Heather – building block for Celts

There is an old Irish saying, ‘Gold under furze, silver under rushes and famine under heather’.

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This most likely alludes to the fact that heather is able to grow in inhospitable soils where other plants cannot.

A more pleasant legend referring to this is that heather was blessed with its beautiful flowers because it gallantly covered the mountain-tops with evergreen when other plants would not.

Heather Tree. Image copyright Ireland Calling

Heather floods the hillsides of Ireland and Britain with purple flowers each year in late summer. Occasionally, quite rarely, white heather will appear which is considered particularly lucky. There are several legends as to why this may be.

No blood spilled

One Scottish legend declares that purple heather was stained by the blood of the defeated Picts while the white heather grew where no blood was spilled, making it lucky. Another suggests that white heather grows upon the final resting place of a fairy.

There is a further sad and romantic Scottish story to illustrate the auspicious qualities of white heather. It involves a princess called Malvina who fell deeply in love with a warrior named Oscar. On the eve of their wedding, Oscar was cruelly slaughtered in battle.

Princess’ tears turned the heather white

On receipt of this tragic news Malvina wept in despair holding in her hands the last piece of heather her true love had ever picked for her. So powerful was her grief that her tears turned the heather to white.

Desiring for nobody to experience the pain she felt, Malvina made a wish that white heather should hereafter bring good fortune to all who find it.

It is now a tradition for brides to carry a sprig of white heather for good luck in their marriage to come.

Ura, Ur, U – Traditionally associated with good luck, Heather represents the eighteenth letter of the ogham alphabet, ‘Ur’ or ‘Ura’.

Heather had many uses for the Celts

The Celts often referred to heather as a plant of attraction, romance and intoxication. Ale and mead were made using heather, explaining the intoxication, but it also had many other practical uses.

Heather was used in thatching, boom-making, rope-twisting, basket-weaving, stuffing mattresses and making dyes. Heather honey was produced by bee keepers and heather flowers and leaves were used in medicine to treat coughs and asthma and as an ointment for arthritis and rheumatism.

Just as the extremely useful willow tree was the source of the word witch, it is believed heather or, more specifically, heath, the land upon which the heather grows, is the source of the word heathen.

‘Heathen’ changed meaning

Largely used by Christians referring to those who dwelled upon the heath and followed the old ways, it later mutating into a word for an uncivilised, godless savage.

Sykes Irish cottages

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Despite this there are some delightful superstitions that still surround heather. Heather is the tree of the summer solstice. It is said that it lights the flames of fairy passions, opening the door between this world and the Otherworld.

If you wish to attract the fairies, make an offering of heather during Beltane. Heather is also associated with spiritual healing and development and worn as a charm, protection against violent crime.

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