Heather is an icon of Scotland. Here is where you will find it – and some advice about the best time to see it in bloom. It’s surprisingly widespread – you don’t even have to visit the Highlands!
Heather is actually quite widely distributed in northern Europe and beyond, yet, like the thistle, has become strongly associated with Scotland.
This page will tell you where you can find heather – and when it’s at its best. Plus there’s lots about the heritage of heather further down the page.
Basically, common heather – Calluna vulgaris – is a plant that thrives on poor, acid soils – the kind of peatland that is found widely in the Scottish Highlands.
Heather predominates over great swathes of Scottish Highland landscapes in the north and west.
If you don’t intend to travel as far as the Highlands, then heather is easy to find in the Southern Uplands, ie around and also over the Scottish Border (into England. Eeek!)
Wherever there is ‘unimproved’ uncultivated ground, particularly in exposed or fairly high level places, then there should be heather.
For instance, you can very often find heather on exposed ground stretching back from sea cliffs. Here’s an example in the Scottish Borders, for example, up the coast from St Abbs.
In contrast to its appearance on exposed coastal sites, heather is also an important part of what the ecologists call the ‘understorey’ of the native pinewoods, especially associated with Speyside and Cairngorms National Park.
Here’s some quite rank and leggy heather growing in the woods near Boat of Garten.
The heap in the middle is a large ants’ nest, again, typical of the pinewoods.
(Please do not poke about in it with a stick!)
Heather On Hills Very Near Edinburgh…
As you can see, you don’t even have to travel very far from the main cities of Scotland to find that characteristic heather habitat.
There, near Edinburgh or Glasgow, you get a taste – or scent – of the real Highlands.
…and likewise plenty of heather close to Glasgow.
When Can I See
Heather In Bloom?
Heather blooms at its best in late summer, peaking in August, when the moors and slopes of the uplands are a blanket of mauve and purple shades. As a bonus, the scent is glorious.
However, not all heather is Calluna. Up to this point, we’ve been going on about generic ‘heather’ ie the mauve plant that is a kind of Scottish icon. Heather hereabouts comes in two main types, with three main species. Basically, there is common heather and also bell-heather.
Is Bell Heather Purple?
As mentioned above, bell heather in Scotland is represented by two species – Erica cinerea (sometimes carnea) ‘bell heather’ and Erica tetralix – cross-leaved heath. Confusing, isn’t it?
Especially as cross-leaved heath likes it wetter than bell heather and has four leaves in whorls on the stem, while bell heather just has three. But, yes, they all come in shades of mauve and purple. (Uhmm, except when they are white.)
Common heather especially – Calluna vulgaris – is a plant that thrives on poor, acid soils – the kind of peatland that is found widely in the Scottish Highlands.
Improving the poor ground by way of fertilizer and/or lime brings in competing grasses and the heather dies away. In fact, some say the amount of heather moor in Scotland is declining – but it still makes up about 12% of Scotland’s landscape.
So you can see full-scale heather moor, as well as habitat that has both heather and coarse grasses, all the way through to upland habitat, often on limestone ‘base-rich’ rocks that have no heather at all, because it’s too ‘rich’ for the plant to thrive.
Where NOT to see heather….
You’ll see the difference the underlying rocks make if, for instance, you visit the Ben Lawers National Nature Reserve in Perthshire. It’s great for all kinds of arctic-alpine flowers found in Scotland but totally hopeless if you’re looking for heather!
By the way, heather, of whatever species, mixes it with quite a lot of other species to give different types of ‘heath’. If you’re ecologically inclined then find out more about heather and heathlands on this deadly serious page from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee.
Until I read it myself, I had no idea that I had really been describing an “upland transitional (sub-montane) cool oceanic heath”. (‘Coughs apologetically’) OK, that’s enough ecology.
Just A Wee Word Of Warning About Heather
To this day, you will still hear Scots folk use the expression – usually in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way – ‘to take to the heather’, usually meaning to escape to the outdoors or just run away.
If, say, you are taking photographs and you literally decide to take to the heather, remember that, before you go striding about in what can be quite tall (ie above knee height) vegetation, heather is also tick habitat.
I don’t mean to be alarmist in any way, as I’ve walked in heather all my days, though not all the time, obviously. But ticks in Scotland are part of the local fauna to be avoided.
We have lots of tick information on the link above. (And there’s another at the end of the page.)
Johanna’s Highland granny in Arisaig called them ‘heather crabs’ and always checked the children for them in summer if they had been playing outdoors. You’re looking for something the size of a small spider.
Best to find them at the stage before they start blood sucking!
Heather And Grouse Moors
Before I turned honest (or grumpy?), I often had to write relentlessly upbeat tourism material for brochures and guides, extolling the beauties of our uplands.
However, not everywhere in the Highlands (or Southern Uplands for that matter) is grand and craggy.
A lot of upland landscape is more of the rolling, whale-back variety. It’s quite scenic, but hardly, say, Glencoe or Torridon. And it’s those wide slopes that make the best moors specifically managed for the shooting of red grouse.
Not all heather moor is managed for grouse shooting, but it is quite widely used for that purpose.
