Walks with Tilly during the day – after breakfast and then again after lunch – are normally Denise’s department. But yesterday, after lunch, D was tied up with something important, so I said I’d go for a change.
I say ‘tied up with something important’, but it had been raining all morning, and it was forecast to continue right into the night. No matter! I donned waterproof jacket, over-trousers and wellington boots, pulled the storm hood over my head and leaned into the wind, Tilly bravely running ahead – though dressed only in the fur she was born with and a leather collar from us.
Up the lane to the hill gate, then turn right. There’s a track that skirts the foot of Coire Bheinn and peters out on the south-facing slope that runs down to Loch a’ Choire. This is an area that, though presenting numerous intriguing marks of former occupation, is now little visited other than by the few animals that are still put out on the common grazing.
In recent years, the track has become so infested with bracken that, in late summer – when the bracken is high and thick with midges, it becomes difficult to find, let alone follow. The peat banks, from which crofters in years past dug fuel for cooking and warmth, have fallen into disuse. The ground is too wet for the bracken : it is instead the realm of the Gale Milis, known in English as Sweet Gale, or (as we prefer it) Bog Myrtle.
Bog Myrtle is a shrubby plant that found its place in the human economy in ancient times, along with the likes of the olive and other oil-rich herbs used in food, drink or medicines. It has been used as an aromatic oil, as flavouring, disinfectant, preservative, insect repellent or insecticide, Recent centuries have brought more effective or economical alternatives for every application, such that it’s versatility as a herb had become consigned to the pages of books on historical uses for herbs. Even Wikipedia fails to do it justice.
In more recent times, some micro-brewers have been rediscovering the mediaeval practice of flavouring/preserving ale with a mixture known as Gruit (a word originating in the Low Countries?) the principal ingredient of which is Sweet Gale. Boots, the UK’s principal high street pharmacist (and cosmeticist) started using Sweet Gale as the active ingredient in a range of ‘natural’ cosmetics, including salves for minor skin cuts and sores, insect-repellents.
Bog Myrtle can quite easily – at least on first sight – be confused with a shrubby willow. But there’s nothing else (and certainly no willow!) that gives off an aroma quite like (or, in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, anything like!) Bog Myrtle. I picked some to take home and show to Denise.
Now, this August has been unusually warm, wet – and windless : which is to say, midge-weather. We’re not on holiday, so inclement weather doesn’t condemn us to daytime TV : we have a backlog of indoor jobs to get on with. When it’s bright, sunny and dry, we’re out in the garden ; but when the midges come out – we go in!
There’s plenty of wonderful dye-stuffs already harvested and ready to use. These are the dyestuffs that are best used fresh, rather than being dried or frozen for use in winter, when we have more time for such things. So, as Denise was in the mind-frame for dyeing, that’s what came to her lips : “Can we use Bog Myrtle for dyeing?”. Me: “Don’t know. What has Jenny Dean got to say about it?”
In her book Wild Color, p108, Jenny Dean shows us indicative colours for Bog Myrtle, using the leaves alone, and – alternatively, the leaves still on the twigs. And she does this for different combinations of mordant and modifiers. With the small quantity of plant material I brought back with me, our trial would be more limited in scope : leaves only – alum mordant ; twigs and leaves – no mordant, rhubarb mordant, iron mordant.
[For those unfamiliar with the jargon : a mordant is a natural (or chemical) which which has the effect of (more or less) permanently fixing the colouring to the wool. A modifier is a natural (or chemical) substance which has the effect of altering the main colour – either by making it slightly lighter or (more usually) slightly darker, or altering colour entirely, for example by adding blue to yellow so as to get green (the result usually being somewhat darker.]
It’s later in the day, and the results are very pleasing. The gorgeous yellow is from just the leaves, on Cheviot pre-mordanted with Alum. The dark brown is dyed with a liquor from twigs-and-leaves, with iron mordant. In Denise’s hand are the skeins mordanted with iron and copper: behind – for the sake of comparison – are the skeins died with New Zealand Flax.