out as far as St. Kilda shortly after the
Revolution. He found various kinds of whiskey. There was the ordinary
usquebaugh, which the well seasoned Hebrideans could drink in large
quantities without much apparent harm; there was a very fiery spirit
called freslerig, or whiskey three times distilled, and much stronger
either; there was a third, known as usquebaugh
baul, of which two spoonfuls would stagger the most creditable toper. To
an ordinary tippler a glass of this spirit meant instant death. In those
days whiskey was made from potatoes and Heather, as well as from barley.
A great deal of it was manufactured at home, it was hot, coarse and raw,
and all who could afford it, drank deeply.
Heather ale was, no doubt, what Burns had
reference to when he penned the famous transcript to "The Author's
Earnest Cry and Prayer:
Scotland, my auld respected mither! Though whyles ye moistify your leather Till
whare ye sit, on craps o' heather, Ye tine your darn; Freedom and whiskey gang thegither! Tak' aff
The beverage was sometimes called "heather crop,"
the word crop meaning top, from which the drink was made.
Sir Walter Scott, in the "Monastery" (1820), has
the following passage: "Halbert Glendenning expressed himself unwilling
to take any liquor stronger than the Heather ale, which was at that time
frequently used at meals."
Some modern writers testify to having drank
Heather ale within the past half century. Mr. Weld, in his "Two Months
in the Highlands" (page 83), says: "Although the art of brewing the
Pictish Heather ale is lost, old grouse shooters have tasted a beverage
prepared by shepherds on the moor brewed from Heather flowers, though
honey or sugar to produce fermentation was added." On the other hand,
McCullough, in his "Highlands and Western Isles" (Vol. III., p. 383),
denies that there ever was such a beverage as Heather ale, though he
says "the heath flowers may have been added to the malt to give it
flavor." A writer in "Notes and Queries" adds to the foregoing: "Beoce's
Pictish legend is therefore assumed to be a mythic narrative and we are
not to believe:
"The Picts were undone, cut off mother's son,
For not teaching the Scots to brew Heather ale."
Whether or not the secret of the Picts was lost,
the belief that such a secret at one time existed has afforded a
foundation for many interesting legends concerning it.
In Ireland a tradition exists that the Danish
invaders brewed an inebriating liquor made from the Heath, the secret of
which was lost at their expulsion after the battle of Clontarf. The
brewing of ale or beer from Heather continued in Ireland until the
commencement of the 19th century, when, owing to the low prices received
for raw grains, these materials were employed for the purpose. A writer
in "Notes and Queries" thus explains the Irish tradition: "The point
about Heath beer there is explained as follows: When the little plant is
in blossom, and a very pretty blossom it bears, it has a peculiarly
attractive odor and taste. It was then gathered and carefully cleaned
and was then placed at the bottom of the vessels through which the warts
were run off and acted as a strainer, at the same time imparting to the
liquid a peculiar flavor most agreeable to the palate; hence the
favorite tradition of the beer being made from the Heath itself."
A tradition is also prevalent in the north of
England that the Romans "made a beverage somewhat like beer, of the
bells of the Heather," and a large trough cut out of the solid rock at
Kutchester is said to have been used in the making of such a drink.
Descriptions of the passing of the secret have
also furnished interesting reading: A tradition prevalent in Wick,
described in the "John O'Groat Journal," says: "The name of this place
is Garrywhin and a tradition exists in connection with it. It says that
here the last of the Picts existed. The story goes on to say that the
race of Picts was reduced to three persons—an old blind man and his two
sons. But before continuing the story it is necessary to mention that
the opinion still exists that the Picts made ale from Heather, and that
it can still be made, only we want the knowledge of any harm or yeast
suited for it. Now the Picts were said to have guarded this secret with
great care from the race that succeeded them; and it seems that these
three poor Picts were much persecuted by their conquerors who wished to
get possession of their secret. At last the old man, worried almost to
death, by being so frequently urged to reveal what barm would suit
'heather crop,' consented to tell on condition that his two sons should
first be put to death. To this proposal his cruel conquerors readily
consented. The sons were slain, but the old man, wishing some of his
oppressors to shake hands after they had completed their bargain, they
became suspicious of his intentions and held out to him the bone of a
horse's leg, which with a firm grasp of his old withered hand he crushed
to powder. Made aware by this, that it was not over safe to shake hands
with the old fellow, they kept at a respectful distance, but insisted
that he should now reveal his secret according to bargain; but they
could get nothing from him but the doggerel couplet which we find still
'Search Brochwhin well out and well in, And
barm for heather crop you'll find therein.'"
