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?

The answer may be that there was no tradition of the Irish Picts being wiped out, while there was a strong folk recollection in Ireland of a massive defeat for the Vikings. Many of the Irish tales about heather ale feature the last big clash involving the Irish and the Vikings, the battle of Clontarf, just outside Dublin, in AD 1014. The battle is traditionally presented as a victory for the Irish under their High King, Brian Boru, over the Viking invaders of Ireland. In fact both sides were a mixture of Irish and Viking warriors, with Brian’s army containing his own Viking allies from places such as Limerick as well as Irish warriors from Munster and elsewhere, while his opponents, who were fighting to resist the High King’s domination rather than trying to impose their own, were an alliance of Dublin Vikings and Irishmen from Leinster. But as far as folk memory is concerned, the Gael defeated the Gaul, or foreigner.

In all the tales in Irish the heather ale is called bheóir Lochlannach, Lochlann being the Irish for Viking, and the phrase is always translated as “Viking beer”. But there is another mystery here. The Irish words for ale, or beer, were cuirm or lionn. The word beóir must come from the Old Norse word bjórr. But bjórr and its Old English equivalent, beór, are what linguists call “false friends”. They almost certainly don’t mean “beer” in the modern sense of a fermented malt liquor, but a strong, sweet, honey or honey-and-fruit drink: 10th century Anglo-Saxon glossaries gave beór as the equivalent of “ydromellum”, hydromel, or mead, while cervisia, beer in Latin, was translated as eala, “ale”. It seems quite likely, therefore, that bheóir Lochlannach was a heather-flavoured mead or something similar, perhaps even a heather-flavoured cider, rather than a heather-flavoured beer.

One of the fullest accounts of the story of “heath ale”, (“heath” being another name for ling heather) appeared in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology in 1859. It was written by John Locke, who said he was told the tale by a peasant living in Cork in 1847 who claimed to be nearly 100 years old, and who said he got the story from his grandfather, which would take us to at least the late 1600s. Locke recounted the story of an elderly Danish Viking captured with, this time, two sons after the battle of Clontarf, who conned the Irish into killing his sons and was then killed himself for refusing to divulge the secret of bheóir Lochlannach.

Locke’s peasant informant told him that the flavouring for bheóír Lochlannach was wood avens or Herb Bennet (Geum urbanum), called minarthagh in Irish. The type of heather used for bheóír Lochlannach, he said was ling (Calluna vulgaris), which is actually known in some parts of Ireland as Viking heather, fraoch Lochlannach. (Fraoch is pronounced “free”, as in Yeats’s poem “The Lake Island of Inishfree” – “I must away and go now/and go to Inishfree”. Inishfree is Inis Fraoch, Heather Island in Irish. Now tell me – d’ye get this sort of literary trivia in any other beer blog? I think not …)

Bheóír Lochlannach, Locke said, was made from a wort derived from steeping ling in water. Some Irish versions of the legends say tormentil, or bloodroot, Potentilla tormentilla, also went into bheóír Lochlannach. Tormentil, a small plant with yellow flowers, a member of the rose family, has bitter-tasting roots which will cause vomiting if taken to excess but which, at the same time, smell pleasantly of roses

The heather ale story excites folklorists because of its underlying theme, captive fools captors into killing his companion to preserve secret. This is the same as the theme found in one of the Norse Eddas and the Germanic Niebelungenlied, and turned into the opera Das Rheingold by the 19th century composer Richard Wagner; except that the secret Attila, the king of the Huns, wanted to get from Gunnar the Niebelung was the whereabouts of the Rhine gold, rather than the recipe for a decent beer. Which tale came first, the story of the Rheingold or the story of the heather ale?

A tradition of brewing with heather seems to have lived on in Ireland after the Vikings vanished. The Victorian journalist John Bickerdyke, in Curiosities of Ale and Beer, written in 1889, said that “as later as the commencement of this century”, that is, around 1801, “an ale flavoured with heather … was brewed in many parts of Ireland. The practice, it is believed, is now almost if not quite extinct.” The method, Bickerdyke said, was to let the wort drain through heather blossoms placed at the bottom of tubs, so that during its passage the wort gains “a peculiar and agreeable flavour”.

An earlier writer, Samuel Morewood in 1838 said that “a few years ago” men digging a watercourse in County Limerick found a mill and “a portion of brewing materials. together with some cakes of bread and heather, concealed in the position where they were left by the Danes.” Morewood said that “it was also stated that a book or manuscript containing the receipt for the making of heather-beer had been found at the same time, but that it was clandestinely taken away.” This manuscript, if it ever existed, has not been seen since. It seems unlikely that it was as old as the Danes, though, and it must be more probable that this was a modern, albeit illicit brewer whose kit was uncovered.

