The Picts, King James and the Magic Heather Mead

Many of the stories passed down in Scotland through folklore tell tales of whisky, which in the Gaelic language is the 'water of life' but some old legends told stories of the Heather Mead and its magic properties. Here is one version...

More than a thousand years ago, even the drinks that quenched the thirsts of the inhabitants of Scotland carried some strange reputations. One such drink was known as "The Heather Mead". The tales of its powers reached as far as England and Wales, Old Ireland and even as far as France. Its mystery was its recipe, for only the Pictish people knew it and so the secret was theirs alone.

Living in and around the hills, and sometimes in the caves around the coasts of Scotland, the Picts had a fondness for artwork. Wherever they happened to stay, they would tap out their intricate and beautiful patterns on stones available to that particular area of land. The Heather Mead, it was said, gave the Pictish people amazing powers of vision, and enhanced their eyesight so well, that they could even spend hours in the darkest of caves drawing on the walls without so much as the light from a candle.

Scotland, in these old times, had different Kings for each area, and one of them King James the first, was told of the powers of the Heather Mead, but King James lived to regret ever having heard of the mead after a strange encounter with the Picts.

You see, it was the habit of King James to dress himself in simple clothes and leave his castle to journey amongst the ordinary folk, where no one would recognise him. This was a good way for him to see how his people were faring and to enjoy the beauty of the hills and glens without the pomp and ceremony of day-to-day royal life.

One summer, June radiated warmth and so demanded a slower pace of trot from all who rode on horseback that splendid day. King James, at peace with the world, slid down from his horse and walked into the entrance of a huge forest in search of water. Horse and master, both hot and thirsty, welcomed the cool embrace from the shadows of the trees as they entered the forest.

They walked deeper and deeper into the pines, listening for the sound of water gushing, but hearing none. After an hour, the King decided to rest awhile and sat down with his back against an ancient Caledonian pine, whilst his horse nibbled at the sweet young grass growing around the roots of the tree. The King closed his eyes and drew in a long contented breath, "Wonderful", he said, "the smell of fresh pine and moss. We'll just take ten minutes rest, horse."

But the ten minutes turned into hours and the King awoke to the sound of the owls calling one another. His faithful horse stood nearby. The King jumped up at once. "Good heavens!", he cried, "I wonder how long I've been here. We must hurry on horse, for you must be as thirsty as I and then we must return to the castle, for they are bound to be already searching for us."

He looked around for a clear way out of the forest, but it was that time of night in summer, when the moon and the sun seem to meet in the sky, and the darkness is not of the pitch kind, so it was light enough to see, but dark enough to alter colour and cause confusion. Not sure where he was going, the King walked carefully through the trees, leading his horse. A little while later, he could smell something sweet on the cool air. He stopped. The smell encouraged his thirst as it drifted passed his nostrils followed by the faint aroma of wood smoke.

"Ah. God surely smiles upon us. There must be people ahead, perhaps they will lead me on my way," he said. He followed the odour through the trees to a clearing which housed a campsite containing half a dozed stocky, red headed bearded men, who sat round the glowing embers of pine cones. As the sparks sprang into the air from beneath a cauldron placed over the fire, the King called to them, "Good men, can you help me, for I find myself lost in this place?"

The men looked from one to another, and as the King ventured forward, one of them rose. "You may leave that way", he said, pointing over the King's shoulder.

"I don't think so, my man. For I have just come from that direction. May I ask what your cauldron contains, for it smells delicious?" the King said as he peered into the cauldron.

The man, who was standing, put his hand on the King's chest. "Go no further stranger, this is not of your business," he said firmly.

The King, unaccustomed to being spoken to in this manner, grabbed the man's hand and flung it from his chest saying, "Unhand me, Sir! Those who have dared touch my person has suffered greatly for it."

The man's eyes opened in wide surprise and first he stared directly at King James; then proceeded to walk around him as though inspecting him in some way. He said, "You look just like flesh and blood to me." He then burst into laughter joined by his companions.

The King was furious. He immediately unhooked his cloak to reveal his royal clothes. "I don't know who you are, or where you come from, for I do not recognize your accent, but by my command you will do my bidding, for I am King of all Scotland, fill my cup immediately, Sir, so that I might be on my way. I will not be the subject of your amusement nor anyone else's. Call your men to be silent!" the King demanded.

The men fell silent and rose to stand beside their leader. Their leader held them back. "We have no fight with you, Sir, whoever you many be, nor do we intend to do you harm, " he said, taking a cup from one of the men. He filled the cup from the cauldron. "Here, drink this, with our good will, for we have no need of your commands."

The King, drinking from the cup, could not hide his satisfaction, the drink was quite the best he had ever tasted, and slipped down his throat like honey.

The men, smiling at the King's pleasure, sat once more at the fire as the King finished his cup. Handing the cup back to the leader, he asked, " Pray tell me, what is this sweet nectar, for I have never tasted such a beverage?"

