Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay
Heather Burning

When clover fields have lost their tints of green,
And beans are full, and leaves are blanch'd and lean,
And winter's piercing breath prepares to drain

The thin green blood from every poplar's vein,
How grand the scene yon russet down displays,
While far the withering heaths with moorburn blaze!

The pillar'd smoke ascends with ashen gleam,
Aloft in air the arching flashes stream

With rushing, crackling noise the flames aspire
And roll one deluge of devouring fire;

The timid flocks shrink from the smoky heat,
Their pastures leave, and in confusion bleat,
With curious look the flaming billows scan,
As whirling gales the red combustion fan.

But far remote, ye careful shepherds, lead
Your wanton flocks to pasture on the mead,
While from the flame the bladed grass is young,
Nor crop the slender spikes that scarce have sprung;
Else, your brown heaths to sterile wastes you doom,
While frisking lambs regret the heath-flower's bloom!

And ah! when smiles the day, and fields are fair,
Let the black smoke ne'er clog the burthened air!
Or soon, too soon, the transient smile shall fly,
And chilling mildews ripen in the sky,

The heartless flocks shrink from the cold,
Reject the fields and linger in the fold. —Leyden.

AT a certain season of the year the Heather, in Scotland, is burned in order to provide hill pasturage for sheep. And in spots thus cleared a thick, close carpet of green verdure springs up of which these animals are particularly fond.

Along about the commencement of the nineteenth century, when the agricultural condition of the Highlands was under its customary consideration, the subject of burning the Heather received a great deal of attention.

In the Transactions of the Highland Agricultural Society for 1804, a Mr. Somerville recommended the total eradication of the Heather where the soil and climate would admit of the culture of any more useful plant, and the burning of it in such a manner as to destroy the tough, hard parts and afford room and nourishment for the tender and juicy shoots, in every situation where no plants of greater value could be produced. In order to effect the former purpose he said the Heather ought to be burned in the autumn when it is in flower, as it may then be completely destroyed. But when the object is to preserve the root and to afford warmth and manure to the tender shoots, the operation ought to take place in the spring. The tender and juicy shoots which might then be made to spring annually from the burned Heather ought to be used not only for pasture but also for hay. In Sweden this practice is commonly followed and found to answer.

The advantage to other vegetation of burning the Heather is thus explained by Sir Humphry Davy: "The alkalies produced from the combustion of plants tend very powerfully to promote the growth of new herbage and that the burning of such plants as heath, furze, tough grasses, rushes and moss is the cheapest and best means of reducing such substances to a state of minute carbonaceous particles at once capable of supplying food to the roots of the new plants."

The stumps of the Heather are usually left in the ground, for the fire consumes only the foliage and the smaller twigs; and these skeletons, closely matted together, bleached and sharpened by the elements, frequently crossing one's path, are very disagreeable to walk on, unless the feet are protected by very thick boots (fraochan). "The contrasts of shape and color," says Rev. Hugh Macmillan, "formed by these clearings in the aboriginal Heather, are very curious, and strikingly diversify the monotony of the landscape—here a uniform brown sea of Heather; there long stripes of gray coloring running in and out and crossing in all directions, like promontories and capes; and yonder bright green isles of verdure smiling amid the surrounding desolation."

The season of "Muirburn," as it is technically named, is regulated by Act of Parliament; the Scottish Acts of 1424, C. 20, and 1535, C. ii, being superseded by the British Act 13 George III., C. 54, dated 5773 and entituled:

"An act for the more effectual preservation of game in that part of Great Britain called Scotland, and for repealing and amending several laws now in being related thereto."

This act forbids all persons to kill, sell, or buy muirfowl between December so and August 12; offenders forfeiting every bird so destroyed and to pay the sum of ;E5 sterling, and in case of not paying the sum decreed, within the space often days after conviction by a final sentence, shall suffer imprisonment for two months for each 15 sterling.

Section IV. sets forth: "And be it enacted that every person who shall make muirburn, or set fire to any heath, or muir, in that part of Great Britain called Scotland, from the jith day of April to the 1st day of November in any year shall forfeit and pay the sum of forty shillings for the first offence, five pounds sterling for the second offence, and ten pounds sterling for the third and every other subsequent ofence; and in case of not paying the sum decreed within the space of ten days after conviction by a final judgment, shall suffer imprisonment for six weeks for the first offence, two months for the second, and three months for the third and every other subsequent offence.

