The Legends of
Heather Ale

From the bonny bells of heather
They brewed a drink long-syne,
Was sweeter far than honey…

By David White

The legend of Heather Ale has numerous incarnations across both the Mull of Galloway and over the Irish sea. All are similar in that they speak of an Irish King who, having defeated a civilisation, was faced with the final two of their kind and stated he would free them if they would share the secret recipe of Heather Ale.

In the Scottish version, depicted in the below poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, the civilisation being wiped out was the Picts and the attackers were the Irish.  The story goes that having defeated the picts throughout Scotland the last few were driven to the Mull of Galloway where all bar two were slain. The king sought to retrieve from those two survivors the secret of Heather Ale. Those two survivors were a father and son who had been captured in battle. Upon the king’s demands for the recipe for Heather Ale the father told the raiding king that he would tell him the recipe if the king killed his son, for he believed his son would surely kill him if he were to disclose this sacred secret to an outsider. The king then killed the son and upon doing so the father laughed, for while saddened by the loss of his son he knew had had beaten the king. He stated he had never intended to share the recipe, but his son may have and thus, to ensure its secrecy, he had to die. Upon the disclosure of his deception he threw himself from a cliff and died on the rocks below, the secret dying with him.

 This was the story I was told when growing up in rural Dumfries & Galloway; however, another similar legend is told in Ireland that dates back via spoken word to the 1600s and likely much earlier. The Irish tales share subtle differences, however, their version speaks of the Vikings as the vanquished civilisation and their descriptions seem to correlate to a significant victory by an Irish High King in 1014 against the Vikings. Here too there are two left and offered the chance to live but the recipe is never shared.

Interestingly, the early Irish legends refer to the Heather Ale as “bheóir Lochlannach”, or ‘Viking Beer’, however, it is thought that it was actually a mead-like drink rather than Ale. So unfortunately, modern recreationists may be looking in entirely the wrong direction for that legendary liquor. 

Robert Louis Stevenson  took a particular likening to this legend and thus wrote this poem. 

From the bonny bells of heather
   They brewed a drink long-syne,
Was sweeter far than honey,
   Was stronger far than wine.
They brewed it and they drank it,
   And lay in a blessed swound
For days and days together
   In their dwellings underground.

There rose a king in Scotland,
   A fell man to his foes,
He smote the Picts in battle,
   He hunted them like roes.
Over miles of the red mountain
   He hunted as they fled,
And strewed the dwarfish bodies
   Of the dying and the dead.

Summer came in the country,
   Red was the heather bell;
But the manner of the brewing
   Was none alive to tell.
In graves that were like children’s
   On many a mountain head,
The Brewsters of the Heather
   Lay numbered with the dead.

The king in the red moorland
   Rode on a summer’s day;
And the bees hummed, and the curlews
   Cried beside the way.
The king rode, and was angry,
   Black was his brow and pale,
To rule in a land of heather
   And lack the Heather Ale.

It fortuned that his vassals,
   Riding free on the heath,
Came on a stone that was fallen
   And vermin hid beneath. 

Rudely plucked from their hiding,
   Never a word they spoke:
A son and his aged father—
   Last of the dwarfish folk.

The king sat high on his charger,
   He looked on the little men;
And the dwarfish and swarthy couple
   Looked at the king again.
Down by the shore he had them;
   And there on the giddy brink—
“I will give you life, ye vermin,
   For the secret of the drink.”

There stood the son and father
   And they looked high and low;
The heather was red around them,
   The sea rumbled below.
And up and spoke the father,
   Shrill was his voice to hear:
“I have a word in private,
   A word for the royal ear.

“Life is dear to the aged,
   And honour a little thing;
I would gladly sell the secret,”
   Quoth the Pict to the King.
His voice was small as a sparrow’s,
   And shrill and wonderful clear:
“I would gladly sell my secret,
   Only my son I fear.

“For life is a little matter,
   And death is nought to the young;
And I dare not sell my honour
   Under the eye of my son.
Take him, O king, and bind him,
   And cast him far in the deep;
And it’s I will tell the secret
   That I have sworn to keep.”

They took the son and bound him,
   Neck and heels in a thong,
And a lad took him and swung him,
   And flung him far and strong,
And the sea swallowed his body,
   Like that of a child of ten;—
And there on the cliff stood the father,
   Last of the dwarfish men. 

“True was the word I told you:
   Only my son I feared;
For I doubt the sapling courage
   That goes without the beard.
But now in vain is the torture,
   Fire shall never avail:
Here dies in my bosom
   The secret of Heather Ale.”

Leave a Reply