Scottish Plant Lore

Entwined thou art wi mony ties.

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A broom made of broom (Cytisus scoparius) was often thought to “sweep away bad luck.”

Photo by Christopher Hobbs

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—words from the popular Scottish tune, “The Rowan Tree”

Soon after we married, my wife took in a foster cat named Sweet William. My wife was outraged when I began calling him Stinking Willie. I could only explain that in Scotland, my ancestral homeland, the beautiful flowers called sweet William (Dianthus barbatus) aren’t considered sweet. They are named for William, Duke of Cumberland, who ruthlessly butchered the clans on Culloden Moor. In our house, Sweet William the cat remained Stinking Willie.

Stinking Willies are part of Scotland’s vast herbal lore. Like other Celtic cultures, Scots identify with plants on a visceral level. Early in their history, each of the Scottish clans established a spiritual relationship with a local plant, an honor reserved for animals in other cultures. Well into the eighteenth century, warriors wore sprigs of their clan herb on their bonnets for identification in combat. My clan wore cotton grass (Eriophorum spp.). Our MacDonald allies sported heather (Calluna vulgaris) in honor of their native Skye, the Heather Isle. MacLeod, a mutual enemy, wore juniper (Juniperus spp.). Plant badges greatly predate clan tartans, which were only conjured up in the mid-nineteenth century, and speak to the emphasis that traditional Scottish cultures place on herbs and nature.

Heather in history

The most famous Scottish herb is heather, a low-growing, tiny-leaved shrub that causes whole Highland counties to blaze ruddy purple during its late-spring bloom. A major dyestuff, heather was used in times past to create Scotland’s famous tweeds and tartans. Its flowering tips are a folk healing staple and the basis of a rare honey. Legend has it that the Picts, Scotland’s shadowy aboriginal people, brewed a heather ale described by Robert Louis Stevenson as “ . . . sweeter far than honey . . . stronger far than wine.”

Roman scouts reported that this brew made Pictish warriors wild, suggesting that it may also have contained hallucinogenic herbs. The last Pictish chief is said to have been captured by the Scots and threatened with torture unless he divulged the recipe for the famous ale. He agreed, on condition that his two sons be killed to save them witnessing his disgrace. This was done, whereupon the old man crowed, “Ha! You might have broken my sons, but you will never break me!” And they never did. The indomitable old Caledonian took the recipe to his grave.

A more pedestrian explanation for the demise of heather ale is a 1707 law outlawing its sale. The law was peddled as a public health measure but viewed in Scotland as another English attack on Scottish culture. Although the ban is still on the books, a Glasgow brewery resurrected heather ale in 1992, paying Highlanders to gather the wild ingredients from the hills. It has become a source of national pride.

Thyme and rue

Prior to the arrival of St. Columba in the sixth century, Scotland relied on the ancient druid priesthood for spiritual guidance. The druids believed that virtually every plant in Northern Europe exerted influence over other life forms. To this day, Scots retain an innate collective memory of this complex faith.

A knowledge of druid lore helps us understand Kellyburn Braes, a bardic poem preserved by Robert Burns in 1792. In it, a man barters his wife to the devil. The lady proves the stronger, however, and the devil returns her. In each quatrain are the lines “Hey and the rue grows bonnie wi’ thyme/And the thyme it is wither’d, the rue is in prime.” The druids believed wild thyme (Thymus polytrichus) attracted spirits. Rue (Ruta graveolens) was ascribed powerful anti-magical properties, perhaps because toads, known frequenters of the underworld, avoid it. To Scots, a sickly tuft of thyme shot through with robust rue makes a clear statement: even the devil has his afflictions.

Yew: circle of eternity

According to legend, a child was born to a Roman officer posted to Fortingall, Perthshire, and his Pictish wife, somewhere around the year 1 a.d. Posterity might have forgotten the boy had he not grown up to be governor of Judaea at a particularly delicate moment. As it is, Scotland may have the dubious honor of counting Pontius Pilate among its expatriates.

If true, little Pontius may have played amid the trunks of the Fortingall yew. He certainly would have known the tree, now reckoned the oldest in Europe. In fact, it would have been alive a mere 1,000 years at that time.

Yew (Taxus baccata) owes the deep respect Scots accord it to its strength, its winter-scorning needles and red berries (red was a powerful color to the druids), and its wondrous longevity. A multi-trunked, shrubby affair, yew is the source of wood for longbows. This explains its association with the prominent clan Fraser, whose members for centuries cut bow blanks and yew badges at Tomnahurich (“hill of the yews”), by the Ness River.

To the ancients, Tomnahurich with its abundant yews was an island in time that straddled worlds. Among the many tales about it is an Irving-esque yarn about two eighteenth-century pipers who dozed after carousing with Tomnahurich’s native fairies, only to wake in an alien, unkilted Scotland where few understand Gaelic. Older still is the contention that thirteenth-century seer Thomas the Rhymer lies beneath the roots of Tomnahurich’s yews, and beside him an entire army, horses and all. In Scotland’s darkest hour, Thomas and company will explode from the earth and save the nation.

It’s easy to understand how yew was believed to be eternal. It grows only about one foot every 300 years, slowly enough that it seems not to grow at all. Its inner trunks die and decompose, leaving a circle of outer ones up to eight feet wide. Yew is associated with the afterlife and is still a common graveyard tree in Scotland. In fact, Tomnahurich’s yews have shaded burial grounds off and on for millennia. Today, Tomnahurich remains half-wild and densely forested. The headstones add to the spirit-crossed, otherworldly quality of this primeval sanctuary, still hush-inspiring despite encroaching Inverness suburbs.

Herbal heritage

Most Scottish songs and poems mention herbs in some context. Say “rowan” (Sorbus aucuparia, also called mountain ash) to a roomful of Scots, and someone will inevitably sing a few bars of “The Rowan Tree.” Another may recall the gateyard rowan at Liddesdale’s Hermitage Castle, said to cork up evil spirits in its blood-steeped walls. Someone else may remember an elder’s warning not to cross a rowan’s shadow.

Broom (Cytisus scoparius) elicits memories of beer brewed in broomy districts, or the adage that a broom broom sweeps away bad luck. Folk singers perform “Ye Bonnie Bush O’ Broom.”.

Nettle (Urtica spp.) invokes poet Thomas Campbell, who wrote, “In Scotland, I have eaten nettles, I have slept in nettle sheets and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth.” A bouquet of nettles is a reproach. “Dinna nettle me!” Scots warn critics. A few rounds of this, and even a barroom full of taciturn, skeptical Scots will soften.