The place mentioned here as Brochwhin is a glen
close by, and the tradition is still believed.
Various localities claim the distinction of having
witnessed the extinction of the Picts and the loss of their Heather ale
Leyden says: "The traditions of Teviotdale add
that when the Pictish nations were exterminated, it was found that only
two persons had survived the slaughter —a father and a son. They were
brought before Kenneth the conqueror, and their life was offered them,
on condition the father would discover the method of making the
heath-liquor. 'Put this young man to death, then,' said the hoary
warrior. The barbarous terms were complied with; and he was required to
fulfill his engagement. 'Now put me to death, too,' replied he. 'You
shall never know the secret. Your threats might have influenced my son,
but they are lost on me.' The king condemned the veteran savage to life;
and tradition further relates, that his life, as the punishment of his
crime, was prolonged far beyond the ordinary term of mortal existence.
When some ages had passed, and the ancient Pict was blind and bed-rid,
he overheard some young men vaunting of their feats of strength. He
desired to feel the wrist of one of them, in order to compare the
strength of modern men with those of the times which were only talked of
as a fable. They reached to him a bar of iron, which he broke between
his hands, saying, 'You are not feeble, but you cannot be compared to
the men of ancient times.'"
In a series of articles on the "Chronicles of
Scottish Counties," appearing in "All the Year Round," occurs the
following: "The last stand of the Picts was made, so tradition says, at
Cockburn Law, between Cranshaw Castle and Dunse, and here the remnants
of an ancient race fought their last fight and were slaughtered, all but
two, as old tradition says, an old man and his son, who were saved, it
seems, for a purpose.
"Now, to turn the heather bells to good advantage
must have seemed a grand invention to a Scot, seeing so noble a harvest
was growing all round.
.............A wide domain And rich the soil,
had purple heath been grain';
or, according to an older rhyme anent the
possessions of Bold Buccleuch:
'Had heather bells been corn o' the best
Buccleuch had had a noble grist.'
And thus to utilize a natural product seemed to
the conquerors of the Picts a consummation worth a little pains.
The story of the old man and his two sons, similar
to that before given, is there recounted, and the writer goes on to say:
"It has been whispered, indeed, that the secret of the wonderful drink
of the Picts was not altogether lost, and its survival may be thus
accounted for. The Picts when they first landed in Scotland consisted of
men only; their womenkind they had been obliged to abandon to their
conquerors. In this hard case they applied to the Britons as well as to
the Scots to provide them with wives, but neither race would ally itself
with the hated intruders. The Gaels, however, were not so particular,
and bestowed their daughters on the strangers—ill-favored ones for
choice, like tiickle-mouthed Meg, for instance. In this way, the secret
leaked out among the relatives of the Picts' wives, and thus the race
became possessed of the art of making that ambrosial drink called
usquebaugh, or, in modern language, whiskey. And it is a curious fact,
when you come to think of it, that among no other races than the Gaels
of Ireland, or of the Scotch Highlands, is this liquor made 'in
Neil Munro, in "The Lost Pibroch," introduces "The
Secret of the Heather Ale" as one of his stories, when "Down Glenaora
three score and ten of Diarmaid's stout fellows took the road on a fine
day. They were men from Carnus, with more of Clan Artair than Campbell
in them; but they wore Gilleasbuig Gruamach's tartan, and if they were
not on Gilleasbug Gruamach's errand, it makes little difference on our
story. It was about the time Antrim and his dirty Irishers came scouring
through our glens with flambeaux, dirk and sword and other arms
invasive, and the country was back at its old trade of fighting, with
not a shelling from end to end, except on the slopes of Shira Glen,
where a clan kept free of battle and drank the finest of Heather ale
that the world envied the secret of."
Headed by the famous Niall Mor a' Chamaisthe same
gentleman named in story for many an art and the slaughter of the
strongest man in the world—they met the MacKellars, the possessors of
the secret, at the Foal's Gap, past Maam.
"Ayl" said Calum Dubh, "but it's my secret. I had
it from one who made me swear on the holy steel to keep it; but take me
to Carnus and I'll make you the Heather ale. But there's this in it, I
can look no clansmen nor kin in the face after telling it, so Art and
Uileani must be out of the way first."
Niall Mor intrusted the work to
John-Without-Asking. "He put a hand on each son's back and pushed them
over the edge to their death below. One cry came up to the listening
Diarmaids, one cry and no more—the last gasp of a craven.
"Now we'll take you to carnus and you'll make us
the ale, the fine ale, the cream of rich Heather ale," said Niall Mor,
putting a knife to the thongs that tied MacKellar's arms to his side.
"With a laugh and a fast leap Calum Dubh stood
back on the edge of the rock again.
