The wild flag iris was a traditional natural dye used for both tartan and tweed. The roots were harvested and processed with bog iron or copperas as a mordant to make either black or dark blue dyes; they were also made into ink. The leaves were also made into dyes for tartans and tweed providing a bright green dye when mixed with alum as mordant.
The roots were also used medicinally in many parts of the Highlands. In his 'History of Scottish Medicine', (1932) John D Comrie speaks of their use as a laxative by Gaels in the Middle Ages. The author Martin Martin (c. 1660-1719) from Bealach in Skye, in his famous work 'A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland Circa 1695', first published in 1793, writes of iris roots being dried and ground into a powder for use as snuff to treat headaches and colds. Martin's book was used by Boswell and Johnson during their famous tour of the Western Isles in 1773 and is still in print today.
In Greek mythology Iris was the messenger of the gods, she is also said to have brought the souls of women to the land of Eternal Peace. This could be why they were often planted near graves.
Fleur de lis vitrail chapelle, Royale Versailles
Jebulon, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
The plant is the origin of an important heraldic symbol, the fleur-de-lis, the use of which dates back into antiquity. Around 1060 it was adopted by the French Kings as a heraldic symbol. It has featured in the Royal Arms of Scotland, since the time of James I of Scotland (1394-1437).
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Sorbus aucuparia (Sheerwater Seedling), family Rosaceae
The Rowan is at the heart of Scottish plant lore, associated with all areas of life and culture. It has several practical uses - dyes, food, medicine. Our elders believed a heavy berry crop in autumn foretold many births the following year. It was believed to protect against evil, the devil, witches, death and disease; hence it was often seen planted near the house. Even today in parts of west Scotland foresters and gardeners refuse to cut the plant down.
Many of the nation's famous poets and song writers have written about its qualities including Robert Burns. However perhaps the best remembered work is that of the Scottish song writer Lady Carolina Nairne (1766-1845), a Jacobite laird's daughter, born Gask, Perthshire.
The Rowan Tree
Oh! Rowan Tree Oh! Rowan Tree, thou'lt aye be dear to me
Intwin'd thou art wi mony ties o' hame and infancy.
Thy leaves were aye the firt o' spring, the flow'rs the simmers's pride;
There was nae sic a bonny tree, in a' the countryside.
Oh! Rowan Tree.
Renowned Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) wrote about it in his acrostic work 'Lullaby for Lucy' (1980), celebrating the birth of Lucy Rendall of Rackwick, the first baby born on the island for 32 years. This was set to music by English composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davis, who had adopted Orkney as his home.
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, photograph by Gunnie Moberg.
Courtesy of the Hoy Kirk Heritage Centre.
This was set to music by English composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davis, who had adopted Orkney as his home.
Lullaby for Lucy
Let all plants and creatures of the valley now / Unite
Calling a new / Young one to join the celebration.
Rowan and lamb and waters salt and sweet
Entreat the / New child to the brimming
Dance of the valley / A pledge and a promise.
Lonely they were long, the creatures of Rackwick, till
Lucy came among them, all brightness and light.
The fruits were mixed with madder to make traditional black and orange dyes for use in the manufacture of tartans and tweed. They were also made into jelly, a fermented punch and medicine for whooping cough. Also the plant badge of several clans including Clan Scrimgeour, Clan Wigan and Clan MacLachlan, it is no wonder with such strong cultural links that the seed was taken to other parts of the world by departing Scots who hoped to grow a reminder of home in foreign lands. Next to the thistle it is undoubtedly one of the best living emblems of homecoming.
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White Rose of Scotland (Scots Rose, Burnet Rose)
Rosa spinosissima (Syn. Rosa pimpinellifolia), family Rosaceae
Throughout Britain, Europe and Asia it is found on coastal sand dunes and limestone heath. Next to the thistle, Rosa spinosissima is probably our most emblematic native plant. It has been used as a Scottish emblem since Charles Edward Stuart or 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' (1720-1788) and may have been the source of the Jacobite white cockade.
Flag of Prince Charles Edward Stuart
MrPenguin20, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
"The rose of all the world is not for me.
I want for my part
Only the little white rose of Scotland.
That smells sharp and sweet - and breaks the heart."
This tough reliable rose is the parent of many good garden hybrids which have a strong fragrance. One particularly old variety with double purple-lilac flowers named 'Mary Queen of Scots' is said to have been brought to Scotland by Mary Stuart (1542-1587) from France in 1561.
