cotland’s history is rich with plant lore, and archaeological evidence dates the earliest recorded use of natural remedies in the country to the bronze age. A few hundred years ago in Scotland, as in many other places, most ailments were relieved by concoctions of herbs and plants, and healing was sought in roots, stones, shells, and other natural objects – a little superstition never hurt anyone!
The thistle that most people are familiar with, with its purple crown and shiny spiked leaves, is the milk thistle, silybum marianum. Milk thistle can be used as a natural treatment for liver problems and gall bladder disorders, and has even been cited as a hangover cure.
The thistle was adopted as an emblem of Scotland at the Battle of Largs in 1263. Legend has it that the invading Norse army were attempting to sneak up on a Scots encampment under cover of darkness, and were doing so quite successfully until one barefooted Norse soldier stood on a thistle. The prickles stuck in his foot and caused him to cry out in pain, alerting the Scots to the presence of the Norse army. The Scots were eventually victorious, and the thistle has been a national symbol ever since.
As easily recognisable a symbol of Scotland as the thistle, heather is a prolific plant on the hills and moors of our bonny land. It’s been put to many uses over the years, as an alternative to thatch, soaked in water to make a dye, twisted into strong rope, boiled for tanning leather, dried and dyed to make jewellery, stuffed inside beds to make ‘refreshing and healthy’ mattresses, and fermented to make ale. Medicinally, heather has a myriad of uses, including as a diuretic and an antiseptic, and ointment of heather is used to treat arthritis and gout.
The idea that white heather is lucky has been given a few explanations, the first and simplest being that it is the rarest colour of naturally growing heather and thus to find it is a stroke of luck, much like the four leaf clover. More fanciful notions say that white heather alone will grow on the resting places of fairies, or that white heather will only grow on patches of ground where no blood has been shed, a difficult thing to find in a country that has played host to so many battles.
Let them boast of Arabia, oppressed
By the odour of myrrh on the breeze;
In the isles of the East and the West
That are sweet with the cinnamon trees:
Let the sandal-wood perfume the seas,
Give the roses to Rhodes and to Crete,
We are more than content, if you please,
With the smell of bog-myrtle and peat!
–from Ballad of Mine Own Country, by Andrew Lang.
Often referred to as Scotland’s tea tree, bog myrtle, as the name suggests, is a small shrub that grows in the acidic soil of peat bogs around Scotland. Its resinous foliage has been used in Scotland as an insect repellant, particularly against the dreaded midge, for centuries. Its leaves were used in linen presses to repel moths and in beds to repel fleas. Essential oil extracted from the shrub has antibacterial properties and can be used to treat acne and other skin conditions, and a tea made from the leaves is used to expel worms, as a fever remedy, and as a cure for ulcers. The Vikings used the tea to treat depression.
Bog myrtle was believed to keep away mischievous fairies, and sprigs or wreaths of it were hung over the beds of children that were suspected to have been bewitched by the fairy folk. It was once used as an ingredient in gruit, a herb mixture used for bittering and flavouring beer. Gruit was eventually replaced by hops because bog myrtle was found to increase hangovers and cause severe headaches. It’s been suggested that the Norse berserkers would drink copious amounts of gruit beer the night before going in to battle, and their unusually aggressive and frenzied behaviour was a side effect of these headaches. In Denmark and Sweden, bog myrtle leaves are still used to flavour home made schnapps.
Known as the bluebell in Scotland and the harebell elsewhere in the British Isles, this slender plant with its blue or violet bell shaped blooms is one of Scotland’s best known wild flowers. Bluebells are woodland flowers and require very little sunlight to grow, so they are often found carpeting the forest floor where few other plants can thrive in the dim light.
The bells of the plant are thought to call the fairies when disturbed, and to walk through a carpet of bluebells is considered very foolish since fairies are known to weave their spells amongst the flowers. However, if you can escape the fairies and turn one of the flowers inside out without tearing it, you will win the one you love.
The sticky sap of the bluebell was once used to attach feathers to arrows, known as fletching, and as a glue for book binding. In Elizabethan times, the bulbs were crushed to provide a stiffening agent for ruffs and collars. A bluebell laid on a pillow is thought to prevent nightmares, and a person who wears a bluebell will be compelled to speak only the truth.
Nettles are part of the genus urtica, which appropriately means ‘burning’. The leaves and stem of the plant are covered with tiny hairs which, when brushed against, break off and stick in the skin of the unfortunate victim, releasing histamine and other irritants and causing a burning, stinging sensation. The cure for a nettle sting is something a Scottish child learns at a very early age – rub it with a dock leaf! It is said that grasping the nettle from the side avoids breaking the hairs and allows the plant to be picked without inflicting any stings, but frankly the practice required to perfect this technique isn’t worth the inevitable pain!
Despite its viciousness, nettle has many practical uses. The iron rich leaves can be eaten like spinach (soaking nettles in water removes the stinging chemicals from the plant, allowing them to be handled and eaten without injury), or dried and used to make tea. The medicinal uses of the plant are extensive, ranging from the treatment of kidney disorders to aiding blood coagulation to controlling dandruff. Urtication, the process of deliberately applying nettle stings to the skin to provoke inflammation, is an old folk remedy for rheumatism or arthritis, providing temporary relief from the pain of either.
Nettle fibres can be woven to make a strong and hard wearing fabric similar to linen, and the roots and leaves yield yellow and green dyes, respectively.
Perhaps the least well known of all the plants mentioned here, gorse, also known as furze or whin, is a thorny evergreen plant with bright yellow flowers, known for its resilient nature. It can be ground for use as a winter feed for livestock, and makes an efficient fuel that yields alkali rich ash, which can be used for laundry, or mixed with clay as a substitute for soap.
There are three species of gorse, all of which have slightly different and overlapping flowering seasons, so to the casual observer it seems like the plant is always in bloom. This apparent perpetual flowering gave rise to the saying when the gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of fashion. Brides add a sprig of gorse bloom to their bouquets in reference to this, a symbol of the plant’s unending fertility.
In the Celtic tradition, gorse is one of the sacred woods burned on the Beltane bonfires through which livestock would be led for purification and protection.
All year round the whin
Can show a blossom or two
But it’s in full bloom now.
As if the small yolk stain
From all the birds’ eggs in
All the nests of the spring
Were spiked and hung
Everywhere on bushes to ripen.
— from Whinlands, by Seamus Heaney