The Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay Heather Burning
When clover fields have lost their tints of green,
And beans are full, and leaves are blanch'd and lean, And
winter's piercing breath prepares to drain The thin green blood from every poplar's vein,
How grand the scene yon russet down displays, While far the
withering heaths with moorburn blaze!
The pillar'd smoke ascends with ashen gleam,
Aloft in air the arching flashes stream With rushing, crackling noise the flames aspire
And roll one deluge of devouring fire; The timid flocks shrink from the smoky heat,
Their pastures leave, and in confusion bleat, With curious look the
flaming billows scan, As whirling gales the red combustion fan.
But far remote, ye careful shepherds, lead Your wanton flocks to pasture on the mead, While from the flame the bladed grass is young,
Nor crop the slender spikes that scarce have sprung; Else, your
brown heaths to sterile wastes you doom, While frisking lambs regret
the heath-flower's bloom!
And ah! when smiles the day, and fields are fair,
Let the black smoke ne'er clog the burthened air! Or soon, too
soon, the transient smile shall fly, And chilling mildews ripen in
the sky, The heartless
flocks shrink from the cold, Reject the fields and linger in the fold. —Leyden.
AT a certain season of the year the Heather, in
Scotland, is burned in order to provide hill pasturage for sheep. And in
spots thus cleared a thick, close carpet of green verdure springs up of
which these animals are particularly fond.
Along about the commencement of the nineteenth
century, when the agricultural condition of the Highlands was under its
customary consideration, the subject of burning the Heather received a
great deal of attention.
In the Transactions of the Highland Agricultural
Society for 1804, a Mr. Somerville recommended the total eradication of
the Heather where the soil and climate would admit of the culture of any
more useful plant, and the burning of it in such a manner as to destroy
the tough, hard parts and afford room and nourishment for the tender and
juicy shoots, in every situation where no plants of greater value could
be produced. In order to effect the former purpose he said the Heather
ought to be burned in the autumn when it is in flower, as it may then be
completely destroyed. But when the object is to preserve the root and to
afford warmth and manure to the tender shoots, the operation ought to
take place in the spring. The tender and juicy shoots which might then
be made to spring annually from the burned Heather ought to be used not
only for pasture but also for hay. In Sweden this practice is commonly
followed and found to answer.
The advantage to other vegetation of burning the
Heather is thus explained by Sir Humphry Davy: "The alkalies produced
from the combustion of plants tend very powerfully to promote the growth
of new herbage and that the burning of such plants as heath, furze,
tough grasses, rushes and moss is the cheapest and best means of
reducing such substances to a state of minute carbonaceous particles at
once capable of supplying food to the roots of the new plants."
The stumps of the Heather are usually left in the
ground, for the fire consumes only the foliage and the smaller twigs;
and these skeletons, closely matted together, bleached and sharpened by
the elements, frequently crossing one's path, are very disagreeable to
walk on, unless the feet are protected by very thick boots (fraochan).
"The contrasts of shape and color," says Rev. Hugh Macmillan, "formed by
these clearings in the aboriginal Heather, are very curious, and
strikingly diversify the monotony of the landscape—here a uniform brown
sea of Heather; there long stripes of gray coloring running in and out
and crossing in all directions, like promontories and capes; and yonder
bright green isles of verdure smiling amid the surrounding desolation."
The season of "Muirburn," as it is technically
named, is regulated by Act of Parliament; the Scottish Acts of 1424, C.
20, and 1535, C. ii, being superseded by the British Act 13 George III.,
C. 54, dated 5773 and entituled:
"An act for the more effectual preservation of
game in that part of Great Britain called Scotland, and for repealing
and amending several laws now in being related thereto."
This act forbids all persons to kill, sell, or buy
muirfowl between December so and August 12; offenders forfeiting every
bird so destroyed and to pay the sum of ;E5 sterling, and in case of not
paying the sum decreed, within the space often days after conviction by
a final sentence, shall suffer imprisonment for two months for each 15
Section IV. sets forth: "And be it enacted that
every person who shall make muirburn, or set fire to any heath, or muir,
in that part of Great Britain called Scotland, from the jith day of
April to the 1st day of November in any year shall forfeit and pay the
sum of forty shillings for the first offence, five pounds sterling for
the second offence, and ten pounds sterling for the third and every
other subsequent ofence; and in case of not paying the sum decreed
within the space of ten days after conviction by a final judgment, shall
suffer imprisonment for six weeks for the first offence, two months for
the second, and three months for the third and every other subsequent
"Section VI.: Provided always, and be it enacted
that the proprietor of high and wet moorlands, the heath upon which
cannot be burned so early as the 11th day of April may, when such lands
are in his own occupation, burn the heath upon the same at any
time between the 11th and 25th day of April in any
year, without incurring any of the penalties before mentioned."
