Bell Heather (Erica Cinerea) is a woody, low-growing, flowering shrub in the heath family Ericaceae - native to western and central Europe. Erica means ‘heath’ or ‘broom’ in Latin, while cinerea means ‘ash coloured’. Common on acidic, well-drained soils, it prefers the drier parts of the moorlands and heaths, with occasional occurrences in the coastal areas. It is distinguished by its dark purple-pink, bell-shaped flowers which bloom between July and September, and short, dark green needle-like leaves.
As Nan Shepherd reflected:
‘Lower on the mountain, on all the slopes and shoulders and ridges and on the moors below, the characteristic growth is heather. And this too is integral to the mountain. For heather grows in its most profuse luxuriance on granite, so that the very substance of the mountain is in its life; But it is the August blooming ling (heather) that covers the hills with amethyst. Now they look gracious and benign. For many many miles there is nothing but this soft radiance. Walk over it in a hot sun, preferably not on a path ('I like the unpath best', one of my small friends said when her father had called her to heel), and the scent rises in a heady cloud. To feel heather under the feet after long abstinence is one of the dearest joys I know.' (The Living Mountain, 1977)
Bell heather is a crucial nectar source for all kinds of pollinators and insects including honey bees, buff-tailed and red-tailed bumblebees, ruby tiger moths and rare silver-studded blue butterflies. The honey that results from bees that feed on it is dark and fragrant, apparently with almost smoky flavour. It is used in healing treatments throughout the world and was found by Glasgow University to be just as beneficial as the revered Manuka honey. It’s reported to be used for bladder and kidney problems.
Being less dominant than Scotland's ubiquitous Calluna Vulgaris (often referred to as 'common heather'), it has less reference points in folkloric and medicinal writings, as it was rarely distinguished as its own species in these recordings. Still, it has had various uses including bedding, thatch, tanning and even brewing & wine making. The Skara Brae excavation in Orkney revealed evidence of beds in the form of stone boxes, lined with ling heather, and dating as far back as 2000 BC. When using heather as a bedding material had long gone out of fashion, it was used as a remedy for insomnia by adding sprigs of heather under the pillow. In 1582 the Scots historian George Buchanan remarked on how heather would provide a refreshing sleep and an occasional cup of heather tea would do wonders for the 'nerves'.
For thatching, a few days each year, the laird would give permission for his tenants to pick heather from the hillside. They were looking for long lengths of it, and would often use turf as a base for underneath – it was said that under a heather thatched roof, if it rained outside for twenty minutes, it would rain inside for sixty. Leanach Cottage on Culloden Moor still has a roof of heather thatch – it was occupied from 1746-1912. Another use of heather was to make it into ropes – it worked well for tying down a thatched roof or for making a ladder and was much stronger than straw rope. The tradition can still be seen at the Braemar Gathering. It is also the source of a purple ochre dye which was produced from the flowering tips.
The early records of using heather as an ale date back to the 6th century and theologian Boethius, who claimed that the ancient Picts brewed intoxicating ale from heather alone. Johnson and Sowerby, in their 19th century account of the useful plants of Great Britain, noted that Hebrideans brewed a type of ale 'by fermenting a mixture of two parts of Heath-tops and one of malt, the object being probably to impart a slightly bitter flavour to the liquid, and render it more capable of retaining its qualities unchanged by acetous fermentation.' This type of ale was still being produced in Rannoch as late as the 1840s. William Bros. Brewing (formerly known as the Heather Ale Company), has started brewing using native plants in 1992, their Fraoch ale follows a traditional Gaelic recipe involving heather and bog myrtle.
Bell heather is deeply embedded in Scottish culture and as such is perhaps the plant which means homecoming more than most. It was 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.
'The Illustrated Book Of Wild Flowers'' - from a text by Zdenka Podhajska, 1985
'Healing Threads, Traditional Medicines of the Highlands and Islands' - M. Beith, 2018, first published in 1995
'Vickery's Folk Flora' - R. Vickery, 2019
'Flora Celtica, Plants and People in Scotland' - W.Milliken & S.Bridgewater, 2013
'Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition' - D.E. Allen, G.Hatfield, 2012
'The Gaelic names of plants' - J.Cameron, first published 1900, 2019 re-print
'The Living Mountain' - Nan Shepherd, first published 1977, 2011 re-print