Heather Ale by Robert Louis Stevenson

Poem of the Last of the Picts

Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson
Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson. Wikimedia Commons

The poem Heather Ale by Robert Louis Stevenson is a ballad about the legendary Pict precursors to modern era Scots. In mythology, they may also be identified with pech, who were pixie-like creatures. They brewed heather ale and battled the Scots. Certainly, it would be convenient to be able to turn the abundant heather into an alcoholic beverage.

Among the curiosities of human nature, this legend claims a high place.

The historical Picts were a confederation of tribes in eastern and northern Scotland in the late Iron Age through the early medieval periods. The Picts were never exterminated. Today, they form a large proportion of the folk of Scotland: occupying the eastern and the central parts, from the Firth of Forth, or perhaps the Lammermoors, upon the south, to the Ord of Caithness on the north.

Archaeological studies don't find the Picts to be much shorter than current-day Scots.  It may be a case of the victors writing the history. The last nominal king of Picts reigned in the early 900s AD. In fiction and motion pictures they are often depicted as tattooed, blue-painted woodland warriors.

Did the elements of this legend stem from some ancestors who were small of stature, black of hue, dwelling underground and possibly also the distillers of some forgotten spirit? See Joseph Campbell’s Tales of the West Highlands.

Heather Ale: A Galloway Legend
Robert Louis Stevenson (1890)

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.”