Scottish Plant Lore

Entwined thou art wi mony ties.

| December/January 2002

—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.

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