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The Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay
Heather Lore - White Heather


"There is no more lovely plant than the White Heather."— George Sand.

But it is about the White Heather that sentiment most fondly lingers, and to which ding the most entrancing traditions and legends.

A writer in 'All the Year Round" devotes the following sketch to the tender virtues of this charming little plant: "In the Highlands of Scotland, where the White Heather is found at exceedingly rare intervals, it is looked upon as a bringer of luck, and in some parts of Scotland she would be thought a rash bride who went to church without it. There is a saying, 'Happy is the married life of her who wears the White Heather at her wedding.' Amongst those who go out early upon the hills to look for White Heather the saying is common, 'Who finds, keeps.' The searchers are many, but few find it, even when it is wanted to grace a bridal bouquet. There is a health, though, in the pursuit, so that the search itself is lucky, and it is so good-natured as to be a deceptive plant. A pale sprig here and there constantly deceives tourists on the hunt for it into thinking that they have stumbled upon real specimens. A blending of purple and blue is the familiar color of the Heather flower, but it is to be found in plenty in delicate tints that deceive the unknowing searcher."

Except in color, the White Heather does not differ from that which covers all the Highland hills. It is an ordinary flower, but in its virgin whiteness it stands out amongst clumps of purple like a tint spray of snow. They say in the far north that when the sheep—hardy devourers of the tender stem of the Heather—come across it in grazing they avoid harming it; that the grouse have never been known to crush it with their wings. On great occasions the table of a Highland chief would be poor indeed without its sprig of White Heather. When the heir presumptive reaches man's estate he wears it for luck; and it is considered the height of hospitality to present it to the stranger guest. If he loses it he may look out for disaster. A bouquet formed of this rare flower was carried by the youngest daughter of England's late Queen on the occasion of her marriage.

At the marriage of Prince Leopold in 1882 the bridesmaids wore headdresses composed of clusters of violets, primroses and White Heather, the tout ensemble being extremely tasteful in design.

Her Majesty, in her "Journal of Our Life in the Highlands," gives the following interesting account with reference to the betrothal of the Princess Royal:

"September 29, 1855

"Our dear Victoria was this day engaged to Prince Frederick William of Prussia, who had been on a visit to us since the r4th. He had already spoken to us, on the 20th, of his wishes, but we were uncertain on account of her extreme youth, whether he should speak to her himself or wait till he came back again. However, we felt it was better he should do so, and during our ride up Craig-na-Ban this afternoon he picked a piece of White Heather (the emblem of 'good luck'), which he gave to her, and this enabled him to make an allusion to his hopes and wishes as they rode down Glen Girnoch, which led to this happy conclusion."

The Queen also makes the following reference to the plant in describing her journey through Dunrobin Glen, Sutherlandshire: "Half way up we stopped to take tea and coffee; and before that Brown (who has an extraordinary eye for it, when driving quite fast, which I have not) espied a piece of White Heather and jumped off to pick it. No Highlander would pass by it without picking it, for it is considered to bring good luck."

William Black's novel entitled "White Heather" has been referred to several times in these pages. The following passages from that work are quoted, because they demonstrate most forcibly and interestingly the potency of the influence exerted by a tiny spray of White Heather on a life that well nigh was doomed to destruction. They also convey an idea of the difficulty experienced in finding White Heather on the Scottish hills; and although the tale is pure fiction, yet it is so instructive and so pregnant with real pathos and meaning approaching so near to real life, that this brief summary offers its own apology for its intrusion.

Meenie Douglas, the former lover of Ronald Strang, had received word from her friend in Glasgow, whither the young Highlander had gone to pursue his studies, that he was "drinking himself to death in the lowest of low company." She is filled with anguish and solicitude for the young man who had thus fallen on evil ways, and desired to render him her friendly help.

