What a Gem

Hi Friends!

One of my favorite discoveries from our Scottish adventures is a unique company called Heathergems.  The only manufacturer of its kind, the Heathergem company produces beautiful jewelry and other gift items from the stems of the heather plant.


I first saw these interesting creations at the James Pringle Shopping Outlet in Leith, Scotland (a decent place to look for a few souvenirs, if not a tad bit on the kitschy side – I did once find a very good hat!).  I have since seen Heathergems for sale at the Celtic shop near my hometown here in the States.

Aside from the Scottish thistle, perhaps no other flower epitomizes Scotland the way that the heather plant does.  It makes me think of the movie Brigadoon – Gene Kelley capturing the heart of the beautiful Cyd Charisse as he sings sweetly to her of the heather on the hill.  The song follows with a dance number that has the pair gliding over the moor and I think that maybe Cyd Charisse isn’t the only one who is falling in love.  We do too a little.


The Heather On the Hill

Can’t we two go walkin’ together, out beyond the valley of trees?
Out where there’s a hillside of heather, curtsyin’ gently in the breeze.
That’s what I’d like to do: see the heather–but with you.
The mist of May is in the gloamin’, and all the clouds are holdin’ still.
So take my hand and let’s go roamin’ through the heather on the hill.
The mornin’ dew is blinkin’ yonder. There’s lazy music in the rill,
And all I want to do is wander through the heather on the hill.
There may be other days as rich and rare.
There may be other springs as full and fair.
But they won’t be the same–they’ll come and go,
For this I know:
That when the mist is in the gloamin’, and all the clouds are holdin’ still,
If you’re not there I won’t go roamin’ through the heather on the hill,
The heather on the hill.


Heather is an indigenous, low growing, hardy plant that grows wild in Scotland.  It is known for its lovely blooms which typically range from lilac to purple, although other less common varieties can be found.

The first Heathergems were produced in the 1950’s but it wasn’t until 1970 that a small factory was established in a town in South Lanarkshire.  From there, the factory relocated to Blair Atholl in Perthshire and today, the family-run business is operated from a factory in Pitlochry, Scotland.  Heathergems can be found throughout the United Kingdom and at shops around the world.

I thought it might be fun to take a closer look at just how these unique creations are made.

The Process:

  1.  The heather is hand-picked, the green foliage still clinging to the upper part of the stems.
  2. The plants are cut into lengths of about 25 cm.
  3. Each plant is put into a sand blasting machine where it is cleaned of its bark and foliage. The plants come out of the blaster as bare, dried out, delicate wood.
  4. Bundles are formed which then get put into a vacuum dye chamber for two days.  The dye penetrates deeply into the heather wood.
  5. The bundles are opened and new bundles are formed by combining the different colors.
  6. After soaking in an epoxy resin for 2-3 minutes, the bundles are drained of any excess resin and are put into a mold press which applies eighty tons of pressure for a minute.
  7. The molds go into an oven for an hour to cure.  They come out of the oven as rock-hard resin-bonded heatherwood.
  8. Rough edges are trimmed off with a band saw and slices are cut.
  9. Slices are glued onto a plastic backing and a robotic cutter cuts out gem shapes.  The plastic backing is then popped off.
  10. Gems are polished on a belt sander.  Four to five coats of clear lacquer are applied by hand.  This brings out the colors and also protects the wood.
  11. Each gem is glued onto its designated pice of jewelry or gift.

Voilà!  Heathergems!

Because the gemstones are created by the random bundling of the plant’s dyed stems, no two gemstones are alike.



Aren’t they neat?

I do hope you have enjoyed today’s blog and I wish each of you a terrific rest of the week!



Proud Mary-Part 2

“Mary, Queen of Scots entered the room where she would be executed. She told her friends and servants to ‘rejoice rather than weep for that the end of Mary Stuart’s troubles is now come … tell my friends that I die a true woman to my religion, and like a true Scottish woman and a true French woman.’

Mary was disrobed; her black garments were removed, revealing an outfit of deep red – the Catholic colour of martyrdom. She knelt down on a cushion, resting her head on the block, before stretching out her arms and crying in Latin “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” The axe came down, but landed on the back of her head rather than her neck. A second blow cut into her neck but a third was required to sever the head completely.

When the executioner lifted Mary’s head it tumbled onto the stage, leaving him holding her wig. Her hair was short and completely grey due to years of stress as a prisoner. A final surprise was waiting for the executioner – Mary’s little Skye terrier had been hiding under her skirts, soaked in blood.”  –Laura Brown, Historic Environment Scotland


Hello again, my friends.  I hope this day finds you well. I also hope that you are not too annoyed with me if ‘Proud Mary’ has gotten stuck in your head.  That song has been playing on a continuous loop in mine for the last two weeks! Perhaps publishing my article today will be the magic that makes it quit.

