The wives and daughters of the Highlanders found
in Heather a magnificent substitute for the dyes of our modern times. In
most of the Western Islands of Scotland they dyed their yarn of a yellow
color by boiling it in water with the green tops and flowers of the
plant, and woollen cloth boiled in alum water and afterward in a strong
decoction of the tops gave it a fine orange color. In the latter case
the Heather was pulled before flowering and from a dark, shady place.
For use in dyeing the plant should be mown or cut
when in flower, carefully dried and stacked until required.
The process of dyeing with vegetable home dyes,
says a writer in "Northern Notes and Queries," was to wash the thread
thoroughly in urine (long kept, and called in Gaelic "Fual"), then
rinsed and washed in pure water, then put into the boiling pot of dye,
which is kept hard aboil on the fire The thread is now and again lifted
out of the pot on the point of a stick and plunged back again until
thoroughly dyed. If blue the thread is washed in salt water and other
colors in fresh. The yarn is then hung out to dry and when dry is
gathered into balls, or dews, and is then ready for the weaver's loom.
"Tartan dyed in the Highlands 130 years ago, and used ever since,
exists, the green being purely from the Heather."
An old chronicler writing in 1603 on "Certayne
matters concerning Scotland," says that the inhabitants of the Western
Isles delighted "to wear marled cloathes especially that have long
stripes of sundry colours. Their predecessors used short mantles, or
plaids of divers colors, sundry ways divided, and amongst some the same
custom is observed to this day, but for the most part now they are brown
most near to the color of the hadder, to the effect when they lie among
the hadder, the bright colors of their plaids shall not bewray them."
Scott beautifully pictures a scene of this nature
in "The Lady of the Lake:"
A various scene the clansmen made:
some stood, some slowly strayed;
But most with mantles folded round,
Were couched to rest upon the ground,
Scarce to be known by curious
From the deep heather where they lie,
So well was matched
the tartan screen
With heath-bell dark and brackens green.
One or two writers state that in some of the
Western Islands of Scotland the inhabitants tanned their leather in a
strong decoction of Heather. Sowerby in his "Useful Plants of Great
Britain" says (with regard to this tanning process) : "The shoots are
employed for tanning leather, and though certainly inferior to many
articles of the kind, when properly prepared they form a good substitute
for oak bark and other astringents. In the year 1776 the Irish
Parliament valued this application of the plant so highly that a grant
of seven hundred pounds was made to a person who invented a new mode of
using heath in the preparation of leather."