The Scottish Act of James I., Parliament I., Cap.
20, sets forth that "no man may make muirburn after the first of March
till all the corns be shorn, under the pain of fourty shillings to the
lord of the land of the manor, or fourty days' imprisonment."
In England muirburn is a felony and is punished by
imprisonment for three years or less.
Heather burning is often a bone of contention
between shepherds and gamekeepers; the former are sometimes reckless in
setting fire to a hillside, not caring how far the flames may extend.
The Heather continues burning at times for weeks, being only
extinguished by a friendly deluge of rain. In this manner much damage is
done, particularly to tracts of grouse moor, the destruction often
extending to adjacent woods and cornfields.
William Black, in his "White Heather," touches on
the relation existing between the shepherds and gamekeepers in this
connection. He says: "She (Meenie Douglas) knew quite well—for often had
she heard it spoken of—that no one could get on so well as Ronald with
the shepherds at the time of the Heather burning; when on the other
moors the shepherds and keepers were growling and quarreling like rival
leashes of collies, on Lord Ainline's ground everything was peace and
quietness and good humor."
He who at a distance has witnessed the weird yet
beautiful spectacle resulting from muirburn can never forget it,
particularly when viewed as the gloaming is merging into the darkness of
night. The mountain tops appear to be studded with miniature volcanoes,
each one emitting its volume of flame, shooting heavenward and seeming
to pierce the horizon with their fiery fangs, the luridness becoming
intensified as the blackness of night increases. A closer view of the
conflagration would reveal the picture charmingly portrayed by
Macmillan: "Hares and deer careering before the flames; grouse whirring
past, blinded and scorched; lizards and snakes running hither and
thither in an agony of terror; volumes of dense smoke darken the air,
and the dull red embers light up the darkness of the night, and reflect
a volcanic glare upon the surrounding hills. It is one of the grandest
sights to be seen in the Highlands." Or as Mr. Black puts it: "The gloom
of the evening, by the way, was not decreased by a vast mass of smoke
that came slowly rolling along between the black sky and the black lake;
though this portentous thing—that looked as if the whole world was on
fire—meant nothing further than the burning of the Heather down Strath
A most delightful pen picture of Heather burning
is given us in "The Tales of the Borders," by the ever-readable
Christopher North, bringing back memories of boyhood and of the
dare-devil spirit which is its accompaniment. The description is as
follows: "That was a terrible conflagration at Mirawecbie. I think I
hear it crashing, thundering, crackling on; before it the wild beasts,
the serpents, the cattle—man, poor, houseless, helpless,
smoke-enveloped, and perishing man. The reason why I can conceive so
vividly of this awful comparatively recent visitation is this —I was
accustomed to set 'muirburn' when a boy of nine or ten.
"The primeval heath of our mountains was strong,
bushy and, when dry in spring, exceedingly inflammable. I was a mountain
child, for on one side of my dwelling the Heather withered and bloomed
up to the door; and when one thinks of the 'bonny blooming Heather' it
is quite refreshing; it blooms when all things around it are withering,
during the later months of harvest, but then, oh then, it puts on such a
russet robe of beauty—a dark evening cloud tipped and tinged with red—a
mantle of black velvet spangled with gold; and its fragrance is honey
steeped in myrrh. Yet when withered in March and April, it is an object
of aversion to the sheep farmer, who prefers green grass and tender
sward; and he issues to impatient boyhood the sentence of destruction.
Peat follows peat, kindled at one end and held by the other the hillside
or the level muir swarm with matches; carefully is the ignition
communicated to the dry and widespread Heath; from spot to spot in lines
and in circles —it extends and unites—the wind is up, and one continuous
blaze is the almost immediate consequence. It is night, dark night—the
clouds above catch and reflect the uncertain gleam. The Heathfowl wing
their terrified flight—through, above, and beneath the rolling and
outspreading smoke. The flame gathers into a point; and at the more
advanced part of the curvature, the force and blaze is terrible. A
thousand tongues of fire shoot up into the density, and immediately
disappear. Who now so venturous as to dash headlong through the hottest
flame, and to recover from beneath the choking night in former position?
