Traditional dyes of the Scottish Highlands

Traditional dyes of the Scottish Highlands

Traditional dyes of the Scottish Highlands are the native vegetable dyes used in Scottish Gaeldom.

The following are the principal dyestuffs with the colours they produce. Several of the tints are very bright, but have now been superseded by various mineral dyes. The Latin names are given where known and also the Scottish Gaelic names for various ingredients. Amateurs may wish to experiment with some of the suggestions, but should note that urine (human or animal) is used in many recipes as a mordant. They should also note that a number of the recipes used are for more than one colour, and that this chart is only a guide, and also that Scottish Gaelic spelling is subject to variations.


* Claret – "corcur" – a lichen scraped off rocks and steeped in urine for three months, then taken out, made into cakes, and hung in bags to dry. When used these cakes are reduced to powder, and the colour fixed with alum.

Black – "Dubh"

* Black (finest) –
** Common dock root with copperas.
** "Darach" – oak bark and copperas
** (also grey), "seileastair", iris root
** "Sgitheach", hawthorn bark with copperas
** Alder bark with copperas

* Blue-black
** Common sloe – "Prunus spinosa" – "preas nan àirneag"
** Red bearberry – "Arbutus uva ursi", "grainnseag"

Blue – "Gorm"

* Blue
** Blaeberry ("Vaccinum myrtillus") with alum or copperas
** Elderberry with alum
** "Ailleann" elecampane

Brown – "Donn"

* Brown
** Common yellow wall lichen – "Parmelia parietina"
** Dark "crotal" (type of lichen) – "Parmelia cetarophilia"
** "Duileasg" (dulse), a kind of seaweed.
** Currant with alum

* Dark chestnut-brown
** Roots of "rabhagach", the white water lily

* Dark brown
** Blaeberry with nut-galls

* Reddish brown - Ruadh
** The dark purple lichen ‘cen cerig cen du' (gun chéire gun dubh – i.e. neither crimson nor black) treated in the same way as the lichen for the claret dye.

* Philamot
** Yellowish "crotal" (type of lichen), the colour of dead leaves – "Parmelia saxatilis"

*Drab or fawn
** Birch bark, "Betula alba"

Green – "Uaine"

* Green
** Ripe privet berries with salt (listed for crimson too)
** Wild Mignonette (Reseda), reseda luteola, "lus buidhe mòr", with indigo
** "Rùsg conuisg", whin bark
** Cow weed

* "Lively" green
** Common broom

* Dark green
** Heather, "Erica cinera", "fraoch bhadain" with alum. The heather must be pulled before flowering and from a dark, shady place.
** Iris leaf ("Duilleag seileisteir")


* Magenta
** Dandelion, "Contodon taraxacum", "bearnan Brìde"

Orange – "Orains/Dearg-buidhe"

* Orange
** Ragweed ("Stinking Billy") – "Senecio jacobaea", "buaghallan"
** Barberry root –"berberis vulgaris", "barbrag"

* Dark orange
** Bramble –"Rubus fructicosus", "preas smeur"

Purple – "Corcair/Purpaidh"

* Purple
** "Euonymus" (Spindle tree), with sal-ammoniac
** Sundew – "Drosera rotundifolia", "lus-na-feàrnaich"
** Blaeberry – "Vaccinium myrtilis", with alum

Red – "Dearg"

* Red
** Tormentil – "Potentilla tormentilla", "leanartach"
** Rock lichen – "Ramalina scopulorum", "cnotal"
** White "cnotal" – "Lecanora pallacens", "cnotal geal"

*Fine red
** Rue – "Gallium virum", "ladies' bedstraw". A very fine red is obtained from this. Strip the bark off the roots, then boil them in water to extract the remainder of the virtue, then take the roots out and put the bark in, and boil that and the yarn together, adding alum to fix the colour.
** "Gallium boreale" – treated in the same way as gallium virum above.

* Purple-red
** Blaeberry – "Vaccinium myrtilis", lus-nan-dearc, with alum, verdigris and sal-ammoniac

* Crimson
** "Cnotal corcur" – "Lecanora tartarea", white and ground with urine. This was once in favour for producing a bright crimson dye.

* Scarlet
** Limestone lichen – "Urceolaria calcaria", "Cnotal clach-aoil" – used by the peasantry in limestone districts, such as Shetland.
** Ripe privet berries with salt. (Listed for green too!)


* Violet
** Wild cress – "Nasturtium officinalis" "biolair"
** Bitter vetch – "Lathyrus tuberosus" -- cairmeal
** Bilberries fixed with alum

Yellow – "Buidhe"

* Yellow
** Apple-tree, ash and buckthorn
** Poplar and elm
** Bog myrtle, Roid
** Ash roots
** Teazle – "Dipsacus sylvestris" – lùs-an-fhùcadair/leadan
** Bracken roots – Raineach mhòr
** Cow weed
** Tops and flowers of heather, Erica, fraoch
** Wild mignonette, reseda luteola, "lus buidhe mòr", dried, reduced to powder and boiled.
** Leaves and twigs of dwarf birch, beithe beag

* Bright yellow
** Sundew – "Drosera rotundifolia", "lus-na-feàrnaich" with ammonia

* Rich Yellow
** St John's Wort, achlasan Chalum cille, fixed with alum

* Dirty yellow
** Peat soot. Obviously this ingredient on its own will not produce yellow
** Rhubarb, (monk's) – "Rymex alpinus" – lus na purgaid

The process employed is to wash the thread thoroughly in urine long kept ("fual"), rinse and wash in pure water, then put into the boiling pot of dye which is kept boiling hot on the fire. The thread is lifted now and again on the end of a stick, and again plunged in until it is all thoroughly dyed. If blue, the thread is then washed in salt water but any other colour uses fresh water.

Dwelly (Dath), with additions and corrections

ee also

*Flora of Scotland

External links

* [ Scottish National Heritage site on Lichen dyes]
* [ Bibliographic references for "Parmelia"]

Further reading

*Fraser, Jean: "Traditional Scottish Dyes", Canongate, 1983, ISBN 0-8624-1108-4

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