The Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay The Heather as a Clan Badge
Not safe were they who rashly met Thy warriors stern and true, When the proud heather-badge was set In all
their bonnets blue. —Ian
WHEN we reflect upon the many unique
characteristics of the Heather—its stern beauty of delicate purple bells
nestling to a green-mantled burly growth of brushwood; its distinctive
vitality and strength of endurance; the wild, rugged solitude of its
native home in the Scottish Highlands, and the nntamed spirit of
independence which over-broods this hermit flower of the mountain
crags—it is not to be wondered at that the Heather should have been
adopted as a symbol, or badge, by several of the leading clans of
Scotland. Indeed, in olden times such badges were superstitiously
regarded, and the clans adopting specific subjects as their symbols were
supposed to be descended from these subjects. And who more proud of
their ancestors than the descendants of the Heather!
Grighair is croic, Domnuil is freuc, Macgregor as the rock, Macdonald as the heather.
The origin of the selection of certain plants as
clan badges appears to be shrouded in mystery, and mythology aids us but
little in our research looking to the discovery of the inception of the
Speaking of the Cativellauni, with which he says
the Scots were identified, Dr. R. C. Maclagan, in "Scottish Myths"
(1882), says: ".Now what the peculiar ceremonies were which
characterized this people, it is not easy to say, but it is curious to
find among the natives of North America, as figured by Lafitau in his
Mceurs des Sauvages Ameriquains, published in 1724, a dance which seems
perhaps to point to what may have taken place among our ancestors. I
annex a rough copy of the plate. Here we have a barbarous people dancing
what might be a 'reel,' in a circle peculiarly like our stone circles.
The total number of performers is eight couple and an odd man. This
makes it, possibly, a sheer coincidence, much like an 'eightsome' reel,
and, as in this latter, there is what is called a 'prisoner,' so here we
have the center occupied by three of the performers, who may be
performing what is allied to the 'jig,' a dance of three performers. The
green branches which they carry, and with which one at least is dressed
(?), make them Vecturiones, while if the belief that the bladder-shaped,
crescent-ornamented things carried by some of the performers are
inflated bladders or skins, used perhaps for causing sound, the bearers
might be called Firbolg. The Americans figured may have been less
advanced in the arts than the Cativellauni, but if the dance is a
'reel,' and was such as the Maiatai (Scots) danced, it still survives
after seventeen centuries.
"Is it not possible that the sprigs carried as
clan badges may hint at another survival, while its effect in tradition
is clear in the story in which Macbeth is described as defeated by the
followers of Malcolm (the servant of the dove) when they carried green
boughs of the 'Byrnnane' wood to 'Dunsynanc,' the hill of charms or
It is, however, more reasonable to infer that the
custom had its origin in the practice of the primitive inhabitants of
Scotland, of painting or dyeing their skins either with vegetable or
mineral colors, depicting various figures of animals, shells, flowers,
fishes, plants, birds, etc. It is recorded that the Highlanders of
Druidal times always fought stripped to the kilt; and that they painted
their crests on their bosoms, so that they might be recognized and
distinguished in the conflict, as well as among the slain should that be
their fate. As a sequence of civilization, would result the transition
from this barbaric portraiture to the adoption of the natural object.
Consequently we are also told that it was a custom of the clans to enter
into battle each one bearing its own significant twig.
General Stewart, in his "Highlanders," says:
"These marks of distinction were composed of a tuft of heath, pine or
such plant as would not fade or cast the leaf. Thus the Macdonalds wore
in their bonnets tufts of heath; the Macgregors and Grants a bunch of
pine; the Drummonds and Mackenzies wore the holly—the former the plain,
the latter the variegated; the Macintoshes the boxwood, and so on;
always taking care, whatever the badge was, that it should be permanent
and not affected by the change of season, and thus be equally
conspicuous in winter as in summer. This was the practice of all except
the Stewarts, who generally wore the oak; which from Losing the leaf and
decaying, many regarded as ominous of the decline of the family and
name, who also considered the oak emblematical, as the leaves, though
withered and decayed, still hang by the branches till forced off by the
new leaves in spring."
