Scots have plenty of plants to dye for

The Oban Times - - HERITAGE - [email protected]­in­ter­ IAIN THORNBER

There is no doubt ca­sual clothes are much brighter than they used to be, but do their colours last?

Not re­ally. As most of to­day’s dyes are syn­thetic, they soon fade no mat­ter what it says on the wash­ing-pow­der box.

Tex­tile dye­ing dates back thou­sands of years. Through­out his­tory, peo­ple have dyed their clothes us­ing com­mon, lo­cally avail­able ma­te­ri­als. Early dyes were ob­tained from an­i­mal, veg­etable or min­eral sources, with nil to very lit­tle pro­cess­ing.

By far the great­est source of dyes is the plant king­dom, no­tably roots, berries, bark, leaves and wood. The first syn­thetic dye, mau­veine, was dis­cov­ered serendip­i­tously by a Bri­tish chemist, Sir Wil­liam Henry Perkin (1838-1907), who was look­ing for a treat­ment for malaria.

Eighty years ago there was a re­vival of the an­cient art of nat­u­ral dye­ing and dye-mak­ing for the tweed and kilt in­dus­try. When it be­gan, man­u­fac­tur­ers were sur­prised to learn just how many plants were suit­able and the range of colours they pro­duced. To find them, our fore­bears must have de­lib­er­ately ex­per­i­mented with ev­ery plant that grows on our na­tive hills, straths and glens with ev­ery part of the plant ex­am­ined for its prop­er­ties.

There were more than 80 na­tive High­land dyes of al­most ev­ery procur­able shade of the dom­i­nant colours which were used and val­ued. They con­sisted of no fewer than 14 dif­fer­ent yel­lows, 10 reds, seven pur­ples, nine browns and as many greens, and of ev­ery colour there is a cer­tain range of choice.

The weak point in nat­u­ral High­land colour pro­duc­tion was blue. There were only two sources, the blue blae­berry and elder berries, both re­quir­ing the ad­di­tion of alum or cop­peras (iron sul­phate) as a fix­a­tive.

To­day most tar­tans and tweeds are pro­duced un­der com­mer­cial and in­dus­trial con­di­tions and are de­pen­dent on com­mer­cial mak­ers for their dyed yarns. Per­haps one day the old in­dus­try of dye-mak­ing will be re­vived: there must surely be a mar­ket for tar­tans and tweeds made from nat­u­ral dyes col­lected in the High­lands and is­lands from na­tive plants by lo­cal folk?

Colours and plants from which dyes are ex­tracted: Black: iris root, alder, oak bark and acorns;

blue-ish black: red bear­berry, black­thorn; finest black: black­thorn and root of the com­mon docken; brown: com­mon yel­low wall and dark crot­tle lichen, dulse, black cur­rent, wal­nut root, be­fore ris­ing of sap, wa­ter-lilly root; dark brown: blae­berry with gall nuts;

yel­low­ish brown: crot­tle lichen; drab or fawn: birch bark; flesh colour: wil­low bark; green: whin or gorse bark, iris leaf, buck­thorn bark;

dark green: heather with alum, heather, just pulled be­fore flow­er­ing from a dark shady place; lively green: com­mon broom; grey: yel­low iris root; ma­genta: dan­de­lion; or­ange: rag­wort, bar­berry root; dark or­ange: bram­ble;

pur­ple: sun­dew, cup-moss; red: rock lichen, white crot­tle, alder with cop­per, blae­berry, tor­men­til [also used in tan­ning]; fine red: yel­low bed­straw root; pur­ple red: blae­berry with alum; scar­let red: privet, ripe berries with salt; scar­let: cud-bear crot­tle mixed with am­mo­nia, lime­stone lichen; vi­o­let: wild cress, bit­ter vetch; yel­low: ap­ple tree, ash, buck­thorn berries, po­plar, elm, bog myr­tle, ash tree root, teasel or Fuller’s this­tle, bracken root, monk’s rhubarb; bright yel­low: sun­dew with am­mo­nia; dirty yel­low: peat soot; rich yel­low: St John’s Wort.