The Ancient Romans strewed roses over their dead and graves. This resulted in Hecate, Goddess of the underworld, being depicted wearing a rose garland. In early Christianity roses had a mystical quality and were central to ceremonies surrounding birth, marriage and death. In the Islamic world rose water was used to purify the mosque.
Roses also have a long history as an emblem and are regularly seen in heraldry. For example the white rose is the plant badge of the Clan Keith which dates back to the time Malcolm II (died 1034) and the Battle of Barrie in 1010. David I (c.1080-1153) granted the family lands in Lothian in 1150. Later Robert the Bruce (1274-1329) granted the hereditary Marischal Earldom to Sir Robert Keith after the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
George Keith, the 4th Earl Marischal (c.1553-1623) founded Marischal college in Aberdeen and negotiated the marriage of James VI to Anne of Denmark. However Earldom and much of the land was lost following the clans support of the Jacobite cause.
The plant is associated with tartan - the small black hips grown each autumn produce juice which provides a peachy dye if used on its own, and a beautiful purple shade when mixed with alum.
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Filipendula ulmaria (Flore Pleno), family Roseaceae
Native to Britain, meadowsweet can also be found throughout Europe and parts of Asia. When processed and mixed with a mordant such as bog iron, urine or alum, the roots of the plant provide a range of different coloured dyes including yellow, black and red. These were traditionally used to dye wool for the manufacture of tweed and tartan.
The Gaelic name of the plant, lus Chuchulain, reflects its legendary use to treat the great champion warrior Cuchulainn's uncontrollable temper in a meadowsweet bath. In many parts of the Highlands it was used medicinally to treat fever and the scent of the blossom was said to cure headaches. The scent mostly arises from methylsalicilate, a precursor to aspirin.
The flowers were once used to flavour mead; an alcoholic drink made from honey and may even have been used in Bronze Age brewing.
Native to Britain, Europe and parts of North America no plant apart from the thistle is more associated with the romance of Scotland than heather. For generations it has featured in our literature, poetry, music and song. Yet few realise that many of the vast expanses of heather that dominate our landscape are the result of deforestation, sheep and the establishment of grouse moors.
Martin Martin (died 1719) a Gaelic factor from Skye famed for his book 'A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland' (1703) discussed the health-restoring qualities of ling when it was used as a mattress.
Osgood Mackenzie (1842-1922) the founder of the famous west coast subtropical garden at Inverwewe also talks about its use in domestic life in his book 'A Hundred Years in the Highlands' (1921) which also explains the establishment of the garden. Evidence exists that heather has been used in brewing in Scotland since 2000 BC and today it is still produced in Argyll and marketed as Fraoch the Gaelic word for the plant.
From the bonny bells of heather,
They brewed a drink lang syne
Was sweeter than honey
Was stronger than wine.
Bee keepers still take their bees to the heather in the flowering season as the honey produced is extremely sweet with a distinctive taste favoured by many around the world. The foliage and flowers were used to prepare a wide range of coloured dyes ranging from yellow through green to orange and brown. These dyes, and likely the colour of the plant itself have inspired many tartans .
It was also used medicinally. The dried stems are made into besoms and brushes; this was once an important cottage industry in many rural areas. The stems were also bundled and bonded to make floor tiles, similar to the process used to make jewellery today.
White heather is the plant badge of the Clan McPherson who have a clan seat on land granted by Robert the Bruce near Badenoch. The clan was a strong supporter of the crown during the Jacobite uprising.
Some ferns especially bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) were a traditional source of a yellow natural dye used in the manufacture of tartan and tweed. It was prepared from a mixture of the root and the mordant or fixative copperas (iron sulphate). They were also burnt in large quantities to obtain potash for the soap used to bleach linen.
The influential Scottish biologist, sociologist and town planner Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) first became interested in biology and the natural world as he wandered in the hills in search of ferns to establish in his parents' garden.
Entry for ‘Peter Geddes’ birth in the Old Parish Register for Glenmuick, Tullich and Glengairn. It is unclear if the name registered ‘Peter’ was a mistake, or if the family decided to use Patrick instead after registration.
Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, OPR201/20 p123
From these humble beginnings Geddes would go on to become one of the most influential thinkers of his day, putting his ideas in to practice in the restoration of part of Edinburgh's Old Town including Riddles Court, Ramsey Garden and the Outlook Tower, before developing the master plan for Tel Aviv and then working in India. He was a polymath and an advocate of ecology and conservation as well as the need to control pollution even then. His most quoted phrase 'By leaves alone we live' derives from a larger statement on his view of the world.
"This is a green world, with animals comparatively few and small, and all dependent on leaves. By leaves alone we live. Some people have strange ideas that they live by money. They think energy is generated by the circulation of coins. Whereas the world is mainly a vast leaf colony, growing on and forming a leafy soil, not a mere mineral mass: and we live not by jingling coins, but the fullness of our harvests". Patrick Geddes.
No wonder he was respected by both Darwin and Einstein. Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978) wrote of him "...he was one of the outstanding thinkers of his generation, not merely in the world, and not only one of the greatest Scotsmen of the past century but in our entire history".
Birch appears in Celtic tradition as a symbol of the awakening of new life. This was once reflected by the use of birch twigs for creating corn sheaf bridal figures used in the celebrations surrounding St Bridget’s Day each spring. Saint Brigid was the Celtic goddess of rebirth. In the language of flowers birch represents modesty and grace, hence it was referred to by Coleridge as the 'Lady of the Woods'.
In some parts of Europe it was known as the 'rod of life' and the bride and groom were often asked to step over a birch pole as they entered their new home, in the hope this would aid the coming of a family. In contrast, the dead were often covered in birch twigs - perhaps in protection from evil?
Birch had many practical uses which made it central to daily life. The timber was utilised in construction, basket-making and the manufacture of domestic items such as fish barrels, carts and ploughs. During the height of the textile industry in Scotland, bobbins for spinning were made from birch. The bark was used for candles, paper and tanning. A tea was produced from the leaves and used medicinally; they were also made into dye for wool used in weaving tartan and tweed. Wine was made from the sap and still is today. Through destructive distillation the sap was also processed into a sticky waterproof tar for the fishing and construction industries.
The traditional fiddler and composer James Scott Skinner (1843-1927) was also known as the 'Strathspey King'. Born in Banchory, Skinner went on to travel and perform extensively in Britain and America. Writing over 600 tunes, one of these was the slow air 'The Weeping Birch of Kilmorack'. The tune commemorates Skinner's visit to the Falls of Kilmorack on the river Beauly and the Pass of Dhreim with his two great friends Donald Morrison and Dr McDonald. During this visit Morrison told Skinner how previously a traction engine had fallen 100 feet from the road into the gorge, killing two men. After this happened a phenomenon reputedly occurred with most of the birches within 30 yards of the accident withering away without regeneration.
Extremely attractive, birches have often featured in oil and watercolour paintings. Even the Scottish portrait painter Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823) although not renowned for illustrating plants, could not resist their beauty. He often set his subjects, particularly women, in a romantic landscape featuring a wooded background. An especially fine example is the portrait of Mrs Downey of Prestonpans (c1787-1790). We see her in an imaginary mixed woodland of birch and beech.
Mrs Downey by Henry Raeburn.
Tate ref. N01146. Creative commons
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Erica cinerea (C.D. Eason) and Erica cinerea (Hookstone White), family Ericaceae
Native to Britain and many parts of Western Europe, bell heather has had various domestic uses including bedding, thatch, tanning and even brewing. It is also the source of a purple ochre dye which was produced from the flowering tips.
Today having been written about in verse and song for centuries, the plant is deeply embedded in our culture and as such is perhaps the plant which means homecoming more than most. It was even dried and transported overseas as a symbol of home. Sprigs of white heather in particular were thought to bring good fortune and prosperity. At weddings it was given away as favours and still is today. Linked with romance, who could forget the words to the famous folk song, 'Will You Go Lassie, Go' written by Northern Irish Folk singer, William McPeake, and recorded in 1957.
Will ye go, lassie, go,
And we'll all go together
To pick wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather,
Will ye go, lassie, go.
It is also the plant badge of the Clan MacDougall which dates back to 1164 when they formed a seat near Dunstaffnage in Argyll. Duncan MacDougall founded the priory at Ardchattan near Oban in 1230. The Clan has a rich history central to both the political and social life of Scotland, from the time when they supported King John Balliol (1249-1313) in his claim to the throne against King Robert the Bruce of Annandale (1274-1329), to their role in both the 1715 and 1745 rebellions.