There goes—a hat—a cap—a bonnet! They have taken up their positions in
the pathway of the devouring flood of fire-.--and who so brave, so
daring, as to extricate his own property from instant destruction?
Hurrahl hurrah! from a score of throats, mixes with the thunder, the
crackle, the roll—all is power, novelty, ecstasy; bare heads and bare
feet dance and show conspicuously upon the still smoking turf. Here an
adder is seen writhing and twisting in the agonies of death. There a
half-burned hat evinces the fun and the folly of its owner. But, oh!
horrible, what is that in the dim and hazy distance? It comes forward
bounding, tearing and bellowing, fearful and paralysing; it is the bull
himself escaped from his fold, and maddened by the smoke and blazing
atmosphere. He comes down upon the charge, tail erect, and head down,
tossing all that is solid under his feet, and looking through the
scattered earth with eyes glaring as well as reflecting fire. Achilles,
Hector, Agamemnon, Wallace, Wellington, never entered a field of battle
with such a terrific presence. He seems as if he had just escaped from a
human or Spanish arena. He is desperately infuriated, and woe is to him
who shall be overtaken by this muscular tornado in his weakness and
fears. We are off! diffugirnus. We are nowhere to be found. One has made
for a distant wall surounding the Heather park, and is in the act of
climbing it. The bull is in full chase, armed with two ghast, but
powerful horns. The fugitive has just laid hold of an upper stone to
assist his ascent; but faithless help has given way; stone and he are
lying alongside of the dyke. The bull is in full scent. The noise has
directed him. He nears—he nears. Mv Godl the urchin's life is not worth
two minutes' purchase.
Now do thy speedy, Arnot Wull 'Twill take it
all to clear the bull.
Bravo; the summit is gained! the feet of the
pursued are seen flying in mid-air; he has sprung from the summit as
least twenty-two feet; but the whole weight of the pursuing brute is
upon the crazy structure; it gives way with a crash, and down rush
stones over stones, and the poor, maimed, bruised brute over all. What,
Mr. Bull! are you satisfied? Why not continue the sport? But the game is
up; Will has regained his mother's dwelling and now lives to record this
wonderful, this all but miraculous escape. Catch me setting muirburn
And in "Noctes Ambrosian" Mr. North provides
another description as follows:
Shepherd—Was you ever at the burning o' heather or
whins, Mr. North?
North—I have, and enjoyed the illuminated heavens.
North—In half an hour from the first spark, the
hills glowed with fire inextinguishable by waterspout. The crackle
became a growl, as acre after acre joined the flames. Here and there a
rock stood in the way, and the burning waves broke against it, till the
birch-tree took fire, and its tresses, like a shower of flaming
diamonds, were in a minute consumed. Whirr, whirr, played the frequent
gor-cock, gobbling in his fear; and, swift as shadows, the old hawks
fled screaming from their young, all smothered in a nest of ashes.
Tickler—Good—excellent! go it again.
North—The great pine-forest on the mountain side,
two miles off, frowned in ghastly light, as in a stormy sunset; and you
could see the herd of red deer, a whirlwind of antlers, descending in
their terror into the black glen, whose entrance gleamed once—twice,
thrice—as if there had been lightning; and then, as the wind changed the
direction of the flames, all the distance sunk in dark repose.
Tickler—Vivid coloring, indeed, sir. Paint away.
North—There was an eagle that shot between me and the moon.
Tickler—What an image!
North—Millions of millions of sparks of fire in
Heather, but only some six or seven stars. How calm the large lustre of
Tickler—James, what do you think of that, eh?
Shepherd—Didna ye pity the taeds and paddocks. and
beetles, and slaters and snails and spiders, and worms and ants, and
caterpillars and bumbees, and a' the rest o' the insect world perishin'
in the flaming nicht o' their last judgment?