"Section VI.: Provided always, and be it enacted that the proprietor of high and wet moorlands, the heath upon which cannot be burned so early as the 11th day of April may, when such lands are in his own occupation, burn the heath upon the same at any

time between the 11th and 25th day of April in any year, without incurring any of the penalties before mentioned."

The Scottish Act of James I., Parliament I., Cap. 20, sets forth that "no man may make muirburn after the first of March till all the corns be shorn, under the pain of fourty shillings to the lord of the land of the manor, or fourty days' imprisonment."

In England muirburn is a felony and is punished by imprisonment for three years or less.

Heather burning is often a bone of contention between shepherds and gamekeepers; the former are sometimes reckless in setting fire to a hillside, not caring how far the flames may extend. The Heather continues burning at times for weeks, being only extinguished by a friendly deluge of rain. In this manner much damage is done, particularly to tracts of grouse moor, the destruction often extending to adjacent woods and cornfields.

William Black, in his "White Heather," touches on the relation existing between the shepherds and gamekeepers in this connection. He says: "She (Meenie Douglas) knew quite well—for often had she heard it spoken of—that no one could get on so well as Ronald with the shepherds at the time of the Heather burning; when on the other moors the shepherds and keepers were growling and quarreling like rival leashes of collies, on Lord Ainline's ground everything was peace and quietness and good humor."

He who at a distance has witnessed the weird yet beautiful spectacle resulting from muirburn can never forget it, particularly when viewed as the gloaming is merging into the darkness of night. The mountain tops appear to be studded with miniature volcanoes, each one emitting its volume of flame, shooting heavenward and seeming to pierce the horizon with their fiery fangs, the luridness becoming intensified as the blackness of night increases. A closer view of the conflagration would reveal the picture charmingly portrayed by Macmillan: "Hares and deer careering before the flames; grouse whirring past, blinded and scorched; lizards and snakes running hither and thither in an agony of terror; volumes of dense smoke darken the air, and the dull red embers light up the darkness of the night, and reflect a volcanic glare upon the surrounding hills. It is one of the grandest sights to be seen in the Highlands." Or as Mr. Black puts it: "The gloom of the evening, by the way, was not decreased by a vast mass of smoke that came slowly rolling along between the black sky and the black lake; though this portentous thing—that looked as if the whole world was on fire—meant nothing further than the burning of the Heather down Strath Ferry way."

A most delightful pen picture of Heather burning is given us in "The Tales of the Borders," by the ever-readable Christopher North, bringing back memories of boyhood and of the dare-devil spirit which is its accompaniment. The description is as follows: "That was a terrible conflagration at Mirawecbie. I think I hear it crashing, thundering, crackling on; before it the wild beasts, the serpents, the cattle—man, poor, houseless, helpless, smoke-enveloped, and perishing man. The reason why I can conceive so vividly of this awful comparatively recent visitation is this —I was accustomed to set 'muirburn' when a boy of nine or ten.

