Heather, (Calluna vulgaris) is strongly associated with Scotland. The plant is native to Europe, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Azores. Heather was introduced to New Zealand and the species vulgaris is now considered an invasive weed.
Heather has 2-3 mm long scaly leaves en mass and produces flowers in the summer months typically pink or purple in colour though white flowers can also be found.
Until the late Victorian period heather was associated with rural poverty. However, it became popularised by Queen Victoria who would seek out sprigs of white heather for luck when staying at Balmoral Castle in the Highlands.
Heather flowers have traditionally been used in beer and honey making, while the woody branches were gathered for broom bristles (besoms).
Heather in Folklore and Mythology
Heather was a staple of the Scottish household, used for brooms, rope-making, and stuffing mattresses. Most of the folklore surrounds the more unusual white heather rather than the purple or lilac varieties. As mentioned above, Queen Victoria popularised the notion that white heather was lucky. However, there is a much longer tradition of associating white heather with death in various forms. One belief is that white heather grows on the grave of fairies. While another claims that it grows only on ground where no blood has been spilt. In the 1760’s James McPherson, writing as a 3rd century BC poet named Ossian, included a legend about white heather in his poem. The Daughter of a great warrior is told that her father has died. Her tears turn the heather white wherever they fall and she says: ‘ although it is the symbol of my sorrow, may the white heather bring good fortune to all who find it.’ This could well be the moment when White heather shifts in folklore from being associated only with death to being though of as a lucky plant.
Heather in George MacDonald’s Fantasy Writings
Heather appears is a wide range of MacDonald’s work both his fantasy and realistic novels mention the plant. As such a pervasive part of the scottish landscape which MacDonald would have played in since childhood it is unsurprising that Heather is often associated with a homeliness and peace, as this passage from Lilith shows.
When a little breeze brushing a bush of heather set its purple bells a ringing, I was myself in the joy of the bells, myself in the joy of the breeze to which responded their sweet tin-tinning, myself in the joy of the sense, and of the soul that received all the joys together. To everything glad I lent the hall of my being wherein to revel. I was a peaceful ocean upon which the ground-swell of a living joy was continually lifting new waves; yet was the joy ever the same joy, the eternal joy, with tens of thousands of changing forms. Life was a cosmic holiday.
In The Princess and Curdie, heather is used to help describe some of the bizarre goblin creatures who befriend Curdie. The passage also highlights one of the roles of heather within rural life as a the roots could be used to make toy animals.
I knew a boy who used to make animals out of heather roots. Wherever he could find four legs, he was pretty sure to find a head and a tail. His beasts were a most comic menagerie, and right fruitful of laughter. But they were not so grotesque and extravagant as Lina and her followers. One of them, for instance, was like a boa constrictor walking on four little stumpy legs near its tail. About the same distance from its head were two little wings, which it was forever fluttering as if trying to fly with them. Curdie thought it fancied it did fly with them, when it was merely plodding on busily with its four little stumps. How it managed to keep up he could not think, till once when he missed it from the group: the same moment he caught sight of something at a distance plunging at an awful serpentine rate through the trees, and presently, from behind a huge ash, this same creature fell again into the group, quietly waddling along on its four stumps.
This trail has been developed by Rebecca Langworthy with editorial assistance from Derek Stewart, Mark Patterson and Oliver Langworthy.
Further links and information
More information about Heather can be found through Better Homes and Gardens
More on the folklore and mythology of heather can be found via trees for life
The a full copy of the 1895 edition of Lilith is available here lilithromance00macduoft
A full copy of the 1908 edition of The Princess and Curdie with illustrations by Maria Kirk princesscurdiemacd
Audio Book Versions of Lilith and The Princess and Curdie are available via Librivox at the links below
The Princess and Curdie https://librivox.org/the-princess-and-curdie-by-george-macdonald/
George MacDonald’s Scotland is Supported by The Research Institute of Scottish and Irish Studies https://www.abdn.ac.uk/riiss/ The University of Aberdeen https://www.abdn.ac.uk/and the British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS): www.bavs.ac.uk