In this article, we’re gonna talk about heather.
But not Heather Graham.
Or Heather Locklear.
We’re gonna be talking about Scottish heather.
Purple, fragrant and ubiquitous, it’s an iconic part of Scotland’s landscape. It looks great, it smells great, and for many, it’s one of Scotland’s most famous assets. Alongside the thistle, it’s absolutely the nation’s most famous flower.
But when does heather bloom in Scotland? Where’s the best place to see it? And what do Scots do with the abundance of the purple plant they have at their disposal?
Read on and find out: here’s my guide to heather in Scotland.
Why is Scottish Heather Famous?
Mainly because there’s lots of it.
In the right place, at the right time of year, heather dominates Scotland’s landscapes, making homes atop mountains, on rolling hills, near beaches and close to cities.
But heather absolutely isn’t exclusive to Scotland. It can be found across the world, especially in large parts of northern Europe.
Maybe Scottish heather is famous because Scottish people have historically used the plant in various imaginative ways. Maybe it’s famous because of its abundant omnipresence in Scottish art and literature. Maybe it’s famous because its rugged nature reflects the rugged nature of Scottish people.
In short, I don’t know why heather is so heavily associated with Scotland rather than any other country. And no-one else really seems to.
But if you want to see heather, visit Scotland – because at the right time of year, you can’t really miss it.
When Does Heather Bloom in Scotland?
The best time to see heather in Scotland is summer and early fall. Any time in July, August and September can be good, but August is the best month.
During August, heather is at the height of its bloom, so landscapes are liberally doused in lurid mauves and purples.
August is also the best time for inhaling heady doses of heather’s scent, when it’s at its most woody and mossy.
What Does Heather Smell Like?
Heather smells mossy and woody, and its smell is pretty subtle. A light and fresh fragrance that’s ambient rather than atmospheric, it’s pleasant but not overbearing.
If you’re frolicking through a heathery field, you’ll probably notice an earthy, musky smell. That’s heather! Because of its scent, heather is quite a popular ingredient in male beauty products, such as soap and cologne.
Where Can I See Heather in Scotland?
To see heather in Scotland, it’s best to go The Highlands, but you can see huge amounts of heather across vast areas of the nation.
If you really want a hefty heather fix, here are the best parts of Scotland for finding the flower:
- The Northern Highlands: if you go anywhere north of Ullapool, you’ll see heather. You’ll see it on mountains, on rolling hills, near beaches and on farmland. In the northwestern Highlands, heather is ubiquitous and unmissable.
- The Western Highlands: let’s talk about Ullapool again. Places surrounding Ullapool’s western coast (such as Torridon, Gairloch and Skye) have endless amounts of heather.
- Cairngorms National Park: the largest national park in Britain, there’s plenty of room here for heather to grow. Anywhere is good, but the plant seems to particularly like growing in – and near – Boat of Garten.
- Edinburgh: if you want accessible heather near civilisation, Edinburgh is a great bet. Try the Lammermuir Hills and the Pentland Hills. The hills surrounding Glasgow are also a pretty good place for heather-spotting.
- The Borderlands: the coastal stretch around Eyemouth, Coldingham and St Abbs on Scotland’s southeastern coast is a good choice if you don’t want to travel very far north.
Broadly speaking, heather grows in high, exposed areas of land which haven’t been cultivated or farmed. If land is exposed and untouched, you’ll probably find heather there.
If you’ve never before been to Scotland, you’ll probably be surprised by just how much heather you can find.
Heather loves poor, acidic soil, and there’s lots of it throughout Scotland, which makes it the perfect place for hardy heather looking to carve out an hospitable but uncomfortable home.
There’s an estimated 5 million acres of heather in Scotland. If that means nothing to you (which it didn’t to me), that’s more than 2.5 million soccer fields. That’s a lot of soccer, and it’s a lot of heather. Around 12% of Scotland’s natural landscape is heather moor, so in theory, up to 12% of Scotland could, at any one time, be covered in heather.
(A side note: it’s probably not a good idea to play football/soccer in heather. It wouldn’t be a good game).
Where Won’t I See Heather in Scotland?
Don’t worry about location – worry instead about timing.
If you visit Scotland during August, you can’t fail to see heather, especially if you visit high, exposed, uncultivated areas with no natural shelter.
Are Heather and Lavender the Same?
