Scotland’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. As recently as a few hundred years ago, most ailments were relieved by concoctions of herbs and plants and the healer’s medicine cabinet was stocked entirely from nature. Many of the stories of Scotland’s defining moments are punctuated with mentions of plants and flowers, and the folklore associated with them is woven into the history of the country.
The thistle that most people are familiar with, with its purple crown and shiny spiked leaves, is the milk thistle, silybum marianum. In Plant Lore, Lyrics, and Legends, Richard Folkard states that it arrived in Scotland when Mary Queen of Scots first planted it on the rocky cliffs near Dumbarton Castle. Milk thistle can be used as a treatment for liver problems and gall bladder disorders and has even been cited as a hangover cure.
The cotton thistle was adopted as an emblem of Scotland at the Battle of Largs in 1263. Legend has it that the invading Norse army was attempting to sneak up on a Scots encampment under cover of darkness, and was 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 the country. It’s been put to many uses over the years: as an alternative to roofing thatch, soaked in water to make a dye, twisted into strong rope, boiled for tanning leather, dried and dyed to make jewellery, fermented to make ale, and used as mattress stuffing. In The Heather in Lore, Lyric, and Lay, Alexander Wallace recounts:
A Heather bed in the full beauty of its purple flowers, newly gathered, and skillfully packed close together, is as fragrant and luxurious a couch as any Sybarite could desire.
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. The 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 schnapps.
This slender plant with its blue or violet bell shaped blooms is one of Scotland’s best-known wildflowers. 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 bookbinding. 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’s said that grasping the nettle from the side avoids breaking the hairs and allows the plant to be picked without inflicting any stings, but the pain from the practice required to perfect this technique might not be worth it.
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.
Also known as furze or whin, gorse is a thorny evergreen with bright yellow, vanilla-scented 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. In Mrs Grieve’s Herbal she notes that a tea of gorse blooms aids in the relief of scarlet fever, and can also be used to counteract jaundice.
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. In days past, brides would add a sprig of gorse bloom to their bouquets in reference to this, a symbol of the plant’s unending fertility.