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Heather

Heather is the 16th letter of the Gaelic tree alphabet, the third vowel, U, as it was ur in old Gaelic. It is Fraoch in modern Gaelic, and there are three species in Scotland. You can do with heather pretty much everything that we tend to do with plastics these days, plus it smells gorgeous, provides bees with their most delicious honey and can be used to make fantastic beer. This generosity is the basis of the folklore surrounding this most widespread shrub, an icon of Scottish moorland and woodland understory.

Here's a poem I wrote after spending an afternoon in the woods with the children from Lochinver and Stoer primary schools.

What’s the weather today?

The weather’s a splash of scent.
The weather wears princess pink.
The weather feels featherbed springy.
The weather’s a rustly bluster.
The weather is wet but it’s yummy as honey.
It’s heather weather!

Snippets of Lore

Here are the titbits of fact and folklore about heather tweeted by @cybercrofter on 16 December 2011.

Heather is the 16th letter of the Gaelic tree alphabet. U, ur in old Gaelic, Fraoch in modern Gaelic.

There are three species of heather in Scotland.

Heather species 1: English – ling. Gaelic - fraoch gorm (blue heather). Latin- Calluna vulgaris. Nickname – he-heather.

Heather species 2: English – bell heather. Gaelic - fraoch dearg (red heather). Latin - Erica cinerea. Nickname – she-heather.

Heather species 3: English – bog heather. Gaelic – fraoch-an-ruinnse (washing up heather). Latin - Erica tetralix). Nickname – cross-leaved heath.

Norman MacCaig Bell Heather poem http://www.heraldscotland.com/books-and-poetry/poem-of-the-day/bell-heather-1.1121856

Each heather plant can make 100,000 seeds, which can survive for 100 years.

Underground, heather roots, like those of many plants, depend upon a relationship with a microscopic fungus: rhizoscyphus ericae.

Bees love heather and it's a very important late season crop for stocking up  for winter.

The Scottish wild cat is sometimes called the Heather Cat.

A heather tree can live up to 30 years.

One of rural Scotland's greatest controversies is muir-burning, torching heather in spring for pasture or grouse.

'Of all Scottish wild plants the prize usefulness must surely go to heather'. Tess Darwin.

Heather flowers have been used since ancient times in place of hops for making beer.

The heather house:  it is used for thatching roofs, for wall insulation and flooring mats, and even  to sweep the chimney!

Heather bunches, flowers up, stuffed into a bed frame, makes a bed that 'may vie in softness with the finest down’.

A heather pillow helps you sleep.

According to Taliesin, heather 'gives consolation to the toil-spent folk.'

Dry heather is a brilliant fire lighter.

Bog heather makes a great scouring brush (hence its Gaelic name fraoch-an-ruinnse (rinsing heather). 

Heather is woven into baskets called cubbies and used for making strong, rough ropes. 

Stuff your jacket with heather – it's a bit prickly, but it'll keep you warm! 

Heather is used as bedding for sheep and cattle.

Heather can be woven into fences, and combined with fleece, makes a good wet-ground path surface.

Heather roots were used for ceremonial knife handles. They make good nails and pegs.

Heather roots and stems are still used for making jewellery. http://heathergems.com/

Heather - strain your tatties with it.

Heather was used for tanning leather.

Heather flowers produce yellow dye. Odd, isn't it?

A formerly important Highland industry was burning heather with kelp to produce potassium chloride and sulphate.

If sheep eat too much heather they get heather-blindness.

Drink heather flower tea if you are nervous or have a headache

Heather-tip tea was a favourite of Robbie Burns.

An 18th century Act of Parliament banned non-hop beer, but its production carried on in Scotland in secret.

Heather represents generosity of spirit and great passion.

The scent of heather eases period pains and migraines.

I can't find Ted Hughes' Heather poem on the web, but it's worth reading!

A sprig of white heather (fraoch geal) brings good luck.

Queen Victoria made white heather famous when she was given it on her engagement to Prince Fred of Prussia.

Old Gaelic name (ur) means new. Heather symbolises reincarnation in some traditions.

'Burning the water', was a way of luring salmon to the surface with burning heather at night.

Country people are called 'heather-lowpers' in urban Scots.

A vagabond is a 'hide-i-the-heather'.

Proverb: Hard as the heather, lasting as the pine.

Proverb: Better the smoke of the heather than the wind of frost.

It's an old belief was that burning heather induces rain in spring. Does it seed clouds?

Heather is linked to the white goddess of love.

Bees are a Celtic symbol of wisdom, and heather, feeding them, is thus a source of wisdom.

Where would we be without a bit of weather forecasting? Prolific heather flowers presage a hard winter. 

My heather weather poem is up on heather's page already. http://mandyhaggith.worldforests.org/index.asp?pageid=359153

The Last Pict plunged to his death off a cliff rather than give up the secret recipe for heather ale.

Finally, the full Heather Ale legend, as told by Robert Louis Stevenson. http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/2026/

The next tree in the alphabet is aspen.

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