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The Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay
Economics of the Heather - Besoms and Scrubbing Brushes

As has already been stated, the Heather derives its botanical appellation from the Greek Kalluno, to adorn, to sweep. This designation was given to the Calluna on account of its usefulness in the manufacture of besoms and other kitchen utensils.

The Heather harvest occurs in the early weeks of autumn. Then the Heather cutter and thatcher appear armed with thin-bladed knives and tarred string. The Heather is cut and tied in bundles; that for thatching being about two feet in length, and as much as one can grasp in the hand, while for besoms the sheaves are longer and thicker. Sometimes it is sent distances, and the railroad station is then beautified by trucks of brilliant blossoms, the bundles being packed stems inmost. Tiny sprays of Heather litter the iron way, and the bees not fortunate enough to have been sent to the hills hum their appreciation of the feast afforded them as they circle round the purple flowers.

But even the tramp, and the gypsy, "the heathen of the heath," have reason to bless the Heather, as it helps them to a livelihood by making of brooms, if only they can obtain or take the right of common wherever the Heather grows. In his "History of the Gypsies," William Simson tells us that among the chief occupations of the gypsies "a few of the colony employ themselves occasionally in making besoms, peat basses, etc., from heath, broom and bent, and sell them at Kelso and neighboring towns."

That their industry was not such as to put them in the millionaire class may be gleaned from one of the street cries of old Edinburgh as follows:

Fine heather reenges, better never grew;
Fine heather reenges, wha'll buy them noo?
Besoms for a penny, reenges for a plack;
If ye winna buy them, help them on my back.

Burns also gives us an idea of the profits of the business of besom making, which he evidently considered about the last extremity to which one in hard luck could reach. He thus tells Dr. Blacklock:

I hae a wife and twa wee laddies,
They mann hae brose and brats o' duddies,
Ye ken yersel my heart right proud is—
I need na vaunt,
But I'll sned besoms—thraw saugh woodies,
Before they want.

(The word "sned" signifies to cut brooms, to render "snod," or put in order. Sned is also Anglo-Saxon for a handle or shaft.)

It has been said that Heather stems have been imported into America, but very little of this material is received here.

In the southern counties of England the gypsies who vend the Heather besoms are named "broom squires." A story is narrated, and is referred to by Kingsley, to the following effect: At a county fair One "squire" demanded how the other could afford to undersell him by offering Heather brooms at one penny each, adding: 'I steals the Heather and I steals the stales (handles) and I steals the withs, but yet I can't sell mine under three ha'pence." "Ah!" says the other, "but I steals mine ready made."

In the Irish legend of "Smallhead and the King's Son," these two worthies metamorphosed themselves in the village on a market day into two Heather brooms, and set to work to brush up the road. The crowd acclaimed them as "the mercy of God," and as "a blessing from heaven sent to sweep the road for us." They then changed into two doves and took their flight.

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