England had a faint tradition of heather ale brewing, though the legend of the lost recipe is almost completely unknown. John Bickerdyke in Curiosities … quoted a manuscript owned by the Duke of Northumberland at Hexham that described a large trough cut from solid rock at Rudchester, or Vindovala (which he erroneously calls Kutchester) on Hadrian’s Wall, a mile west of Heddon. The local Northumbrian peasants, the manuscript said, had a tradition “that the Romans made a beverage somewhat like beer, of the bells of heather, and that this trough was used in the process of making it.”

Since Bickerdyke’s time, findings at a Roman fort near the wall, Vindolanda, have shown that the Romans did indeed brew ale at this northern extremity of their empire. However, the trough, hewn out of grey sandstone and ten feet long, which was still at Rudchester farm in 1974, has been identified by archaeologists as a sacrificial bath from one of the many temples that once stood around the fort, not a stone mash tun.

In Yorkshire, according to Bickerdyke, home brewers in his time made a beer called “gale beer” flavoured with “the blossoms of a species of heather found growing on the moors in that part of the country.” But the main flavouring ingredient in gale ale must have been sweet gale or bog myrtle, Myrica gale. The antiquarian Robert Plot said in 1686 that about Shenstone in Staffordshire “they frequently used Erica vulgaris [that is, Calluna vulgaris], heath or ling instead of hopps to preserve their beer, which gave it no ill taste.” I have also seen hints, but nothing definite, that heather ale was brewed in Devon. At any rate, with the greatest respect to the Williams Brothers’ Fraoch Heather Ale, which is certainly in my list of top 50 beers, heather ale – entirely Scots it ain’t.

28 thoughts on “Heather ale: Scots or Irish?

  1. “Which tale came first, the story of the Rheingold or the story of the heather ale?”
    Is not beer sometimes known as “liquid Gold”? As a product of the Mercantile 19th century,R. Wagner could have been confused by his sources or was attempting to make the story more universal or acceptable (more violence and incest,less drinking.) Here in the USA, the Liebman brewing family made the connection with their brand Rheingold,a lagerbier in the standard lager beer mold. A point of irony, the Liebman family was Jewish.
    Also, a note of praise, this is consistently one of the most informative websites I read. Thank you and keep up the good work.

  2. Gary – I have no objection at all to you putting a link through to this post, but please don’t copy it, as it sets a bad precedent.

    Ed – thanks for your compliments. Trivia – Rheingold lager was the beer featured in the book Ice Cold in Alex (in the film version they used Carlsberg …)_

  3. This post has suddenly attracted a great deal of attention from Russia, my blogging software informs me. If anyone can tell me why, I’d be very grateful …

  4. Interesting about the original meaning of bheóir/bheoír (nineteenth and early-twentieth century anglophone writers liked to sprinkle fadas like confetti — even in the early official documents of the Free State). Ireland’s newest brewery, just started in the Kerry gaeltacht, is called Beoir Chorca Dhuibhne (no fadas), but I don’t think it’s using anything more exotic than malt and hops.

    And speaking of fadas, you should take yours off “Inis”: it’s IN-ish rather than in-EESH.

  5. According to an interesting folk tradition from Burrishoole, near Newport, Co. Mayo, fulachta fiadh were used by the Danes for making heather ale. This is briefly mentioned in Chris Corlett’s ‘Antiquities of West Mayo’. Although the fulachta fiadh predate the Vikings by several millennia the links between these sites, the Vikings and heather ales was one of the inspirations for our hot rock, pit brewing experiments.

  6. And speaking of fadas, you should take yours off “Inis”: it’s IN-ish rather than in-EESH.

    Thank you, BN, correction made – I should send all my Irish-related posts to you first for copy-editing …

  7. A belated comment on the particular interest from Russian readers: R. L. Stevenson’s poem “Heather Ale” is extremely popular in a spectacular Russian translation by Samuil Marshak (http://gremlinmage.narod.ru/medieval/veresk.html). The love of the poem would explain frequent searches for the “heather ale” entry, and thus, interest to your fascinating article. BTW, that’s how I found your site. Thank you for the most informative article.

    1. That’s fascinating, Nik, and solves my puzzle. Do Williams Brothers sell their Fraoch heather ale in Russia? If they do, I bet it does well …

  8. Wow this was a very interesting post…. Especially for us! Might need to make it mandatory reading for our staff 😉

    We have now been brewing the legandary brew for over 21 years, hence the 20th Anniversary Fraoch we aged in Whisky casks last year.

    In legand of the Pictish king that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his poem about, the king threw himself off a cliff after the murder of his son, taking the recipie to his grave. We do ship to Russia & the Russian translation of the R.L.S poem would explain it’s popularity (Thanks Nik!)

    Archaeologists on the Scottish Isle of Rhum found traces of Heather Ale on a shard of Neolithic ceramic cup dating back to 2000bc.

