At the moment, I’m doing research for a couple of live shows that I’m aiming to perform at Previously…Scotland’s History Festival. After all, I have a history degree from Edinburgh Uni and (particularly as I’m not overemployed by comedy at the moment) I may as well use it. “But”, you cry, “History is boring!”
OK, how about beer and football? Do you like them? I can’t really get much more populist than that, can I? Just because a topic is populist though, doesn’t mean that it can’t throw up intriguing details that the ordinary punter may not be aware of. One of my shows aims to look into some of the Scottish coaches who were so prominent in European football in the pre-WWII period. The other, to look at the history of beer in Scotland.
To double the incentive to do my research – and also to help me compile it into more usable formats for myself – I’ve decided to write articles based on these topics too. You can read my coaching pioneer articles so far on the legendary duo of:
John ‘Jake’ Madden
Oh, what was my dissertation at Uni on? Britain’s Role in the Development of the Cold War. Where were those two coaches based? Prague.
My fascination with beer? An interest deepened by being exposed via my Slovak wife to the former Czechoslovakia’s love affair with the stuff. If you think I’m exaggerating that, they even bathe in it…(that’s not my missus):
It’s funny how things all come together.
For Part 1 of Scotland’s History of Beer, read on:
If I were to ask you to name Scotland’s national drink, I’d expect to hear two answers shouted back at me. Whisky and Irn Bru. Scotland’s health problems summed up in one neat exchange; our national drinks being a spirit and a high-sugar hangover remedy.
In fact, while you’d probably have guessed that Irn Bru comes in at a fairly recent 112 years old, what you may not know is that the earliest confirmed mention of distilling in Scotland only dates back to 1494, a mere 519 years ago.1 I say a mere 519 years ago because archaeological evidence points to forms of ale being brewed in Scotland as far back as Neolithic times. The archaeologist Merryn Dineley examined the ruins to be found at the 5000 year-old Orcadian settlement site of Skara Brae and has identified one building as being a possible brewery. Using ingredients and facilities that would have been available to the inhabitants of the time she was even able to recreate what she believes would have been an approximation of their own early brews.2
Nowadays we tend to think of beer and ale as being the same thing…but ale is what would have been native to Scotland – as it involves fermented malt brews not flavoured by hops, while beer comes from the continental style of using hops as a flavouring.3
There is a debate over whether any forms of hops are native to the British isles. It can be found wild in some places in England, though this could be put down to cultivated crops escaping. What is known is that there is no record of cultivated hops being used for brewing in the British Isles before the 15th century.4 The conventional view is that hops were introduced from Europe, most likely the lowland countries, around this time.5
So if our ancestors weren’t using hops to flavour their brews, then what were they using? Well, the evidence seems to point to – among others – a plant called Meadowsweet. Meadowsweet does have a similar effect to Hops in both flavouring and preserving the beers it’s added to. When Dineley produced her experimental brews, she found that those made with Meadowsweet kept for months…while those without it went sour in days.6 Incidentally, Meadowsweet also contains salicylic acid, a synthesised form of which is…Aspirin. So our ancestors might have been treating their hangovers even as they were creating them!
While the use of Meadowsweet in brewing at Skara Brae is speculative and designed to fit the evidence available, its use as an additive to fermented drinks was definitely in practice in Scotland at least as far back as 4000 years ago…as shards of pottery on the Isle of Rhum reveal traces of it, forming part of a fermented brew that was also made with honey, grains and fern.7
Dating from around the same period, pottery from Balfarg, near Glenrothes, suggests a more potent brew. Traces were found of those same aforementioned ingredients…but also with added henbane.8 Henbane can cause hallucinations, convulsions, high blood pressure and a raised body temperature. As an aside, apparently in 2008 Antony Worrall Thompson writing in a magazine called “Healthy and Organic Living” referred to Henbane as a “tasty addition to salads”, before realising that he’d confused it with another plant. Had his mistake been carried to its full conclusion, then the job of Tesco’s store detectives may be a little easier today.