"But what could she do? All the day she pondered; all the evening and through the long silent and wakeful night. And when, at last, the gray of the dawn showed in the small window, she had selected one of these hundred bewildered plans and schemes; it seemed a fantastic thing that she was about to do. She would send him a piece of White Heather. He would know it came from her—he would recognize the postmark and also her handwriting. And if he took it as a message and an appeal, as a token of good wishes and friendliness, and the hope of better fortune? Or if—and here she fell a-trembling, for it was a little cold in these early hours—if he should take it as a confession, as an unmaidenly declaration? Oh, she did not care. It was all she could think of doing; and do something she must. And she remembered with a timid and nervous joy her own acknowledged influence over him—had not Maggie talked of it a thousand times? And if he were to recognize this message in its true light, what then? Ronald! Ronaldl her heart was still calling. with something of a tremulous hope amid all its grief and pity.

"She was out and abroad over the moorland long before any one was astir, searching with an anxious diligence, and yet without success. White Heather is not so frequently met with in the North as in the West Highlands, and yet in Sutherlandshire it is not an absolute rarity; many a time had she come across a tuft of it in her wanderings over the moors. But now, search as she might, she could not find the smallest bit; and time began to press, for this was the morning for the mail to go south—if she missed it she would have to wait for two more days. And as half-hour after half-hour went by she became more anxious and nervous and agitated; she went rapidly from knoll to knoll, seeking the likeliest places; and all in vain.

"It was a question of minutes now. She could hear the mail cart on the road behind her; soon it would pass her and go on to the inn, where it would remain but a brief while before setting out again for Lairg. And, presently, when the mail cart did come along and go by, then she gave up the quest in despair, and in a kind of bewildered way set out for home. Her heart was heavy and full of its disappointment, and her face was paler a little than usual, but at least her eyes told no tales.

"And then, all of a sudden, as she was crossing the Mudal Bridge, she caught sight of a little tuft of gray away along the bank and not far from the edge of the stream. At first she thought it was merely a patch of withered Heather; and then a wild hope possessed her. She quickly left the bridge and made her way toward it; and the next moment she was joyfully down on her knees, selecting the whitest spray she could find. And the mail cart—it would still be at the inn—the inn was little more than half a mile off. Could she run hard and intercept them after all, and send her white-dove message away to the south?"

The effect of the silent messenger on the recipient is thus pictured: "He opened the envelope and took out the bit of White Heather that Meenie had so hastily dispatched; there was no message, not the smallest scrap of writing. But was not this a message —and full of import, too—for surely Meenie would not have adopted the means of communicating with him at the mere instigation of an idle fancy? And why should she have sent it—and at this moment? Had she heard, then? Had any gossip about him reached Inver-Mudal? And how much had she heard? There was a kind of terror in his heart as he went slowly back to the window and sate down there, still staring absently at this token that had been sent him, and trying hard to make out the meaning of it. What was in Meenie's mind? What was her intention? Not merely to give him a sprig of White Heather, and wishes for good luck; there was more than that, as he easily guessed, but how much more? And at first there was little of joy or gladness in his thinking; there was rather fear, and a wondering as to what Meenie had heard of him, and a sickening sense of shame. The white gentleness of the message did not strike him; it was rather a reproach—a recalling of other days—Meenie's eyes were regarding him with proud indignation—this was all she had to say to him now."

The satisfactory result of the white-dove messenger's mission is thus told: "At the meeting she asked him to give up the drink. 'Well, it is easily promised, and easily done now; indeed, I've scarcely touched a drop since ever I got the bit of Heather you sent me.'"

White Heather means "Sincere affection, and unselfish love, and tender wishes, as pure as prayers," says Van Dyke; and with the parting words of the Mistress of the Glen, as recounted by that same charming writer, we take leave of Scotland's mystic mountain wilding: "Carry this little flower with you. It's not the bonniest blossom in Scotland, but it's the dearest for the message that it brings. And you will remember that love is not getting, but giving; not a wild dream of pleasure and a madness of desire—oh, no, love is not that—it is goodness and honor, and peace and pure living—yes, love is that; and it is the best thing in the world, and the thing that lives longest. And that is what I am wishing for you and yours with this bit of White Heather."


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