No. They look similar, but they aren’t the same. They look different, smell different, and grow in different places to one another. They’re absolutely not the same thing.
Is All Heather Purple?
No. Most Scottish heather is purple, but you can also find shades of heather in gold, copper and red.
White heather is uncommon, but it can be found in some parts of Scotland. Because it’s so uncommon, white heather is traditionally thought to be lucky, and it’s often incorporated into Scottish weddings as a good luck charm.
If you really want to see some white heather, you could maybe crash a Scottish wedding while you’re traveling there. But don’t blame me if people get upset.
How is Heather Used in Scotland?
In Scotland, heather is – and was – used as a food, a medicine, a fragrance and more. It’s even tied to many myths and legends surrounding Scotland and its history.
Here’s a guide to how heather is – and was – used in Scotland:
1. Scottish Heather is Used in Honey
To make it more tasty! Traditionally, heather was used in a huge amount of Scottish honey – and it’s still a very popular ingredient in the syrupy flavourfest.
Beekeepers in Scotland produce heather honey by placing hives in heatherland during summer. Their loyal little bees gather all the heather pollen and (though they don’t know it) help their master to make lots of heather honey – and lots of money in the process. In case you’re wondering, I don’t think the bees get a share of the profits.
Heather honey is darker than most honey, and it’s typically red, orange or amber. It tastes rich, pungent and woody, and it’s really unique! It has a very thick texture, and it’s like a jelly when unstirred. Because of this viscous texture, it’s pretty difficult to extract the honey, so it’s often sold as comb honey.
If you want a good souvenir from your time in Scotland, heather honey is a great one – it’s unique, it’s tasty, it’s traditional and it’s very rarely mass-produced.
And if you want to taste some Scottish heather honey from the comfort of your home, head over to amazon and order yourself a jar. It’s really delicious!
2. Scottish Heather is Used As Medicine
Heather has lots of medicinal uses, and even now is used in soaps, detoxifiers and aromatherapy products. These aromatherapy products can be used to treat coughs, stomach problems, insomnia and skin issues.
But traditionally, heather once had way more uses. Ancient Scottish people once believed that heather was some sort of magic potion, and could be used to cure blindness, anxiety, poisoning, tuberculosis, arthritis, rheumatism and more. They’d use heather to make potions, drinks, lotions and more, swallowing it and smearing it in every possible way they could.
Now, heather is used most commonly as an ingredient in fragrances, like soaps, candles and perfumes. So although a heather product might not cure your blindness, it might make your (or your home) smell nice.
3. Heather is Used in Food
As noted above, heather honey is tasty. But it’s not only eaten on its own – heather honey can be used as an ingredient in syrups, sauces and dressings, adding lots of rich flavour to all sorts of meals and morsels.
But heather can also be a great ingredient in drinks.
One of the oldest types of ales in the world, heather ale has been brewed from Scottish heather for well over 4000 years. Traditionally, heather has been used to make beer and ale in Scotland as an alternative ingredient to hops, since no hops grow in the nation.
4. Heather is Used at Weddings in Scotland
As mentioned earlier, white heather is considered to be a lucky charm for Scottish brides-to-be.
And here’s why:
According to legend, all the way back in the 3rd century, a woman named Malvina (daughter of a Scottish poet) was due to marry a man named Oscar. But Oscar died in battle. This news was communicated to Malvina by a messenger, who also delivered – along with the news – a sprig of purple heather.
This heather had been sent by Oscar as a parting gift.
Malvina cried. Her tears fell upon the heather. And those tears magically turned the heather white. Malvina then said “although it is the symbol of my sorrow, may the white heather bring good fortune to all who find it.”
I never claimed it was realistic, but that’s the way the story goes – and that’s why heather is now used in Scottish weddings. But how is it used?
Well, that’s a lengthy list:
In bouquets, on table decorations, as corsages and as confetti. And in earrings, necklaces and button holes. And as centrepieces. And in soaps. In short, if there’s a way for heather to be packed and crammed into a Scottish wedding, it’s already been done. There are even more ideas here.
Though white heather is most associated with Scottish weddings – and most often used in Scottish weddings – purple heather is a pretty common addition too. Because the plant is thought to bring good luck to whoever comes into contact with it, heather is a logical choice for marriage ceremonies.