North—In another season, James, what life, beauty
and bliss over the verdant wilderness. There you see and hear the bees
busy on the white clover—while the lark comes wavering down from heaven,
to sit beside his mate on her nest! Here and there are still seen the
traces of fire, but they are nearly hidden by flowers—and-
Scott refers to Heather burning in the following
lines from "The Lady of the Lake":
Not faster o'er thy heathery braes, Balquidder,
speeds the midnight blaze, Rushing in conflagration strong Thy
deep ravines and dells along, Wrapping thy cliffs in purple glow,
And reddening the dark lakes below; Nor faster speeds it, nor so
far, As o'er thy heaths the voice of war.
Rolfe says this simile is not new to poetry. The
charge of a warrior, in the fine ballad of Hardyknute is said to be
"like fire to heather set." It may be of interest to state that
Hardyknute was the first poem learned by Sir Walter Scott, and the last,
he said, he should ever forget.
Mr. A. G. Reid, in "Notes and Queries" for 1896,
presents the following interesting item associated with the burning of
the Heather: "In the metrical version of the Psalms for use of the Kirk
of Scotland, known as that of John Knox, although the greater number of
the verses are those of Sternhold and Hopkins, there are, particularly
in the latter part, a number of John Craig, William Kethe and other
Scotsmen. They are marked by initials, but are easily distinguished from
their English neighbors by their peculiar orthography and Scotch
expression. Under Psalm LXXXIII., to which are prefaced the initials R.
P., the following is the rendering of the passage: 'Oh! my God, make
them like unto a wheel, and as the stubble before the wind; as the fire
burneth the forest, and as the flame setteth the mountains on fire, so
persecute them with Thy tempest, and make them afraid of Thy Storm':
'My God! make them to be Like rolling wheeles
or as the stubble blowen Before the winde. As fire the wuds, we
see, Doeth burne; and flame devoure on mountain hie, The hather
croppe, So let Thy tempest chase them And the whirlwinde, With
terror so deface them.'"
The same writer adds: "The burning of Heather is
common in Scotland, although it is a question if the Royal Psalmist
could have such in view in reference to the hills of Judea, where, it is
presumed, Heather does not adorn the mountain sides. The burning of
Heather on the Scottish hills at night, for the purpose of improving the
growth of the pasture, has a very picturesque effect, and no doubt was
impressed on the mind of the versifier."
As the Scottish classic scholar gazes upon these
burning hills, they mirror to his mind the picture drawn by schylus of
those ancient telegraphic beacon fires that flashed from afar to the
wearied waiting watchman at Argos "a voice from Troy and tidings of a
capture," as narrated by CIytmnestra in "Agamemnon": "Vulcan sending
forth a brilliant gleam from Ida; and beacon despatched beacon of
courier fire hitherward. Ida, first, to the Hermean promontory of Lemnos,
and third, in order Athos, mount of Jove, received the great torch from
the isle, and passing o'er so as to ridge the sea, the might of the lamp
as it joyously traveled, the pine torch transmitting its gold gleaming
splendor, like a sun, to the watch-towers of Macistus. And (the
watchman) omitted not his share of the messenger's duty, either by any
delay, or by being carelessly overcome by sleep; but the light of the
beacon coming from afar to the streams of the Euripus gives signal to
the watchmen of Messapius; and they lighted a flame in turn, and sent
the tidings onward, having kindled with a fire a pile of withered
Or as Browning translates it:
And far the beacon's light on Stream Euripos
Arriving, made aware Messapios' warders, And up they lit in turn,
played herald onwards, Kindling with flame a heap of gray old
"Far the withering heaths with moorburn
Oh, heath upon the hills aflame, Thy odor
steals my spirit o'er And stirs within the fancy deep The shadowy
dreams of yore.
Sweet incense of departed bloom Afloat upon the moorland lea— The memory of a
summer gone Thou bearest
Again I see the hills and know The pleasant rush of waters near; And far
within the blue of heaven Thy skylark singeth clear.
And plover lone and wild curlew Weird
choristers, to Nature call, And sentinels of Silence seem If human footstep fall.
But deeper than such music all, And chiding earthly doubts and fears, The
peace of God descends, and lo! The harpings of the spheres!
As Night, with trailing garment comes, And enters at the western gate; And round her throne the planets wheel, Her chariots of state.
* * * * *
Oh, Summer, tho' from tower and tree Thy touch has faded in the past, The radiance
of thy sunbeams still
Within my life is cast.
Upon the hills the flames upleap- Upleap and fall within the night: So in my
heart thy vanished bloom Enkindles into light. —John MacFarlane.
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