"The primeval heath of our mountains was strong, bushy and, when dry in spring, exceedingly inflammable. I was a mountain child, for on one side of my dwelling the Heather withered and bloomed up to the door; and when one thinks of the 'bonny blooming Heather' it is quite refreshing; it blooms when all things around it are withering, during the later months of harvest, but then, oh then, it puts on such a russet robe of beauty—a dark evening cloud tipped and tinged with red—a mantle of black velvet spangled with gold; and its fragrance is honey steeped in myrrh. Yet when withered in March and April, it is an object of aversion to the sheep farmer, who prefers green grass and tender sward; and he issues to impatient boyhood the sentence of destruction. Peat follows peat, kindled at one end and held by the other the hillside or the level muir swarm with matches; carefully is the ignition communicated to the dry and widespread Heath; from spot to spot in lines and in circles —it extends and unites—the wind is up, and one continuous blaze is the almost immediate consequence. It is night, dark night—the clouds above catch and reflect the uncertain gleam. The Heathfowl wing their terrified flight—through, above, and beneath the rolling and outspreading smoke. The flame gathers into a point; and at the more advanced part of the curvature, the force and blaze is terrible. A thousand tongues of fire shoot up into the density, and immediately disappear. Who now so venturous as to dash headlong through the hottest flame, and to recover from beneath the choking night in former position? There goes—a hat—a cap—a bonnet! They have taken up their positions in the pathway of the devouring flood of fire-.--and who so brave, so daring, as to extricate his own property from instant destruction? Hurrahl hurrah! from a score of throats, mixes with the thunder, the crackle, the roll—all is power, novelty, ecstasy; bare heads and bare feet dance and show conspicuously upon the still smoking turf. Here an adder is seen writhing and twisting in the agonies of death. There a half-burned hat evinces the fun and the folly of its owner. But, oh! horrible, what is that in the dim and hazy distance? It comes forward bounding, tearing and bellowing, fearful and paralysing; it is the bull himself escaped from his fold, and maddened by the smoke and blazing atmosphere. He comes down upon the charge, tail erect, and head down, tossing all that is solid under his feet, and looking through the scattered earth with eyes glaring as well as reflecting fire. Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon, Wallace, Wellington, never entered a field of battle with such a terrific presence. He seems as if he had just escaped from a human or Spanish arena. He is desperately infuriated, and woe is to him who shall be overtaken by this muscular tornado in his weakness and fears. We are off! diffugirnus. We are nowhere to be found. One has made for a distant wall surounding the Heather park, and is in the act of climbing it. The bull is in full chase, armed with two ghast, but powerful horns. The fugitive has just laid hold of an upper stone to assist his ascent; but faithless help has given way; stone and he are lying alongside of the dyke. The bull is in full scent. The noise has directed him. He nears—he nears. Mv Godl the urchin's life is not worth two minutes' purchase.

Now do thy speedy, Arnot Wull
'Twill take it all to clear the bull.

Bravo; the summit is gained! the feet of the pursued are seen flying in mid-air; he has sprung from the summit as least twenty-two feet; but the whole weight of the pursuing brute is upon the crazy structure; it gives way with a crash, and down rush stones over stones, and the poor, maimed, bruised brute over all. What, Mr. Bull! are you satisfied? Why not continue the sport? But the game is up; Will has regained his mother's dwelling and now lives to record this wonderful, this all but miraculous escape. Catch me setting muirburn again."

And in "Noctes Ambrosian" Mr. North provides another description as follows:

Shepherd—Was you ever at the burning o' heather or whins, Mr. North?

North—I have, and enjoyed the illuminated heavens.


North—In half an hour from the first spark, the hills glowed with fire inextinguishable by waterspout. The crackle became a growl, as acre after acre joined the flames. Here and there a rock stood in the way, and the burning waves broke against it, till the birch-tree took fire, and its tresses, like a shower of flaming diamonds, were in a minute consumed. Whirr, whirr, played the frequent gor-cock, gobbling in his fear; and, swift as shadows, the old hawks fled screaming from their young, all smothered in a nest of ashes.

Tickler—Good—excellent! go it again.

North—The great pine-forest on the mountain side, two miles off, frowned in ghastly light, as in a stormy sunset; and you could see the herd of red deer, a whirlwind of antlers, descending in their terror into the black glen, whose entrance gleamed once—twice, thrice—as if there had been lightning; and then, as the wind changed the direction of the flames, all the distance sunk in dark repose.

Tickler—Vivid coloring, indeed, sir. Paint away. North—There was an eagle that shot between me and the moon.

Tickler—What an image!

North—Millions of millions of sparks of fire in Heather, but only some six or seven stars. How calm the large lustre of Hesperus!

Tickler—James, what do you think of that, eh?

Shepherd—Didna ye pity the taeds and paddocks. and beetles, and slaters and snails and spiders, and worms and ants, and caterpillars and bumbees, and a' the rest o' the insect world perishin' in the flaming nicht o' their last judgment?

North—In another season, James, what life, beauty and bliss over the verdant wilderness. There you see and hear the bees busy on the white clover—while the lark comes wavering down from heaven, to sit beside his mate on her nest! Here and there are still seen the traces of fire, but they are nearly hidden by flowers—and-

Scott refers to Heather burning in the following lines from "The Lady of the Lake":

Not faster o'er thy heathery braes,
Balquidder, speeds the midnight blaze,
Rushing in conflagration strong
Thy deep ravines and dells along,
Wrapping thy cliffs in purple glow,
And reddening the dark lakes below;
Nor faster speeds it, nor so far,
As o'er thy heaths the voice of war.

