I note that there has been a revival of interest in Scottish (or is
it Irish?) ‘heather beer’ in recent times. The method of preparation of this
almost-mythical beverage was said to have been a national secret amongst the
ancient Celtic race of Picts, the secret dying out with its last leader, who
gave up his sons rather than the recipe to their conquerors. The story was
immortalised in a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, and I give his version to you
at the end of the post. Here is the legend as repeated in Notes and Queries (Oxford University Press, 1863)
“The name of
this place is Garrywhin, and a tradition exists in connection with it, which
says that here the last of the Picts existed. The story goes on to say that the
race of Picts was reduced to three persons - an old blind man and his two sons;
but before continuing the story it is necessary to mention that a notion still
exists that the Picts made ale from heather, and that it can still be made,
only we want the knowledge of any barm or yeast suited for it. Now the Picts
were said to have guarded this secret with great care from the race that
succeeded them, and it seems that these three poor Picts were much persecuted
by their conquerors, who wished to get possession of their secret. At last the
old man, worried almost to death by being so frequently urged to reveal what
barm would suit ‘heather crop,’ consented to tell on condition that his two
sons should first be put to death. To this proposal the cruel conquerors
readily consented. The sons were slain, but the old man, wishing some of his
oppressors to shake hands after they had completed their bargain, they became
suspicious of his intentions, and held out to him the bone of a horse's leg,
which, with a firm grasp of his old withered hand, he crushed to powder. Made
aware by this that it was not over safe to shake hands with the old fellow,
they kept at a respectful distance, but still insisted that he should now
reveal his secret according to bargain, but they could get nothing out of him
but the doggrel couplet which we often still hear repeated -
Brochwhin well out and well in,
And barm for
heather crop you'll find therein,'
mentioned here as Brochwhin is a glen close by, and the tradition is still
Another version of the story has it that the old man had but one
son, and (fearing that his son would relinquish the secret) made the bargain –
and then, the sacrifice done, ‘the stern
Pict told his enemies that they might also put him to death, for he could never
be prevailed on to disclose a secret known only to himself’, in response to which, ‘the enraged Scots, as
may be supposed, speedily sacrificed the obstinate captive.’
Other stories say it was the Danes who took the method of making
heather beer to Ireland in the ninth century, or that perhaps it was an ancient
Roman invention. We will likely never know the truth of its origins, but
whatever they were, the concept was remarkably enduring.
It seems that the recipe did not completely die out with the Picts
however, as heather beer may still have been made in some isolated regions of
Scotland in the latter half of the eighteenth century. The Rev. John
Lightfoot', author of the extraordinarily comprehensive Flora Scotica in 1777 wrote of the many uses to which the canny
Scots put the common heather. He said:
“Formerly the young tops are said to have been used to brew a kind
of ale, and even now I was informed that the inhabitants of Isla and Jura still continue to brew a very potable liquor by mixing
two-thirds of the tops of hather [sic] to one-third of malt.”
Heather beer persisted yet further. A correspondent to the edition
of Notes and Queries mentioned above,
published in 1863, said:
“Heather beer, or ale, is still occasionally brewed in Scotland. I
have drunk it within these last four years in the Lamermoors. It is brewed from
the heather blossoms, and is very light, pleasant, and sparkling.”
I don’t know what happened to the production of heather beer between this
mid-nineteenth century report and the present day, so cannot say whether the
recently publicised commercial venture to manufacture it represents the
resurrection of a completely dead method of beer-making, or the renaissance of
an almost-dead one. It has generated sufficient interest however that the
Guardian recently published a recipe for what they called a ‘Viking’ heather
beer, which you can find here.
As my own recipe offering for the day, I give you a nice take on the
idea of Welsh Rarebit, from a classic Scottish cookery book:
Grate a quarter of a pound
of good cheese, put it into a sauce-pan, with a bit of butter the size of a
nutmeg, and half a tea-cupful of milk, stir it over the fire till it boil, and
then add a well-beaten egg; mix it all together, put it into a small dish, and
brown it before the fire; or serve it without being browned.
The Practice of Cookery: Adapted to
the Business of Every Day Life (Edinburgh, 1830),
Quotation for the Day.
The story of heather ale was
immortalised by the writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)
From the bonny bells of
They brewed a drink
Was sweeter far than honey,
Was stronger far than wine.
They brewed it and they drank
And lay in a blessed swound
For days and days together
In their dwellings
There rose a king in
A fell man to his foes,
He smote the Picts in battle,
He hunted them like roes.
Over miles of the red
He hunted as they fled,
And strewed the dwarfish
Of the dying and the dead.
Summer came in the country,
Red was the heather bell;
But the manner of the brewing
Was none alive to tell.
In graves that were like
On many a mountain head,
The Brewsters of the Heather
Lay numbered with the dead.
The king in the red moorland
Rode on a summer's day;
And the bees hummed, and the
Cried beside the way.
The king rode, and was angry,
Black was his brow and pale,
To rule in a land of heather
And lack the Heather Ale.
It fortuned that his vassals,
Riding free on the heath,
Came on a stone that was
And vermin hid beneath.
Rudely plucked from their
Never a word they spoke:
A son and his aged father -
Last of the dwarfish folk.
The king sat high on his
He looked on the little men;
And the dwarfish and swarthy
Looked at the king again.
Down by the shore he had
And there on the giddy brink
"I will give you life,
For the secret of the
There stood the son and
And they looked high and low;
The heather was red around
The sea rumbled below.
And up and spoke the father,
Shrill was his voice to hear:
"I have a word in
A word for the royal ear.
"Life is dear to the
And honour a little thing;
I would gladly sell the
Quoth the Pict to the King.
His voice was small as a
And shrill and wonderful
"I would gladly sell my
Only my son I fear.
"For life is a little
And death is nought to the
And I dare not sell my honour
Under the eye of my son.
Take HIM, O king, and bind
And cast him far in the deep;
And it's I will tell the
That I have sworn to
They took the son and bound
Neck and heels in a thong,
And a lad took him and swung
And flung him far and strong,
And the sea swallowed his
Like that of a child of ten;
And there on the cliff stood
Last of the dwarfish men.
"True was the word I
Only my son I feared;
For I doubt the sapling
That goes without the beard.
But now in vain is the
Fire shall never avail:
Here dies in my bosom
The secret of Heather Ale.”