As well as Meadowsweet, another plant that our ancestors were using to flavour their beer was heather. There is some debate over this…as the legend dictates that heather beer wasn’t just flavoured with heather, but that it was the heather itself that was fermented to form the base of the beer, rather than grain.9
In fact, heather flowers don’t really contain enough sugar to be used as a fermentable material for beer. According to Scottish myth though, the Picts managed to produce such a brew and they were the only ones who knew the secret of its production. There are various versions of how the secret was lost to the mists of time. Most involve the Scots defeating the Picts in battle and the last Picts standing being a father and son. The Scots offer to spare them in return for the knowledge of how to ferment heather.
The father tells them that he will make the trade, but he fears what his son will do to him if he betrays the secret. Hence, if they want him to reveal it, they’ll have to kill his son first. This they do…and the father reveals that they’ve played into his hands. He’d feared that his son may weaken and tell them, while he knew that he himself never would.
As a story from centuries ago, it’s a heart-stirring legend. Whereas, these days, if a man had his son killed rather than give up his homebrew recipe – it’d be the grimmest episode of the Jeremy Kyle show yet.
Here’s the story as told in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Galloway Legend:
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.”
The description of the Picts as “dwarfish folk” is interesting. On the one hand, I think it unlikely that the Romans would have found themselves having to admit defeat to a nation of dwarves. On the other hand, I think of Jimmy Johnstone and Willie Henderson and ponder the damage that can be done to continentals by Scots with a low centre of gravity.
Ireland has the same legend, though in their version the heather ale was introduced by the Vikings. So it goes, when the Vikings were defeated in a great battle, the last of them refused to reveal the recipe until his son/s had been killed. Both the Scottish and Irish versions are similar to those found in the Nordic legend of Rhinegold…which involves prisoners tricking their captors into killing one of them to keep their secret.10
So where does the legend of heather beer end and the reality of it begin?
At the end of the 19th Century, a folklorist/social anthropologist specialising in highland culture and legend, R.C. Maclagan, carried out attempts at Edinburgh University in conjunction with a brewer called Andrew Melvin to find out whether it was possible to produce a beer based on heather flowers.11 They found that there wasn’t enough fermentable material in the flowers alone. They did find that when used as a flavouring for a malt-based beer, they were able to produce a satisfactory brew.
They also found that on Islay, the ‘father having the son killed’ legend was also present. This time in theory relating to locals killing the only family with the recipe, in a bungled attempt to gain the secret for themselves.
Heather ale, as in an ale flavoured with heather, had continued in Islay. In 1769, Thomas Pennant wrote in A Tour of Scotland that on the island of Islay “ale is frequently made of the young tops of heath, mixing two-thirds of that plant with one of malt, sometimes adding hops”.12
If you think that using heather rather than henbane in brews suggested a softening of the Scottish approach to what constituted the perfect pint…then think again. You may have tried the delicious Fraoch, a heather ale produced by Scottish brewers Williams Brothers and based on a highland recipe apparently hundreds of years old. In starting to produce the brew, Bruce Williams noticed a moss growing on the stems of the heather and had it tested by the botanist, Keith Thomas. Thomas concluded that the moss possessed “narcotic and mildly hallucinogenic properties”.13
Williams Brothers wash the moss from the heather they use in the modern version of the beer…our ancestors probably didn’t!
It’s hard to avoid the view that if fully ‘traditional’ Scottish brews were on sale today, they’d be sold exclusively through newsagents for the pleasure of the al fresco or bus shelter drinker.
From the 9th Century, the Vikings were making their presence felt in Scotland and they were to introduce a twist to Scottish beer tastes. According to the ‘Oxford Encyclopaedia of Food and Drink in America’, “Ancient Scandinavians and their Viking descendants brewed beer from young shoots of Norway spruce, drinking the beer for strength in battle”.14
Yet, according to Williams Brothers, who have also recreated a Pine & Spruce Ale, Alba, Shetland spruce ale was said to “stimulate animal instincts” and “give you twins”.15
It would seem that spruce ale was the drink of choice for those who wanted to make love and war.
So now we’ve covered Scottish brewing from pre-historic times to the Viking period…a vast history all pre-dating Scotland’s distilling history. In the next installment, we’ll examine the significance of beer in Medieval and Renaissance Scotland…