Scotland is the most mountainous country of the United Kingdom and the highlands are one of the most sparsely populated regions of Europe. Its hills are famous for being covered in heather, which, well suited to the wild and rugged conditions, spreads freely and abundently across five million acres.
The name heather is thought to come from the old Scottish word haeddre, which has been used as far back as the 14th century to describe the hardy plant with flowers that range in colour from white to pink and sometimes even red.
Heather’s reproductive capacity is very high and each tiny flower has around 30 seeds, making it possible for one large plant to produce up to 150,000 seeds per season. The plants are quite resistant to grazing, with reserve buds readily replacing any cut back by animals, and can survive temperatures as low as -32ºc (-18ºF) and as high as 38ºc (100ºF). There are many species of heather and the term is also loosely used to describe a number of short, woody plants with pink or purple flowers.
As one of Scotland’s national flowers, heather has its fair share of legends attached to it. White heather is believed to bring good luck to brides and it is said that in the 4th century AD, a Pictish King was thrown off a cliff by a Viking chief who wanted to obtain the secret recipe of the Pict’s heather ale.
As the story of heather goes, when God created the world he looked at the bare hillsides of Scotland and decided that a plant was needed to make the slopes more beautiful. He asked the Oak, the Honeysuckle and the Rose but none were able to live in the harsh conditions. By chance he came upon a small, low-lying shrub with tiny white and purple flowers. It was Heather and He asked “Will you grow on the hillsides to make them more beautiful?”. Heather was not sure if she could do the job but said she would try her best. God was so pleased that he bestowed three gifts upon her; the strength of the Oak, the fragrance of the Honeysuckle and the sweetness of the Rose. Today the bark of the heather plant is stronger than that of any other tree or shrub, the gentle fragrance is used to perfume soaps, cosmetics and potpourri and the sweetness makes heather one of the bee’s favourite flowers.
The most common type of heather is ‘ling’, which grows hard and fast on wet soil. White heather is rarest of the species and it is believed that it only grows on ground where blood has not been shed in battle. It is also said that is grows over the final resting place of faeries.
Common heather is a bushy plant that can grow to a metre (39 inches) tall. It has small, scale-like leaves with curled edges, which are arranged in opposite, cross-shaped pairs on branches. It produces small, usually purple flowers arranged in narrow spikes, which bloom from July to November.
Bell heather’s flowers are vivid purple colour in colour and form clusters up the plant’s stem. The leaves are short, dark and needle-like, borne in whorls of three. This heather is found in a variety of harsh habitats, including heathland, open woodland and even coastal areas.
Cross-leaved heath gets its name from the distinctive whorls of four leaves that occur along its stems. It is an evergreen shrub that can be found in wet heath or moorland and flowers between July and September. It’s bell-shaped flowers are clustered at the end of long, branched stems.
Over the centuries, heather has been put to a wide range of uses. It was used to line walls, thatch roofs, make ropes, fill mattresses, die cloth, make brooms and as medicine for a variety of conditions and ailments.
During the summer months the Scottish hills burst with colour, as the heather comes in to bloom. We decided to take a closer look at these beautiful colours and find out what really makes the colour of the Scottish hills so magical!