Surrounded by heather I have been researching how this material has been used in the past for making baskets and other useful items around the croft. My findings are piecemeal, snippets picked up here and there, supported by working with the material to understand its possibilities.
HEATHER ROPE AND THATCH –
I first learned how to make heather rope from someone who had learnt it from an old man on Orkney. Heather rope has been used for thousands of years, a piece was found in Scara Brae on Orkney, which was 5000 years old. I have seen it used on a house in N.Uist running horizontally from gable to gable on rafters made from found wood, in order to support the turf sods placed on top, which then support the thatch (rush or otherwise). In Orkney where the stone is so good for building the stone roof slabs have heather rope running vertically over the ridge on the outside, protecting the stone from breaking down with ice and snow. From the Gaelic dictionary, Dwelly, we have the word sìoman, which is the old gaelic word for rope, this is not much recognised now. Sìoman is described as a rope of twisted straw, hay or heather and gives rise to sìomanaiche, maening one who makes rope from hay, straw or heather. ‘Ropes made from heather are still preferred as fastenings for thatch, while in the Loch Eford district these are also used to secure boats. Small poaching-nets have been quite recently made of the same material, surely a most tedious and difficult task.’ from N.Uist – Erskine Beveridge. Heather was also used for thatching, ‘Heather laid above bent grass is considered the most lasting material for thatch, although rushes and iris leaves are often used.’ N.Uist – Eskine Beveridge. Another use of heather rope is for gathering seaweed, ‘they take a heather rope and wrap it all round with seaweed and stretch it outside when they are cutting the seaweed. When the tide comes in the rope and weed float, and at high water they drag at both ends of the rope and pull it ashore, with the seaweed enclosed as salmon fishers do when dragging for salmon.’ (East side of N.Uist) from the celtic monthly Dualchas No.1-Vol IX Oct1900
HEATHER CREEL –
In Gaelic called the word cliabh generally means a creel. There were a number of different types, Dwelly describes cliabh as ‘a kind of basket used in the Highlands for carrying burdens, cliabh-caol is a creel made of wands, cliabh-chuiseag is a creel made of stalks, cliabh-fiodha is a creel made of slips of wood, cliabh-fraoich is a creel made of heather, cliabh-giomach is a lobster creel and cliabh-spidrich is a creel for carrying burdens on horseback’
In the Outer Isles there is a shortage of wood and creels made of heather have been known, or where materials are mixed, willow with heather, for example depending on what is available.
HEATHER BAIT BASKETS –
These are baskets made of heather in a twisting stitch similar to making rope which were used for fishing bait. There are existing examples from Orkney, for instance there is a good sample in the museum in Kirkwall. Heather is very hard wearing and would have lasted with getting soaked in sea water.
HEATHER CUBBIES AND CAISIES –
Orkney baskets made using heather, straw and other materials. These were used for holding household items and hung on the walls
OTHER HEATHER ITEMS –
Heather besom brooms, pot scrubbers, mats and portable screens were made for around the house. Samples exist in the Kingussie Highland Folk Museum as well as other museums around Scotland. I have even heard of nails being made from heather to hold the slates down on an old lairds house in Greshornish on Skye
GATHERING HEATHER –
I have been told that heather was traditionally gathered in September when the sap has risen and it is at its most flexible. This heather was gathered just after flowering in September and then used all winter for making rope etc. There is great variety with this material and specialist knowledge of where to gather for what purpose was needed. On slopes where the heather is undisturbed you can find long lengths of plyable heather over a metre long, or you can find shorter thinner lengths on areas which have burned and regrown.
By Caroline Dear