Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber week 02

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Samples of tartan showing the difference between muted vegetable (red) and the harsher synthetic (black and green) dyes. Photograph: Iain Thornber
Samples of tartan showing the difference between muted vegetable (red) and the harsher synthetic (black and green) dyes. Photograph: Iain Thornber
Plants to dye for

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 of 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 and 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 as 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 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. 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. 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.

Iain Thornber

iain.thornber@btinternet.com