The Isle of Harris can be a challenging place for plant-life, the climate and elemental nature of this wind and rainswept part of the world often makes it difficult for fragile things to survive and thrive.
But, while the landscape can often look stark, though by no means bereft of beauty, taking a little time and a more considered view quickly reveals a wealth of hidden flora.
Many of these wild plants of Harris have been used for centuries, clinging on to help create ancient rituals and brewing herbs, provide natural medicines and become dyes for Harris Tweed.
We’ve been fortunate to be guided in these matters by three women who have helped us unveil and understand more about the botanicals which abound on our mountains, moors and machair.
Our friend Petra Bakewell-Stone, an agroecologist, was the first to explore the potential of local plants for us at the very start of our distillery enterprise as we searched for the defining ingredient for our island’s inaugural gin.
Through her we learned about native seaweeds and local Dwarf juniper (Juniperus communis ssp. nana), sadly in short supply due to a long lifecycle and challenges of climate and grazing. And we discovered corn mint (Mentha arvensis), wild thyme (Thymus serpyllum) and Bitter vetch (Lathyrus linifolius) once used in flavouring whisky and with a mysterious power to dispel drunkenness when chewed.
We went on to meet ethnobotanist Suzanne Masters who revealed the marvels of medicinal Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) an ancient Hebridean brewing plant, the lovely Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum) from the fertile flowering machair lands, and the sustainable food source known as Silverweed (Argentina anserina) long used as a fodder crop by Harris crofters.
A wild swimmer, it was also Suzanne who led us beneath the waves to the wonderful world of Sugar Kelp (Saccharina latissima) with its sweet-salty flavours and complex maritime notes which now define the Isle of Harris Gin we know and love today.
Finally, we connected with Amanda Saurin, plantswoman, herbalist and all-round apothecary expert. Amanda created our delicious Sugar Kelp Aromatic Water for us alongside a range of all-natural beauty products and potions.
Amanda has been connected to our project since the early days and we were delighted to welcome her to the island permanently last year as she uprooted her life in sunny Lewes in the south of England to settle by the stormy shorelines of Northton in south Harris.
This new-found access to her plant-picking prowess and natural know-how means we’re now exploring more of the joys of our Hebridean island and its indigenous organic offerings in 2020.
In combination with other carefully selected botanicals, we’ll soon be sharing some new small-batch creations made in collaboration with Amanda to enjoy with your Isle of Harris Gin.
Working seasonally in sustainable hand-harvests we hope you’ll be inspired to become part of the process as the first editions from our island apothecary are revealed next month.