It appears, however, that the Heather badge was
not at all times displayed in the bonnet; indeed, a bonnet was more
often than not wanting in the garb of the fighting clansman. A letter in
the Wodrow MS. in the Advocates' Library, dated February i, 1678, gives
an account of the Highland host, which was brought down to curb the
Covenanters, and we find "among the ensigns, besides other
singularities, the Glencoe men were verie remarkable, who had for their
ensigne a faire bush of heath, well spread and displayed on the head of
a staff, such as might have affrighted a Roman Eagle."
As has been stated, the Heather, Fraoch gorm, is
the badge of the Clan Macdonald; it is also that of the Macdonalds of
Clanronald, of Keppoch, and Glengarry; and Fraoch-eilean, "heathy isle,"
is their slogan or war cry. The Heather is likewise the badge of Clans
Macalister, Macintyre and Macnab. And the following clans wear Heather
with another badge or badges: Duncan, or Robertson, Heather, Bracken;
Lamont, Crab-tree, Heather; Macdougall, Heather, Pine, or Cypress;
Macfarlane, Heather, Cranberry, Cloudberry; Maclaughlan, Heather, Rowan,
Periwinkle; Macneil, Heather, Sea-ware, Trefoil, Dryas; Macnaughton,
Heather, Trailing Azalea; Macpherson, Heather, Box, or Red Whortleberry.
The custom of wearing sprigs as badges seems to
have fallen into desuetude for a time. Phillips, in his "Floral
Emblems," says it was revived when His Majesty visited his northern
capital in the year 1822. "His loyal Scottish subjects on that joyful
event paid their homage to their sovereign at the Palace of Holy-rood,
each wearing the heraldic emblem of his clan." He then gives a list of
the clan badges represented there.
Scott, in the "Pibroch of Donuil Dhu," pictures
the gathering of the clan Macdonald and the mingling of the badges thus:
Fast they come; fast they come; See how they
gather; Wide waves the eagle plume Blended with heather. Cast
your plaids; draw your blades; Forward each man set! Pibroch of
Donuil Dhu Knell for the onset.
The Lowlanders had good cause to become familiar
with those various badges; and a story is narrated, telling of a ruse by
which Prince Charles Edward once hoped to impose upon the citizens of
Glasgow, but which was defeated by means of that knowledge. He led
several parties of Highlanders through the Trongate, made them pass down
a bystreet, and, after a short detour, return through the Trongate,
apparently a new reinforcement. But the pine and the Heather were only
too well known to be mistaken by the sharp eyes of the citizens of St.
Mungo, who did not find it necessary to leave the Saut Market to know a
Macdonald from a Campbell.
Says a writer in Cornhill: "It is a matter of
wonder why the thistle, with its defiant motto, has been adopted as the
emblem of Scotland, rather than the Heather, which so regally mantles
its hills. The rigid angularities of the national character live indeed
in one; but the tender grace, the breadth of color, the fragility and
yet the endurance of the Heather, point to the higher and finer aspects
of the Scotch nature, and the deep affection and strength of will which
underlie it. The fact seems to be that until the Union, the aggressive,
prickly nature of the thistle naturally too aptly symbolized the rough
and warlike disposition of Scotland. Few sentiments save patriotism
found favor with its people before the middle of the eighteenth century.
They took no thought of poetry or the refinements of life when the sword
was at their throats and their ears rang with denunciation of Stuart or
Hanoverian. When this question was definitely settled, and commerce took
her place in peace upon her throne, border feud and national animosity
alike faded into the emotional love of country and home, which finds its
expression in so many beautiful ballads and songs, the slogan being
exchanged for those pathetic love songs which are the glory of Scotch
literature. The Heather was twisted in many a chaplet of song."
Despite the hold that the Heather has upon every
Scottish heart, it does not seem probable that it will ever supplant the
thistle as the national emblem of Scotland. The Heather was, however,
chosen by the Pan-Celtic Congress at its meeting in Glasgow in 1901, as
a symbolic flower, which all claiming to be of Celtic descent could
agree upon as their emblem.
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