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The Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay
Heather Ale


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 with caution.

"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 than

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 your dram.

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 here repeated:

'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 secret.

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 perfection.'"

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."

"Death, MacKellar?"

"That same."

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 Heather Ale.

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 dwarfish folk.

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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