Alder bark, when boiled with iron sul­phate, makes a beau­ti­ful black. The wood, no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to burn, has the pe­cu­liar­ity of split­ting best from the root, hence the old Gaelic say­ing: ‘Gach fiodh o’n bharr ‘s am fearna o’n bhun’ – ev­ery wood splits best from the top, but the alder from the root. The shoots of the alder cut off in the spring make a crim­son dye, and the fer­tile flow­ers a green one. The bark is also used by tan­ners.

Birch bark used to be burned as a light; smooth in­ner bark was used be­fore the in­ven­tion of pa­per for writ­ing on and the wood for var­i­ous pur­poses. The sap, as it rises be­fore the leaf, makes a de­li­cious white wine.

Blae­berry berries are as­trin­gent and were for­merly used for re­lief of di­ar­rhoea and dysen­tery. They were also made into tarts and jel­lies, which was mixed with whisky as a rel­ish for strangers.

Bog myr­tle is used for mak­ing a yel­low dye. It was also a sub­sti­tute for hops, for tan­ning and for de­stroy­ing fleas and bed bugs. Boiled and given to chil­dren as juice or tea to kill ‘the worms’.

Bracken is used for thatch­ing and bed­ding for hu­mans as well as cat­tle and goats. It is also con­sid­ered a good rem­edy for rick­ets in chil­dren and also for cur­ing worms.

Buck­thorn grows among heather and birch and pro­duces large black nuts which are nau­seous and a vi­o­lent purga­tive. The bark dyes yel­low and, with iron, black.

Carmele (heath-pea) roots were very pop­u­lar among old folk. Ap­par­ently they dried and chewed them to give a bet­ter taste to the whisky. They were also said to have been good against most dis­eases of the throat and to sup­press hunger and thirst for a long time. In some parts of Scot­land, they used to bruise and steep them in wa­ter to make fer­mented liquor giv­ing them a liquorice taste. When food was scarce they were served as a sub­sti­tute for bread. It seems that to pre­vent hang­overs, the na­tives of Mull used to chew a piece of its root be­fore hav­ing an­other drink­ing bout.

Dan­de­lion pro­duced ma­genta dye and its blanched leaves were rec­om­mended as a win­ter salad.

Elder berries are used for mak­ing wine.

Iris roots were dried out and pow­dered for snuff or to pro­duce sali­va­tion on the mu­cous mem­brane.

Cud­bear lichen is used ex­ten­sively to make pur­ple and crim­son dyes. It was first dried in the sun, then crushed and steeped, usu­ally in urine in an air­tight bot­tle for three weeks be­fore be­ing boiled in the yarn se­lected for colouring. Crim­son dye was also made from an­other lichen, Le­canora tartarea, and al­kali and was first man­u­fac­tured in Glas­gow. In many High­land dis­tricts, peo­ple got their liv­ing scrap­ing this lichen off the rocks and send­ing it to Glas­gow.

Iain Mac Fhearchair (John MacCo­drum) (1693–1779) was a Gaelic poet from North Uist. Later in his life, he served as the of­fi­cial poet to Sir James Mac­Don­ald of Sleat. One of his close friends was an­other fa­mous Gaelic poet, Alas­dair mac Mhaigh­stir Alas­dair. MacCo­drum al­ludes to the value of the lichen in his line: ‘Spreigh air moin­tich, Or air chlachan’ – cat­tle on the hills, gold on the stones.

Monk’s rhubarb is a nat­u­ralised plant. The roots were used medic­i­nally and the leaves as a cook­ing herb.

Privet berries pro­duce a rose-coloured dye and a bland cook­ing oil. In Bel­gium, the dried and pow­dered twigs were used for tan­ning.

Rue root pro­duced red dye but pick­ing it was dis­cour­aged where there were sheep and cat­tle as it tended to spread rapidly and in­hibit bet­ter fod­der.

Sun­dew was used by early Celtic tribes for dye­ing the hair of both sexes.

Ling (heather) is used for thatch­ing, dye­ing yarn and tan­ning leather. A kind of ale was made from the ten­der tops which has be­come pop­u­lar again.

Pho­to­graph: Iain Thornber

Sam­ples of tar­tan show­ing the dif­fer­ence be­tween muted veg­etable (red) and the harsher syn­thetic (black and green) dyes.

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