So if you don’t want your future spouse to abandon you at the altar, maybe you should wear some.
5. How else is Heather Used in Scotland?
Aside from in medicine, food, drink and fragrances, heather has lots of traditional uses:
- Building: heather was used for construction throughout Scotland for many years, especially on the islands, where it was more difficult to access resources. Used in walls, roofs and ropes, it was a builder’s dream, and it kept millions of people warm through harsh Scottish winters.
- Mattresses and beds: dried heather was once used as a mattress filler, as it’s light, bouncy and comfortable. Sometimes, flower heads were placed at the top of these mattresses for a sweet little scent for snoozers to enjoy while drifting off to sleep.
- Tools: heather stems have been used to make brooms, hoes, brushes and musical instruments.
- Dye: when natural dyes were more popular than artificial ones, heather was a popular choice for purple tones.
Is Heather Dangerous?
No, heather is not dangerous. The flower itself is completely harmless.
But it’s not without its perils. Ticks love living in heather, especially heather which grows above knee height.
Though you shouldn’t be afraid of ticks, you should definitely be aware of them – and you should definitely take precautions against them. In the UK, ticks can transmit Lyme Disease, which can be pretty horrible, and even fatal.
Try to avoid walking in long heather, and definitely avoid walking in long heather if your legs aren’t covered. When you’ve finished walking, check your whole body for ticks and make sure you remove any of them properly and appropriately. Here’s how.
Ticks in heather have become a particular problem in recent years, as that pesky boy global warming has been making Scotland warmer and wetter – and ticks love warmer and wetter.
Do Any Animals in Scotland Eat Heather?
Yes. There are lots of farm animals and wild animals in Scotland, and there’s lots of heather, which is a handy combination for the hungry little beasts.
Farmed sheep and wild deer eat heather, especially in winter when low-level grazing can be frozen or covered in snow.
One creature in particular loves munching on heather so much that it’s named after the stuff. The heather beetle, which is tiny and brown, can cause problems in some areas, and its irrepressible appetite for heather can make large chunks of heatherland brown, instead of purple. For you, endless fields of heather are an unmissable Instagram opportunity. For the heather beetle, it’s an unmissable buffet.
Heather’s most famous consumer is grouse, who love gobbling on the seeds of the plant. For this reason, large areas of Scotland’s heatherland are home to hunting.
On relatively flatter patches of heatherland, hunters burn some of the heather to make new shoots grow thick and fast. Where new shoots grow thick and fast, more young grouse come. And where there are more grouse, there are more opportunities for shooting.
It’s hardly a pleasant sport, but it’s one that does happen.
5 Fun Facts About Scottish Heather
- In Scotland, white heather is traditionally thought to grow over the final resting place of fairies. Quaint!
- The Druids (ancient Celtic religious leaders) once considered heather to be holy and sacred.
- Even today, some people believe that heather can be used as a charm as protection against harm. Some mega-traditionalists even carry a sprig with them.
- Heather’s real name is ‘Calluna Vulgaris’…
- … but it’s thought that the word ‘heather’ comes from the old Scottish word ‘haeddre’, an ancient word used to describe a heathland.
In Scotland, heather is everywhere. And so too is its influence – the flower is hugely tied to Scotland’s history, culture and tradition.
It’s even frequently referenced in much of the country’s literature, art and poetry.
In one of his most famous poems, ‘The Bonie Moor-Hen’, Robert Burns (Scotland’s most loved and most famous poet) makes reference to the plant, opening with the line ‘the heather was blooming, the meadows were mawn’.
Heather is hugely tied to Scottish landscapes and Scottish identity. And it has been for thousands of years. For many, it’s one of the most memorable and iconic parts of a trip to the nation.
Iconic and ubiquitous, make sure you see some heather when you visit Scotland.
Want to know even more about the iconic plant? This book is great, with stories, poems, facts and literature excerpts.
If you want to learn more about Scotland, we have many more articles on our site. Interested in Scottish cities? Or road trips in Scotland? Or how it fits into the UK more broadly? Stay with us and learn more.
Paul is a handsome and hilarious travel writer and travel journalist from the UK. He’s hiked, hitchhiked and laughed his way through more than fifty countries, and he’s always looking for a new place to call home. Originally from Newcastle, he’s lived all over the UK, spent more than three years in Asia, and most recently lived in Vietnam. Here’s his website.