Rolfe says this simile is not new to poetry. The charge of a warrior, in the fine ballad of Hardyknute is said to be "like fire to heather set." It may be of interest to state that Hardyknute was the first poem learned by Sir Walter Scott, and the last, he said, he should ever forget.

Mr. A. G. Reid, in "Notes and Queries" for 1896, presents the following interesting item associated with the burning of the Heather: "In the metrical version of the Psalms for use of the Kirk of Scotland, known as that of John Knox, although the greater number of the verses are those of Sternhold and Hopkins, there are, particularly in the latter part, a number of John Craig, William Kethe and other Scotsmen. They are marked by initials, but are easily distinguished from their English neighbors by their peculiar orthography and Scotch expression. Under Psalm LXXXIII., to which are prefaced the initials R. P., the following is the rendering of the passage: 'Oh! my God, make them like unto a wheel, and as the stubble before the wind; as the fire burneth the forest, and as the flame setteth the mountains on fire, so persecute them with Thy tempest, and make them afraid of Thy Storm':

'My God! make them to be
Like rolling wheeles or as the stubble blowen
Before the winde.
As fire the wuds, we see,
Doeth burne; and flame devoure on mountain hie,
The hather croppe,
So let Thy tempest chase them
And the whirlwinde,
With terror so deface them.'"

The same writer adds: "The burning of Heather is common in Scotland, although it is a question if the Royal Psalmist could have such in view in reference to the hills of Judea, where, it is presumed, Heather does not adorn the mountain sides. The burning of Heather on the Scottish hills at night, for the purpose of improving the growth of the pasture, has a very picturesque effect, and no doubt was impressed on the mind of the versifier."

As the Scottish classic scholar gazes upon these burning hills, they mirror to his mind the picture drawn by schylus of those ancient telegraphic beacon fires that flashed from afar to the wearied waiting watchman at Argos "a voice from Troy and tidings of a capture," as narrated by CIytmnestra in "Agamemnon": "Vulcan sending forth a brilliant gleam from Ida; and beacon despatched beacon of courier fire hitherward. Ida, first, to the Hermean promontory of Lemnos, and third, in order Athos, mount of Jove, received the great torch from the isle, and passing o'er so as to ridge the sea, the might of the lamp as it joyously traveled, the pine torch transmitting its gold gleaming splendor, like a sun, to the watch-towers of Macistus. And (the watchman) omitted not his share of the messenger's duty, either by any delay, or by being carelessly overcome by sleep; but the light of the beacon coming from afar to the streams of the Euripus gives signal to the watchmen of Messapius; and they lighted a flame in turn, and sent the tidings onward, having kindled with a fire a pile of withered heath."

Or as Browning translates it:

And far the beacon's light on Stream Euripos
Arriving, made aware Messapios' warders,
And up they lit in turn, played herald onwards,
Kindling with flame a heap of gray old heather.


"Far the withering heaths with moorburn blaze."—Leyden.

Oh, heath upon the hills aflame,
Thy odor steals my spirit o'er
And stirs within the fancy deep
The shadowy dreams of yore.

Sweet incense of departed bloom
Afloat upon the moorland lea—
The memory of a summer gone

Thou bearest unto me.

Again I see the hills and know
The pleasant rush of waters near;
And far within the blue of heaven
Thy skylark singeth clear.

And plover lone and wild curlew
Weird choristers, to Nature call,
And sentinels of Silence seem

If human footstep fall.

But deeper than such music all,
And chiding earthly doubts and fears,
The peace of God descends, and lo!

The harpings of the spheres!

As Night, with trailing garment comes,
And enters at the western gate;
And round her throne the planets wheel,
Her chariots of state.

* * * * *

Oh, Summer, tho' from tower and tree
Thy touch has faded in the past,
The radiance of thy sunbeams still

Within my life is cast.

Upon the hills the flames upleap-
Upleap and fall within the night:
So in my heart thy vanished bloom
Enkindles into light.

—John MacFarlane.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus