The bramble, as the common blackberry is known in Scotland, is a hedgerow stalwart. I’m sure many Scots of my generation will remember family days out to pick brambles on a late summer’s day, fingertips dyed crimson and wrists and ankles bearing at least one deep scratch, no matter how careful you’d been. The custom of bramble picking goes back thousands of years, and this humble plant, bane of gardeners everywhere, is steeped in folklore.
The bramble berries were our food,
The water was our wine,
And the linnet in the self same bush,
Came after us to dine.
And grow it in the woods sae green,
Or grow it on the brae,
We like to meet the bramble bush,
Where’er our footsteps gae.
Alexander Mackenzie, Historical Tales and Legends of the Highlands (1878)
The bramble was a valuable plant, with every part of it being put to use – the fruits for food, the roots and stems for dyeing, and the leaves for medicinal purposes. An infusion of the plant’s astringent leaves was used to treat snake bites, burns, dysentery, and diarrhoea. The constricting quality was said to be so strong that ‘its young shoots, when eaten as a salad, would fasten teeth that were loose’ (Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics by Richard Folkard, 1892). Several ailments were said to be cured by crawling on hands and knees under a bramble arch, rooted at both ends, including rheumatism, boils, and acne. To cure whooping cough, the sufferer must pass under the arch nine times ‘against the sun’, from west to east, repeating:
In bramble, out cough,
Here I leave the whooping cough.
To dream of passing through a bramble arch foretold trouble. If you were pricked by the thorns on the way through you would experience trouble with your friends, and if the thorns drew blood you were to expect heavy losses in trade. If you managed to make it through the brambles unhurt, you would be triumphant over your enemies.
‘An dris-mhuire beannaichte’, the blessed bramble, was hung above the lintels of cattle sheds along with lengths of ivy and rowan branches. The thorny vines perhaps added a physical counterpart to the intangible magic of the ivy and rowan, both well known protective charms.
The most common folk tale surrounding brambles is the warning not to eat the fruit after Michaelmas Day, the feast of the archangel Saint Michael. This is the day on which he cast Lucifer out of heaven, and Lucifer landed in a bramble thicket and cursed the brambles and spat on them. As is so often the case, these folktales have their roots in common sense. By Michaelmas, at the end of September, the bramble berries become flyblown and start to rot. They can subsequently be infected by various moulds, rendering them inedible, and the bitter taste of the tannin in the fruit becomes much stronger and unpleasant.
In a similar story from Greek mythology, the arrogant Bellerophon dared to ride Pegasus to the heights of Mount Olympus, enraging the Gods. Zeus sent a gadfly to sting Pegasus, who then bucked and sent Bellerophon flying through the sky until he eventually landed in a bramble bush, which blinded him. He lived the rest of his life as an outcast, in misery.
In Scottish mythology, it is the bogle who spits or even pees on the bramble berries to discourage you from eating them. Similar to the English puck, and the Irish púca, a bogle is, ‘a freakish spirit, who delights rather to perplex and frighten mankind than either to serve or seriously to hurt them‘ (from Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales by George Douglas). In Popular Tales of the West Highlands, J. F. Campbell tells of a young baron of Badenoch who stumbles across a bogle with a red hand, its fingers dripping with bramble juice. The baron reports the bogle for stealing fruit, and the creature is punished. After receiving his punishment, the bogle returns to the brambles and defiles them in a fit of rage.
Assuming no one’s peed on your brambles and you’ve picked them before Michaelmas Day, here’s my favourite bramble jam recipe.
Bramble Jam with Apple and Cinnamon
- 600 g cooking apples, peeled and chopped
- 125 ml water
- 600 g blackberries
- 2 heaped tbsps ground cinnamon
- 1 kg granulated sugar
- juice of 1 lemon
- 1/2 tsp butter
- Wash your bramble berries, picking out any foliage or twigs. Leave to drain in a sieve or colander while you prep your jars.
- Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F. Clean 5 450g glass jars and lids, scrubbing them in hot soapy water and rinsing well. Place the wet jars in the oven to dry out. Turn off the oven after ten minutes and leave the jars in there until you're ready to use them - keeping the jars hot ensures the glass won't crack when you pour the hot jam into them.
- Put a few small plates into the freezer. You'll use these for testing the setting point of the jam.
- Add the chopped apples and the water to a large pan and warm over medium heat for a few minutes. Add the bramble berries and cinnamon. Cook for five minutes, or until the bramble berries have released their juices.
- Add the sugar and the lemon juice to the pan and stir well until the sugar has completely dissolved (about five minutes). Bring the mixture to a boil, and maintain a rolling boil (approx 104°C) for 15 minutes.
- Take one of your small plates out of the freezer and spoon a teaspoon of hot jam on to it. Allow it to cool, then run a finger through the centre of your jam puddle. If the jam is set, it will hold its shape and the channel you made with your finger will remain clear. If the channel floods, your jam is too runny. Return it to the heat for a few minutes before testing it again.
- Once your jam has reached setting point, turn off the heat and add the half teaspoon of butter to the pan. Stir until dissolved. The butter causes any scum or foam that formed on the surface of the jam to dissipate.
- Take your jars out of the oven and place on a heat proof mat. Carefully fill the jars with the jam mix. I find it easiest to first tip the hot jam into a large measuring jug, and fill the jars from that. Screw the lids on tightly.