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Rannsachadh digiteach air a' Ghàidhlig ~ Goireasan digiteach airson nan Gàidheal

Month: August 2022

The Secret of Heather Ale (Fìon an Fhraoich)

“Heather (Calluna vulgaris)”

The ‘secret’ of making heather ale has been a popular folktale in Scotland, with claims that the brewing of it dates back to ancient times.

I came across a few references to it while digitizing the ATU index cards in the SSSA’s Tale Archive.

Read the full Gaelic version from Calum Maclean’s collection of Fìion an Fhraoich (IFC MS 1028, pp. 103-105).

Accounts differ, as to whether it was the Vikings or ‘The Pechs’ that held the secret to making the ale, but the similar vein that runs through them is that eventually there were only two people in the world who held the secret: a father and his son. When they were forced to disclose their secret, the father claimed he would share the recipe, but only if his son was killed first. This request was followed through and the father then exclaimed that he had lied – he never intended to share the recipe, but believed that his son would have, being weaker than himself, and therefore had him killed to protect the secret forever!

You can read a full version of this story in English in Robert Chambers’ Popular Rhymes of Scotland. The story starts with this charming description of the Pech people:

“LONG ago there were people in this country called the Pechs; short wee men they were, wi’ red hair, and long arms, and feet sae braid, that when it rained they could turn them up owre their heads, and then they served for umbrellas.”

Listen to a 1961 version on the Tobar an Dualchais website by John Jamieson Irvine, recorded by School of Scottish Studies fieldworker, Elizabeth Sinclair.

Another wonderful reference to this story is the 1890 poem “Heather Ale” by Robert Louis Stevenson.

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.”

Nowadays, in the age of the internet and search engines, the guarding of a recipe to the death seems quite ridiculous! Also, to our modern sensibilities allowing a tradition to die out and not be preserved in some form or another would be almost unthinkable. The School of Scottish Studies Archives, and others like it around the world, exist to collect, preserve and share oral and written tradition. This work is very important, and crucial to our understanding of the past, present and future. The world is a much richer place for it!

If you’d like to try making your own heather ale, check out this recipe. Let us know how it turns out!

Bibliography and Further Reading

Calum Maclean Collection (

Tobar an Dualchais

Heather Ale by Robert Louis Stevenson (

The Legend of Heather Ale – Folklore Scotland

“The Secret of the Heather Ale” Munro, Neil. The Lost Pibroch: And Other Sheiling Stories. United Kingdom: W. Blackwood, 1896.

The Popular Rhymes of Scotland, with illustr., collected by R. Chambers. United Kingdom: n.p., 1869.

Scottish Gaelic Chatbots for Museum Exhibits 

Our own Prof Will Lamb is working with Dr David Howcroft (lead investigator) and Dr Dimitra Gkatzia from Edinburgh Napier university to build the first tools for Gàidhlig chatbots. This is starting with the creation of a new dataset to train AI models.

Our current experiments (which you can participate in if you speak Gàidhlig!) are focused on building our dataset: we need examples of humans asking and answering questions about museum exhibits in a chat conversation. Participants are paired up and given a set of exhibits from the National Museum of Scotland to discuss, briefly summarising their discussions as well. 

The next step? Well, after a bit of data cleanup and anonymisation, it’s time to see how well neural network models for natural language generation work for this amount of data. One of the interesting challenges for this project is trying to see how far you can get in building a chatbot with as little data as possible. The lessons we learn in this work will inform future work, not just in Scottish Gaelic, but in Natural Language Generation more generally! 

Why build chatbots for Scottish Gaelic? 

We believe the world is a better place when everyone can learn in their preferred language. Scottish Gaelic has fewer language technologies available than languages like English or Mandarin, and we’d like for our research in natural language generation to help in some small way to address this gap. 

Why focus on ‘Exhibits’? 

Museums are a primary tool for learning outside of schools, libraries, and documentaries, and are increasingly leveraging mobile applications and chatbots to enhance visitor experiences. However, these chatbots are generally available for only a few languages, due to a lack of linguistic and technical resources for minority languages like Scottish Gaelic. 

How can I contribute? 

If you speak Scottish Gaelic and live in Scotland, you can take our short comprehension quiz (5-10 minutes) and sign up to participate in the study! The full study (after the quiz) takes up to two hours to complete, and participants will receive up to £30 in compensation for their contribution. Additionally, you’ll have the opportunity to be named as contributing to this important Gaelic resource if you so desire! More details here: 

If you don’t speak Scottish Gaelic or live outside of Scotland, you can share this blogpost with all the Gaelic speakers you know! Encourage them to participate or to spread the word to their friends. All in all, we hope to recruit about 100 people to participate in our study, and we have a ways to go before we reach this goal. If you don’t know what to say to your contacts, how about: 

Researchers in Edinburgh are trying to build the first chatbots for Scottish Gaelic and they’re recruiting participants for an experiment paying up to £30! Find out more at: or sign up at 

Who all is involved in this research? 

This work is supported by a small grant from Creative Informatics. The lead investigator is Dave Howcroft. William Lamb and Dimitra Gkatzia are co-investigators. Anna Groundwater from the National Museum of Scotland provided information about their exhibits, and Hector Michael Fried & Rory Gianni (InChat Design) support the effort as well. We are also grateful to our student intern for their assistance. 

A Cat’s Tale

Today is International Cat Day and that is as good as excuse as any to look in the Tale Archive for any material purrtaining to Felis Catus. Don’t worry though – should you not hold with such cosy nonsense – for the tale I’ve chosen is far removed from cute and fluffy!

Tocher, Vol 7. (1972)

‘Sùil a Sporan agus Sùil a Dia’ was a tale given by Donald Alasdair Johnston on two separate occasions to fieldworkers for The School of Scottish Studies (SA1969.120.A1; SA1970.214.A1). It is classified as a variant of ATU 613 – Two Travellers. We have a third version of this type in the Tale Archive, which John Shaw collected from Cape Breton in 1978, from Flora MacLellan.

Donald Alasdair’s story was published in Tocher in 1972 and tells the story of two brothers. Sùil a Dia believed that God would provide all he needed in life, but Sùil a Sporan argued that his purse could provide him with everything. So serious was this argument that the best way to test this out – it seemed – was for Sùil a Sporan to dash out his devout brother’s eyes, in order to see if God would restore them.

Now blind, Sùil a Dia took refuge in a house which belonged to the King of Cats, Gugtrabhad, and his company. Sùil a Dia overheard the messenger kitten, Piseag Shalach Odhar, tell the clowder of a healing well. Once they left, the blind brother scrambled on hand and knee til he found the well, restored his sight and returned to his brother.However –  if not dark enough already – this tale takes a few more sinister turns!

Sùil a Sporan asked his brother to put out his eyes next to make certain of the miracle.  Once blind and alone, Sùil a Sporan felt his way inside the same house, to the same spot of refuge. When the cats assembled again there was outrage when Piseag Shalach Odhar told them that a human had been listening to them the night before. They hunted around the house and – mistaking Sùil a Sporan for his brother – exact their revenge.  The story doesn’t really end well for anyone – certainly not Sùil a Sporan or the cats, ultimately, who meet a fiery end!

You can read the story as transcribed in Tocher (SA1969.120.A1), by clicking on the image below (link opens a pdf)

You can also listen to the version told by Donald Alasdair to Donald R MacDonald (SA1970.214.A1) via Tobar an Dualchais:


Click the image for a PDF of this tale, from Tocher, Vol 7 (1972)


Further Information

  • John Shaw wrote an article for Scottish Studies which compares Donald Alasdair’s tale with Sgeulachd  a’ Chait Bhig ‘s a’ Chait Mhóir, collected from Cape Breton:

Shaw, J 1991, ‘Sgeulachd  a’ Chait Bhig ‘s a’ Chait Mhóir‘, Scottish Studies, vol 30. Pp93-106


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