"Crook-mouths, fools, pigs' sons, did ye think
it?" he cried. "Come with me and my sons and yell get ale, aye, and
death's black wine, at the foot of Scaurnoch." He caught fast and firm
at JohnWithout-Asking and threw himself over the rock face. They fell as
the scart dives, straight to the dim sea of mist and pine tip, and the
Diarmaids threw themselves on their breasts to look over. There was
nothing to see of life but the crows swinging on black feathers; there
was nothing to hear but the crows scolding. "Niall Mor put the bonnet
on his head and said his first and last friendly thing of a foe.
"Yon,' said he, 'had the heart of a man.'"
Robert Louis Stevenson has written the following
poem on the subject of
Heather Ale—A Galloway Legend
From the bonny bells of heather They brewed a
drink lang-sync, Was sweeter far than honey, Was stronger far
than wine. They brewed it and they drank it, And lay in blessed
swound For days and days together In their dwellings underground.
There rose a king in Scotland, A fell man to his foes, He smote the Picts in
battle, He hunted them
like roes. Over miles of the red mountain He hunted as they fled, And strewed the dwarfish bodies Of the dying and the dead.
Summer came in the country, Red was the heather bell; But the manner of
the brewing Was none
alive to tell. In graves
that were like children's On many a mountain head The brewsters of the
heather Lay numbered
with the dead.
The king in the red moorland Rode on a summer's day; And the bees hummed, and the curlews Cried beside the way. The king rode, and was angry, Black was his brow and pale, To rule in a land
of heather And lack the
It fortuned that his vassals, Riding free on the heath, Came on a stone that
was fallen And vermin hid beneath.
Rudely plucked from their hiding, Never a word they spoke: A son and his aged
father— Last of the
The king sat high on his charger, He looked on the little men; And the dwarfish and swarthy couple Looked at the king again. Down by the shore he had them; And there on the giddy brink— "I give you life,
ye vermin, For the
secret of the drink."
There stood the son and father And they looked high and low; The heather was
red around them, The sea
rumbled below. And up
spoke the father, Shrill
was his voice to hear: "I have a word in private, A word for the royal ear. "Life is dear to the aged,
And honour a little thing; I would gladly sell
the secret," Quoth the
Pict to the king. His
voice was small as a sparrow's. And shrill and wonderful clear: "I would
gladly sell my secret,
Only my son I fear.
"For life is a little matter, And death is naught to the young; And I dare not sell my honour Under the eye of
my son. Take him, O
king, and bind him, And cast him far in the deep; And it's I will tell the secret That I have sworn to keep."
Then they took the son and bound him Neck and heels in a thong, And a lad took him and swung him, And flung him far and strong. And the sea
swallowed his body, Like
that of a child of ten ;- And there on the cliff stood the father, Last of the dwarfish men.
"True was the word I told you; Only my son I feared; For I doubt the sapling courage That goes without the beard. But now in vain is the torture Fire shall never avail: Here dies in my bosom The secret of Heather Ale."
"Mr. Stevenson's ballad of the Heather Ale has a
fairly accurate setting," says MacRitchie in "The Scottish Antiquary,"
"although there is no warrant for the leading incident of the last of
the Picts and the lost recipe. As far back as 1443 a man of high rank
and scholarly breeding had put upon record as a thing quite credible the
statement that Orkney had been formerly inhabited by Dwarfish 'Picts'
famous as builders, and living in subterranean houses, of which houses
many specimens are yet extant.
"Whether Tulloch was writing down an oral
tradition or copying from an early historian does not appear. But at
least he supplies us with 1443 as a date at which the above belief was
firmly held. Even some seventy years before Tulloch wrote we have the
compilers of the Book of Ballymote saying in effect that the Picts lived
in artificial mounds. Here again the latest date is taken, and it is
assumed that the companion reference 'in an ancient genealogy' belongs
to about the same period. Now even if Bishop Tulloch knew anything of
the Book of Ballymote or the language in which it was written, his own
statement bears inherent evidence that it was made quite independently
of the Irish chronicle, and that the Bishop was simply repeating what
had been previously said by local tradition or by a Scandinavian writer
with sole reference to the Orkney Islands. Add to this the great mass of
inherited belief with respect to this subject held in common by the
Gaelic-speaking people, by the once Norse-speaking inhabitants of Orkney
and by the Scottish lowlanders generally, and the deduction is that Mr.
Stevenson himself was in error in assuming that the historical Picts
were not identical with the dwarfish earth dwellers of his ballad."
Stevenson had characterized Boece's remarks as "the blundering guess of
a dull chronicler."
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