The leader shook his head and smiled, "This is Heather Mead. You've heard of it?"

It was then that the King realised he was in the company of Picts and remembered all the stories he had heard of the power of the heather honey mead, and he made his mind up there and then to obtain the recipe from them.

He offered them gold to tell their secret, and they laughed at that and pulled out pouches full of it. He offered them jewels and they opened their garments and showed him necklaces more beautifully crafted than some of his own crown jewels. No matter what he offered, they declined. Finally, frustrated he commanded that they tell their secret, and this made them laugh all the more.

Furious, King James withdrew a whistle from his pocket, and blew a shrill note upon it. Before the Picts had stopped laughing, the King' s men appeared from no-where, each grabbed a man and held a dirk to his throat.

The King looked to their leader. "Bring this one to my castle, the rest may leave in a while," he instructed his men. "You will tell your people, I will have the recipe for the Heather Mead, or your leader will not be returned to you."

With that, the King mounted his horse and followed his men back to his castle, dragging the Pictish leader behind his horse.

Only two nights later, the King woke up to what he thought was an earthquake. His bed was shaking and rocks were falling about the castle. He ran down the tower stairs to the great hall, avoiding falling blocks of stone. When he looked out of the open window to the moat below, he could see in the dim, cloudy night, hundreds of men passing stone after stone to each other. He called for his guards, and a sleepy half dressed sentry appeared, who could not account for his sleepiness. The King suddenly remembered the prisoner in his dungeon. "It's them!", he cried. "The Picts."

He ran down staircase after staircase until he reached where the dungeons were housed, as the castle crumbled above. When he reached the cells, no guard could be seen and the Pictish prisoner’s door lay slightly ajar. On the King's touch, it flew open and as soon as the King entered the cell, the thunderous noise of the falling rocks ceased and all fell silent. He stopped in his tracks at the sight before him.

A calmness filled the room, the ruffian Pict that the King had imprisoned now stood proudly in green and golden garments, unshackled. A crown upon the head of red curly hair reflected gold around the Pictish King's face, and brightened the normally gloomy cell. The Pictish King smiled at King James, who looked astonished. "I stand before you, Sir," said the Pictish King, "Not like you, a King of Scotland, but King, only of my people."

King James recovered himself. "Is it war you've declared?" he asked.

Once more the Pictish King smiled. "Our numbers are few, and we are a dying race, we cannot afford wars. Our culture, like our language, is ours and ours alone. We come from the ancient past. Our days are done. You are of the new age. My people have come for me and not one life will be spent. I cannot give you the recipe for the Heather Mead because it is not mine to give, it was passed to me from the ancients, connected to the natural world, who are no longer here."

Whilst the Pictish King spoke, the glow from his crown increased and encased him in a protective golden cocoon, and as he continued speaking, his voice began to fade so that King James could no longer hear him. His golden aura became so bright, that King James could no longer see him, but was forced to cover his own eyes. Then, in the next instant, King James felt suddenly cold, and the cell became dark and gloomy. When King James opened his eyes, he found himself alone.

Confused and weary, the King climbed back up the dungeon stairway, but when he reached the top of the stairs, he emerged into a field where his castle had once stood! Not a brick was left. Just a piece of ground with a moat circling it, and on the other side of the moat round its outer perimeter, the Kings servants slept on the grass. The King fell to his knees in disbelief.

In the distance, the sun was rising just above Finavon Hill, the sky showed promise of a beautiful day as the King looked around him. The view was a panorama of wonder and beauty. That is why Forfar Castle was built on that particular spot. Friend and Foe could be seen approaching from any direction. The Angus Glens grace the landscape as far as the eye can see, from west to east, to join the Grampians and the Highlands of Scotland.

Suddenly the King started laughing, as he looked towards Finavon, near Aberlemno. For, in the distance he saw, what looked like an army of little ants carrying heavy burdens. Ahead of them, something new was growing up out of the horizon. It was the King's castle, the Picts, master stone workers, were re-building it on top of Finavon Hill!

The King's guards and servants began to wake up, and the looks on their faces only made the King laugh more, as he pointed out to them the newly emerging castle in the distance.

Later, the King and his men journeyed to nearby Glamis castle, and the King laughed all the way, for there were castles aplenty in those days, and he felt that the Picts deserved every stone, for the Pictish King had been true to his word and not a life had been lost.

The Picts had fun in the castle new built, and when they tired of it they used the stones for their carvings, and some of them can still be seen in and around Aberlemno and Angus.

You can still see the site of old Forfar Castle, right in the middle of the town of Forfar, a tower has been erected where it used to stand. The key to its entry is kept at the newsagents in Castle Street, Forfar. You can ask to use it anytime, and see the wonderful view for yourself.

The Pictish people are no more, and they did, indeed, take the secret of their language, their culture, and the Magic Heather Honey Mead with them, but they left us great examples of their artwork and stonework.

Source: http://www.folklegendcom/article1058.html