As you walk along the paths, woods and moorlands of Scotland, the wildflowers seem to change like a kaleidoscope as the months pass by. It's now mid-July and dense clusters of frothy yellow flowers on upright stems are everywhere. These are lady's bedstraw and as their name suggests, they were a popular natural material for stuffing mattresses in the days before man-made materials were invented.
Collect enough of them and you can produce a mattress which might not be up to goose feather standard, but was certainly soft and springy enough to support the goings-on of Jamie and Clare! Better still, once dried it's said to have a beautiful scent reminiscent to some, of new-mown hay, while others believe it's more like honey or vanilla. A medieval guest house owner's dream! Perhaps of greater importance to the guest - it contains an aromatic compound called coumarin which is known to be an effective flea-repellant.
But why "Lady's" bedstraw? Perhaps the answer lies in Norse mythology where the plant is called Frigg's grass after Frigg, the goddess of married women and childbirth. Scandinavians are known to have used it as a sedative during labour and the Virgin Mary herself is said to have given birth whilst lying on a bed of lady's bedstraw. After Christ's birth the plant bloomed and the flowers are said to have been transformed from white to yellow.
Also known as the rennet plant, an extract from the flowers can be used to curdle milk in the making of cheese and in the making of Double Gloucester cheese they even use red dye from the roots of the plant to give the cheese it’s characteristic colour.
But perhaps the most unusual use of the plant refers back to its properties as a sedative. In the Celtic mythology of the Irish, Scottish and Manx, there are tales of Cu Chulainn (Cuhullin in English) - a warrior demigod. The problem with this chap was that he was known for “losin’ his heid” as we would say in Scotland - working himself up into a terrifying battle frenzy!
“The first warp-spasm seized Cúchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. His body made a furious twist inside his skin, so that his feet and shins switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front... On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the nape of his neck, each mighty, immense, measureless knob as big as the head of a month-old child... he sucked one eye so deep into his head that a wild crane couldn't probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along his cheek. His mouth weirdly distorted: his cheek peeled back from his jaws until the gullet appeared, his lungs and his liver flapped in his mouth and throat, his lower jaw struck the upper a lion-killing blow, and fiery flakes large as a ram's fleece reached his mouth from his throat... The hair of his head twisted like the tangle of a red thornbush stuck in a gap; if a royal apple tree with all its kingly fruit were shaken above him, scarce an apple would reach the ground but each would be spiked on a bristle of his hair as it stood up on his scalp with rage.” Thomas Kinsella, The Tain.
Quite a description! The only thing known to calm him was a tea made from an infusion of the flowers of lady’s bedstraw. In Scottish Gaelic the plant is still known as lus chneas Chù-Chulainn “the herb of Cú Chulainn's skin“.