“When we reflect upon the many unique characteristics of the Heather- its stern beauty of delicate purple bells nestling to a green mantled burly growth of brushwood; its distinctive vitality and strength of endurance; the wild rugged solitude of its native home in the Scottish Highlands, and the untamed spirit of independence which over broods this hermit flower of the mountain crags- it is not to be wondered at that the Heather should have been adopted as a symbol, or badge, by several of the leading clans of Scotland.” – Alexander Wallace (Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay)
Ur is the eighteenth letter of the Ogham. The tree or plant that Ur represents in the Tree Alphabet[i] is the Heather.
In Magical Alphabets Nigel Pennick claims that this letter represents luck and is an entry point to the inner worlds.
In the White Goddess, Robert Graves also says that Heather is lucky. He goes on to state that Heather has a strong connection with the bee. This is a observation that is made by many other writers including Stephanie and Philip Carr-Gomm[ii], Alexander Wallace[iii], as well as Liz and Colin Murray. The bee represents industriousness, family, community and social interactions. The Heather is not only frequented by bees, but can also grow in Heaths. This growth pattern represents its own gregarious nature.
In their book the Celtic Tree Oracle, the Murrays also say that Heather provides a link to the inner self. Strangely, they also claim that the Mistletoe can be a representative of Ur as well.
Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom seems to have quite a different take on Ur and the Heather plant. She claims that the Ogham letter Ur is representative of death, fate and finality; by its connection to the soil[iv]. Laurie also claims that Heather independent from the letter- is linked to poverty[v].
John Michael Greer brings the various beliefs together in his explanation of Ur found in the Druid Magic Handbook. He says that Ur represents “Power, creation, death and rebirth, symbolized by the Heather bush; spiritual power and creativity, a door opens in the inner world.”
Besides being linked to the bee, Heather is connected with mountains and the country of Scotland. The plant has links to fairies such as the Cluiricaune. Heather is also connected to witches, apparitions and also makes an appearance in at least one Cailleach tale.
Ur, or Heather, is the plant of death and the dead, luck, family and community, and can also help us to connect with the inner worlds.
“Heather is the four leaf clover of the Scottish Highlands.[vi]”
Heather, or Ur, does not appear very often in recorded Celtic folklore.
The Cluiricaune, who we spoke of in Ngetal, knew the secrets of brewing a heather beer. We also looked at an apparition that touched and killed a cow in Ohn; the Ogham letter covered last week. This apparition rose from the Gorse and Heather plants to bring about the destruction of the hapless creature. Both of these stories were discussed previously and can also be found in Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland by Thomas Croker.
The greatest wealth of memory regarding the Heather plant is found in Alexander Wallace’s 1903 book Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay. There is no greater resource than this book for anyone interested in a study of the cultural significance of Heather to the Celtic people.
Throughout the book there are many poems and stories related to Heather. In folklore the white Heather represented unselfish love. It was considered very unlucky for anyone to bring Heather indoors. The plant could, however, be used as protection against witches. At Beltane, Rowan and Heather branches were carried around the sacred fire three times before being raised above dwellings to protect the house’s occupants against the evil eye. On the other hand, throwing Heather after a person was supposed to bring them good luck.
Heather is often seen as a Scottish national symbol. The plant is associated with ancestors and is found on many clan badges.
“Macgregor as the rock, Macdonald as the Heather.”[vii]
Fairies are said to live in Heather bells and Heather honey is supposed to be one of their favourite foods. Apparently Heather, like Ivy[viii], does not grow in the land of the fairies. This may explain the fairies great affinity for the flower.
There is a story from Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay regarding a Heather fairy that I will share in its entirety due to its unique nature. It was originally told by a Mrs Grant of Laggan. The tale regards one of the fairy hills that Highlanders would often hear “fairie music” from.
“A little girl had been innocently loved by a fairy that dwelt in a tomhan[ix] near her mother’s habitation. She had three brothers who were the favourites of her mother. She herself was treated harshly and taxed beyond her strength; her ’employment was to go every morning and cut a certain quantity of turf from dry, heathy ground for immediate fuel ; and this with some uncouth and primitive implement. As she passed the hillock which contained her lover, he regularly put out his hand with a very sharp knife of sudi[x] power that it quickly and readily cut through all impediments. She returned cheerfully and early with her load of turf, and as she passed by the hillock she struck on it twice and the fairy stretched out his hand and received the knife.
“The mother, however, told the brothers that her daughter must certainly have had some aid to perform the allotted task. They watched her, saw her remove the enchanted knife and forced it from her. They re-turned, struck the hillock as she was wont to do, and when the fairy put out his hand, they cut it off with his own knife. He drew in the bleeding arm in despair; and supposing this cruelty was the result of treadiery[xi] on the part of his beloved, never saw her more.”
This is not the only dark story regarding the Heather plant. Witches in Scotland at Samhain were supposed to ride over Heather on black tabby cats. Heather can also be connected to the Cailleach; the primordial Celtic hag goddess.
It is said that whenever a hunter sees the Cailleach singing and milking the hinds upon a hillside, it is a warning. The vision is telling the hunter that he should not go, “roaming the Heath that day.” To ignore the warning was to invite a swift and merciless death[xii].
Heather, or Ur, is a magical herb indeed. The stories in Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay do speak of death, apparitions, family and luck. Perhaps the “inner worlds” that the Ogham authors speak of are simply more references to the Spiritworld or the lands of the fey?
If this is true, then the above stories verify this Heather connection as well.
There are too many tales of the fairies to list, which speak of them as being “the dead”[xiii]. If this were to be the case, then all of the various associations given to the Heather plant would not be as different from one another as they would at first appear.
Heather is a key to the realms of the mysterious. Some may see these lands as being external and separated from oneself, while others may choose to dive into the deepest hidden worlds that are found within.
Perhaps they are one and the same.
The Heather plant that represents Ur is Calluna Vulgaris.
Calluna Vulgaris is considered an invasive species in British Columbia as it is sometimes found to have naturalized. This non-native immigrant, however, is the Heather that is the same plant referred to in Celtic myth and legend. What we call Heather in British Columbia is not the same plant.
These are the native types of mountain Heather from the Cassiope and also the Phyllodoce Genus . The Mountain Heathers are close relatives of Calluna Vulgaris belonging to the same family Ericaceae[xiv]. Some of the species, such as White Mountain Heather or Yellow Mountain Heather, are common throughout the Pacific Northwest and BC.
The Heather of myth is usually a purple flower.
“According to the classical writers, the Druids taught three important things: Honor the gods. Do no evil. Live courageously.” – Tom Cowan(Yearning for the Wind)
[i] The Ogham was not originally intended to be used as a Tree Alphabet. See previous posts.
[ii] The Druid Animal Oracle.
[iii] Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay.
[iv] The Ogham Tract.
[v] Laurie is the Ogham expert that I probably respect, and agree with, the most. I disagree with her on this point, however, which may seem strange as she is much more knowledgable than me on Celtic mythology and the Ogham. I do not understand the poverty connection to Heather, however.
[vii] Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay.
[viii] See Gort post.
[ix] Fairy dwelling.
[x] I am not sure what this means.
[xi] Breech of faith.
[xii] We should be thankful that Alexander Wallace preserved so much of the lore associated with the Heather in a single place. I have merely skimmed the surface of this highly recommended book.
[xiii] Katherine Briggs. The Fairies in Tradition and Literature.