There are numerous legends about the long-lost drink made with heather blossoms, an elixir that was, quite famously, worth dying for. The purple flowers that decorate the long arms of the short Scottish shrub are the key ingredient — nothing else will do. And while they all differ in some respects, the legends share one common element: a father willing to kill his son and himself rather than give up the recipe for the liquid ambrosia known as “heather ale.”
The Scottish version, which would later be set to a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, told the story of an Irish defeat of the Picts, a tribe from the northeastern corner of the Scottish lands, which the Romans had called Caledonia. The tribe had lost its independence when they were defeated and assimilated by the Scottish King Kenneth McAlpin in 843 C.E. After the Picts were pushed to the edge of Ireland at the Mull of Galloway, the Irish king and his men slaughtered nearly all of them, leaving just two men alive — a Pictish chief and his son. The Irish king offered a deal to the man: He would spare their lives in exchange for their recipe for heather ale.
According to Scottish legend, the father promised he would tell the Irish the Pictish recipe for heather ale, but only if the Irish king would first kill his son. The Irish king was surprised by this, and asked why the father would want his own son dead. The father explained that his son’s honor was so great that if he believed his father had given up their recipe, the son would take his life. The Irish king was impressed and ordered his men to kill the son.
After the father watched his son die, he laughed at the Irish warriors and their king. This angered the Irish king, and he demanded an explanation. The Pict said he feared his son might want to keep his life and would agree to give up their precious recipe. But he would never divulge their secret. And with that, he ran to the land’s end and threw himself over the edge of a cliff — the secret of heather ale dying with him.
When Stevenson penned his poem, “Heather Ale: a Galloway Legend,” he gave a lyrical treatment of this brutal and bloody legend. In its first stanza in particular, he offered readers a sense of why the ale is still so highly-prized, centuries later:
From the bonny bells of heather
They brewed a drink long-syne,
Was sweeter far then 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.
For centuries after the Picts had been wiped out, heather ale was thought to be extinct. But starting in the 1500s, rumors emerged that brewers were making it in secret once more, only for those rumors to eventually die off as wars between kings yet again drove it further underground. Worse yet, with the creation of the United Kingdom in 1707, there came new laws that proscribed which drinks could be brewed and which could not. Specifically, only hops and malt could be used for brewing, meaning that heather ale was effectively banned in the U.K.
In 1838, the author Samuel Morewood reported on an archaeological find that may have held the lost secrets of how to brew heather ale. He wrote about a group of ditchdiggers working at a monastery in County Limerick, Ireland, who discovered “a portion of brewing materials, together with some cakes of bread and heather, concealed in the position where they were left by the Danes.” The most exciting find, however, was a recipe book of sorts. “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,” Morewood explained. But alas, he continued, “It was clandestinely taken away.”
Then, 150 years later, in the late 1980s, a brewmaster’s recipe appeared like Brigadoon from the ether. Only this time, there was one man, Bruce Williams, who made it his mission to ensure that heather ale would never be lost again. He located the long-lost recipe when serendipity visited him, and “a Gaelic-speaking Islander translated an ancient recipe for heather ale in [Williams’] homebrew shop in Glasgow.” Afterwards, Williams collected and sourced dozens of different varieties of local heather from Scotland to find the one that best matched the ancient recipe, and in 1988, he started brewing test samples.
By 1992, he had finally brewed an ale he felt was fit to be called heather ale, though he referred to it by its old name, “Leann Fraoch.” Williams was assisted by a brewer named Dick Saunders, and together in a “railway station waiting room at Taynuilt, Argyll,” they “used an entire batch of heather, picked by hand by Bruce and gangs of locals who he paid £2 per gallon bucket,” and they made that first successful batch. Chris Williams, Bruce’s son, recalled that trip to source fresh heather: “I think we spent more time playing hide and seek or chasing the massive, beautiful dragonflies about the heather. I remember the evenings with the pickers, sat round a fire, playing/jamming folk songs, drinking beer and eating stews.”
Once Williams was able to brew and sell a heather ale that met the high expectations of the Scots and Irish for whom it has remained a symbol of their bygone pasts as Gaelic peoples, he knew he was on to something good. Today, the Williams Brothers Brewery-made heather ale, which they’ve nicknamed “the Original Craft Beer,” is a commercial success and available internationally. In their tasting notes, they describe it as “a light amber ale with floral-peaty aroma, full malt character and a spicy herbal finish.” “This beer allows you to literally pour 4,000 years of Scottish history into a glass,” they add.
Heather ale has also become something of an obsession for homebrewers, who have worked in recent years to ensure the recipe will never be lost again. Their spins on it can sometimes sound like the journals of a medieval alchemist. Case in point: This account from Game of Brews: “The proportions and ingredients for my recipe came from a combination of sources. I incorporated the meadowsweet from the neolithic recipe, and used the 2/3 heather to 1/3 malt proportion from the 1777 work, Flora Scotica. Weighing the same amounts didn’t seem to make sense, given how light heather is, so I went with volume measurements. The sweet gale is commonly added to gruit recipes, so I included it in this as well for an added flavor.”
Interestingly, while the Scottish tales of the legend of heather ale focus on an Irish king routing the last of the Picts, when the Irish tell that same story, it’s a Danish king who is defeated by the Irish, rendering it a Danish secret kept by the defeated king, which would also mean that heather ale was actually originally a Danish beverage. According to Irish tales and legends, the Irish faced the Danes, or Vikings, at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 C.E. on a battleground not too far from Dublin. The High King Brian Boru is the one given credit for leading the Irish to victory.
In those early Irish tales, heather ale was called bheóir Lochlannach, with “Lochlann” being an Irish term for Vikings. As such, bheóir Lochlannach would translate to something like, “beer of the Vikings.” However, if you travel further down the path of etymological analysis, some wordsmiths say that the term bheóir Lochlannach refers to a “mead” rather than an ale or beer.
Ultimately, the most contemporary account we have of the legend of heather ale comes from the British philosopher John Locke. In the 1859 Ulster Journal of Archaeology, there’s documentation of the legend as Locke had heard it from an Irish peasant of County Cork. He claims the peasant was a century old at the time, and that the peasant had heard it from his grandfather: “The secret ultimately rested, after the decisive Battle of Clontarf, with three surviving Danes, a father and two sons. The father, being threatened with torture to compel him to divulge, replied that his sons would kill him if he did so; that obstacle was effectually removed by the execution of his sons, and the father exclaimed, ‘Now my purpose is accomplished; youth might have yielded to the fear of death, and played the traitor, but age has no such terror,’ and so heroically suffered death; the secret of making the heath-beer perishing with him.”
It’s not exactly Stevenson, whose close reaches an even more dramatic crescendo (if not covers a lot of the same ground):
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.
But it’s poetry in its own right. How can it not be? It’s the story of a drink so extraordinary that it’s worth dying for.