So, how should you describe a managed grouse moor? I mean visually from the average visitor point of view? I always used to write something about the look of it being marbled, almost like a chocolate cake. Hopeless simile, by the way.
What I was referring to were the streaks and patches where the heather had been deliberately burned on the rolling slopes of the moor.
Why? Because burning encourages the growth of new heather shoots and this in turn provides food for red grouse. It’s usually done in early spring. The ‘crop’ of grouse is all important to the estate owners.
When the grouse season gets under way (12th August), these birds are the favoured target for toffs, nouveau-riche and sundry other well-heeled tweed-clad poseurs who enjoy killing things for ‘sport’.
(Look, I’m trying to be impartial here, OK?)
Anyway, It costs big bucks for a day out on a managed heather moor poncing around with two barrels and a scratchy tweed suit.
So these wild uplands that Scottish tourism agencies used to pay me to refer to as ‘wilderness’ and ‘unspoilt’ are basically completely managed and unnatural.
You’ll find managed heather moors in the north, in the Eastern Highlands, Angus and Perthshire and down into the Southern Uplands. And in the north of England too.
And they look quite nice when the purple heather is in full bloom.
When the heather isn’t in bloom, managed grouse moors just look depressingly brown and boring, with their ugly burnt strips and patches.
One downside of the bonnie heather moor
…if it’s a moor managed for grouse shooting.
As an aside, the management of the grouse-shooting estate may, just may, in some cases involve the illegal killing of birds of prey, and the perfectly legal killing of fine things such as mountain hares.
Gamekeeping brotherhood lore is that they carry ticks and infect the poor wee grouse. (There is no hard evidence for this, apparently. Take a look at this summary of mountain hare culling and decline.)
And all of this is sometimes defended because it brings some money into the rural economy.
Managed moorland is about 13% of Scotland’s land area – treeless, burnt and empty of a lot of wildlife – except grouse of course. And it’s worth only .04% to Scotland’s economy. Apparently.
Oh, let’s get back to heather…
More About Heather And Its Heritage
Common heather is also called ‘ling’ (In Norwegian, heather is ‘lyng’). In Gaelic it’s fraoch.
My Gaelic language contact at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic college on Skye, reminded me that the Lewis, the largest of the Outer Hebrides, is sometimes known as Eilean an Fhraoich, or just Eilean Fraoich, Heather Isle.
And he also told me there’s a homesick song from Harris (called ‘Geugag Fraoich’ (Sprig of Heather) where someone on a hard city street sees a stray sprig of heather and gets all teary-eyed for home.
He didn’t explain how the heather ended up there. Perhaps it fell out of the radiator grille of a passing car. As a boy, I remember that if folk went for a holiday to the Highlands, they always came back with heather stuck on the car radiator. Odd.
I think it was a kind of badge to advertise to the neighbours where they’d been.
What Was Heather Used For?
Anyway, the tough stems of common heather or ling used to be a useful to the Highlanders of old – they made rope out of the stems.
It was used as a broom, as bedding, between the stone walls for insulation, as a source of dye for cloth – and was even made into ale.
(The broom part is also alluded to in the scientific name Calluna. This refers to the Greek word ‘kallunein’ to sweep or beautify.)
As for heather ale, the Picts, it is said, had the original recipe. However the tribe inconveniently disappeared in Scotland more than a millennium ago, and took the recipe with them.
Fortunately, a wide variety of historic ales including Fraoch Ale as well as Gooseberry Ale and Pine and Spruce Ale is now brewed in Scotland.
Heather’s use as bedding (mentioned above) is a link between its domestic and its herbal or medicinal role. The old herbalists knew that ‘they who lie down at night faint and weary’ on a heather bed, ‘rise in the morning active and lively’ – because of its restorative properties.
Herbalists also prescribed it – and still do – for its anti-rheumatic properties and its specific use in the treatment of urinary infections.
Heather has another property with both a mythical and a modern link.
It naturally gives rise to ‘sports’ or mutants. The origins of white heather – as opposed to the usual mauve hues – were explained in folk-myth.
Apparently, it marks the places where the tears of Malvina, daughter of the Celtic bard Ossian, fell after she had learned of the death of her lover in battle. And why not…
Other heather products
Today, many of the cultivars to be found in garden centres both in Scotland and beyond were developed from chance finds in the wild or from sports noticed on other cultivars already growing in gardens.
post-war shortage of timbers spawned a short-lived industry which made floor tiles from compressed heather stems. Though commercially unsuccessful, the bonding techniques evolved into a heather-gem jewellery range.
In short, heather is still playing a role in the Highland economy, not just in its wild form sheltering a variety of wildlife. Heather honey is still produced from hives taken out to blossoming moors in summer.
The honey is delicious and makes a good souvenir gift of your Scottish vacation. In fact, heather as a flavour turns up in a variety of Scottish products from a Highland liqueur to a range of cosmetics.
And for the ultimate in Scottish iconography: what about a hairy coo wading through heather? That link is where to find them.
Here are things you don’t want to find in heather. Beware of ticks.