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Heather ale: Scots or Irish?

Thanks to Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote a poem about it, and Bruce Williams, who started brewing it commercially 15 years ago, heather ale is now firmly associated with Scotland.

But in fact the Irish have just as great a claim to be the home of heather ale, with good evidence that it was brewed in Ireland and exactly the same folk myths found in Ireland about “the most delicious drink the world has ever known” and the father and son who died to keep its recipe a secret that are also found in Scotland – though with one fascinating difference in the protagonists.

In almost all the Scottish versions of the legend of heather ale, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s 19th century poem on the story, the people who know the secret of brewing heather ale were the Picts, the mysterious people, perhaps Celtic, perhaps not, speakers of an unidentified language, who inhabited the northern and north-eastern parts of Caledonia from pre-Roman times until their lands were conquered from the west by the kingdom of the Scots under Kenneth mac Alpin around 843AD.

In the usual telling of the story, a father and son are captured by the Scots after a tremendous battle when all the rest of the Picts have been killed. The king of the Scots tells the Pictish pair they can go free, if they tell him the secret of brewing the heather ale. The father says he will tell, but they will have to kill his son first, as the son will otherwise kill the father for revealing the great secret of heather ale to another race. The son is then killed by the Scots: but the father just laughs at them, saying they have done what he wanted. His son might have revealed the secret to save his life, but he, the father, never will. The recipe thus dies with the last of the Picts.

The Irish versions, of which around 200 have been collected, are almost identical, except that the race with the secret of brewing heather ale is almost always not the Picts, but the Vikings. The Irish knew who the Picts were, since several Pictish tribes lived in Antrim and Armagh in Ulster. The Irish called them, and their Scottish brothers and sisters, Cruíthin, the Irish or Q-Celtic version of the British or P-Celtic name for the Picts, Priten. (Which is, incidentally, probably the source of the name Britain). So why did the Vikings become the heroes of the legend of heather ale in Ireland, when it was the Picts in Scotland?

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