  9. Gentlemen before anything else, please excuse me. I’m not a historian, botanist or expert on anything related to beer. I’m just a green horn trying to figure it all out so I can make my own brew at home. So you experts please don’t shoot me down for asking a dumb question. In my reading I discovered that heather is the dominant plant in most heathland and moorland in Europe. Is it something the Viking would have been familiar with and used to brew with? Would a more likely candidate be horehound? Respectfully, Fernando Page, North Richland Hills, Tx

    1. Fernando, as you may know, Stephen Harrod Buhner’s Sacred and Herbal Beers mentions horehound ale (pp325-328) but says nothing about the Vikings; Nils von Hofsten’s Swedish book Bog Myrtle and Other Substitutes for Hops in Former Times has 10 mentions of horehound, called kransborre in Swedish, but as these mentions are all in the Swedish part of the book, I can’t tell you what he says about its use, I’m afraid …

  10. Yes, a great translation by Samuel Marshak does linger in the collective psyche in Russia. Just yesterday I came back from UK. and in Scotland I kept asking about heather ale until I found out everything I wanted, and even after that I did this search that brought me here 😉

  11. In Scotland,

    despite a few popularisations and more modern renditions (stevenson, munro and ?scott?) it is a Galloway tale, from the ‘lowland’ gaeltacht that juts out into the seas of Ireland and Man between Glasgow and Dumfires. The tale comes from the Mull of Galloway, the scene for the climax. Well worth a visit. If it is a useful pointer, this is about 2 hours south of Turnberry.
    What’s interesting is the Galloway tradition of Picts, brochs, gossocks and creenies – all pre gaelic terms. Galloways Picts are cademically discredited but do remain an enigma, and a Scottish take on things again.
    Perhaps this is a gael-creenie contest, all guid drinkers and fechters anyway??

    Any takers for a part formed short film to celebrate this tale of the seannachies???


  12. With reference to Heather Ale in Devon, there is reference to it in Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould’s “Book of Dartmoor”published in 1906. The reference is incidental, and gives no recipe. It says only that it was popular on Dartmoor.

    The same book also references Devon’s White Ale, saying that it was popular but that (then) it had really past into memory.

  13. …and here is the excerpt from the book……

    “In old times, so it is said, the Picts made of the heather a most excellent beer, and the secret was preserved among them. Leyden says that when the Picts were exterminated, a father and son, who alone survived, were brought before Kenneth the Conqueror, who promised them life if they would divulge the secret of heather ale. As they remained silent, the son was put to death before the eyes of his father. This exercise of cruelty failed in its effect. “Sire,” said the old Pict, “your threats might have influenced my son, but they have no effect on me.” The king suffered the Pict to live, and the secret remained untold.

    Ah, weel! the Scotch make up for their loss upon whisky.

    A recent writer, referring to the story, says: “It is just possible that the grain of truth contained in the tradition may be, that all the northern nations, as the Swedes still do, used the narcotic gale (Myrica gale), which grows among the heather, to give bitterness and strength to the barley beer; and hence the belief that the beer was made chiefly of the heather itself.”

    I do not hold this. I suspect that the ale was metheglin, made of the honey extracted from the heather by the bees. Metheglin is still made round Dartmoor, but it is only good and “heady” when many years old. Avoid that which is younger than three winters. When it is older, drink sparingly.[1]

    It is quite certain that the ancient Irish brewed a beer, which we can hardly think came from barley. S. Bridget has left but one poetical composition behind her, and that begins:—

    “I should like a great lake of ale
    For the King of kings.
    I should like the whole company of Heaven
    To be drinking it eternally!”
    The heath was doubtless largely used in former times, from the Prehistoric Age, not only as a thatch for the huts and hovels, but as a litter for the beds. Indeed, heath or heather is still employed in the Scottish Highlands along with the peat earth as a substitute for mortar between the stones of which a cottage is built. And that heather was employed for bedding who can question? Leather is tanned even better with heath than with oak-bark, and of it a brilliant yellow dye is produced.

    But—ah, me! the heath and the heather!—it is not for the beer produced therefrom, not for the tan, not for the dye, that we love it. Wonderful is the sight of the moorside flushed with pink when the heather is in bloom—it is as though, like a maiden, it had suddenly awoke to the knowledge that it was lovely, and blushed with surprise and pleasure at the discovery.

    But how shortlived is the heath!

    It lies dead—a warm chocolate-brown, mantling the hills from October till July. Only in the midsummer does it timidly put forth its leaves—its spines rather—and then it flushes again in September. It blooms for about a fortnight, perhaps three weeks, and then subsides into its brown winter sleep. But what browns! what splendours of colour we have when the fern is in its russet decay and the heather is in its velvet sleep!

    To him who wanders over the moor, and looks at the flowers at his feet, some day comes the proud felicity of lighting on the white heath—and that found ensures happiness. And I, as I make my congé, hand it to my reader with best wishes for his enjoyment of that region I love best in the world.

    ↑ Yet there is the Devonshire white ale—the composition of which is a secret—that is still drunk in the South Hams, and in one tavern in Tavistock. It is a singular, curdy liquor, in the manufacture of which egg is employed. Is heath used also? Quien sabe?

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