So, today we are going to pick up where we left off in my previous blog about the life of Mary, Queen of Scots.


On display at Edinburgh Castle

At the conclusion of Proud Mary-Part 1, we saw a grieving, young widow return to Scotland to reign over her home country alone.  Still mourning the loss of her French husband, King Henry II, Mary (a Catholic) now found herself at odds with a predominantly Protestant nation.  Many felt that the best chance for the country’s stability depended upon Mary marrying a man of the Protestant faith.  Mary fell in love with her cousin, Henry, Lord Darnley, and five years after the death of her first husband, she married once again.

But kind of like the the Ford Pinto of the 70’s or the Yugo of the 80’s, Lord Darnley turned out to be a bit of a lemon.  Reportedly spoiled, petulant, jealous, and given to carousing – basically a man of poor character – Darnley was never given any real authority.  Mary abandoned her plans to crown him as king and his arrogance and behavior put a terrible strain upon the marriage.

Darnley’s jealous behavior came to a head in March, 1566 after Protestant lords (and the nobles who had formed a rebellion against Mary in ‘The Chaseabout Raid”) influenced him to enter into a secret conspiracy with them to murder David Rizzio, Mary’s private secretary and BFF. The nobles felt that Rizzio had too much influence on Mary’s foreign policy and Lord Darnley had long been suspicious that Rizzio and Mary were more than just friends (in fact, the rumor mill speculated that Mary was carrying Rizzio’s child!).  knife-2317960_1280So, in front of a six-month pregnant Mary who was dining with friends at Holyrood House in Edinburgh, Darnley and his cronies dragged David Rizzio away from the table,
into the next room, and brutally murdered him.

Still reeling from the murder of her friend, Mary gave birth to a son a mere three months later, on June 19, 1566.  And not just any son, but the future King James VI of Scotland and I of England .  To the dismay of the Protestants, wee James was baptized into the Catholic faith at Stirling Castle in December, 1566. Apparently,  Lord Darnley did not attend the ceremony.

What do you think?  Wild ride so far?  Buckle up.  There’s more.

In the most mysterious of circumstances, Henry, Lord Darnley met his end on February 10, 1567.  In the early morning hours, the home at which Darnley was staying (Kirk o’ Field) was rocked by a massive explosion.  Darnley’s body and that of a servant were recovered in the garden, however, it was discovered that they had not been killed by the explosion.  Rather, they had been strangled!  Young Mary was now a widow for a second time.

This is where Mary’s story really begins to get complicated and just as I said in Part 1, sometimes deciphering fact from tale or opinion can be a bit of a challenge.  I will do my best to only provide you with those points on which multiple sources are in agreement.  If you want the finely detailed and verified facts on all things political, you’ll just have to wait for my book (just kidding).

Some historians speculate that by this point, Mary had formed a close relationship with a man named James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell.  Bothwell had been involved in aiding Mary after the death of her Italian secretary and some believe that the pair may have been lovers.  Scandal!

The question as to who murdered Lord Darnley loomed and not even Mary was above suspicion. Darnley’s influential family, however, accused Mary’s friend Bothwell in the assassination, claiming that with Lord Darnley out of the picture, Bothwell was free to pursue a marriage to Mary.  As the chief suspect, Bothwell was tried for the crime in April 1567 but was subsequently acquitted.  The question of ‘who done it’ remains to this day.

Shortly after Bothwell’s acquittal, Mary – who was returning to Edinburgh following a trip to visit her son – was intercepted on the road and abducted by Bothwell and his men.  He took her to Dunbar Castle (where sources say he may have forced himself upon her).  Because the exact nature of their relationship remains unclear, it is not known if Mary’s abduction was by force or if it was a pre-planned agreement between the two.  In any case, the pair were wed.

I don’t know if our Mary had poor taste in men or  if she was just unlucky in love, but her marriage to Bothwell also soured.  Are we surprised?  Their relationship was tempestuous and proved to be deeply unpopular in the eyes of both Protestants and Catholics.  Ultimately, an army was raised against them.  Bothwell fled and Mary found herself imprisoned at Lochleven Castle where she miscarried twins (could Bothwell have been the daddy?).  Mary was given a choice – abdication or death.  She chose abdication and her infant son James became the new sovereign – King James VI of Scotland.  Bothwell by this point had been forced into exile and would eventually die in a prison in Denmark (driven to insanity).

Mary had the heart of a fighter, though, and her pride would not be taken from her.  On May 2, 1568, the still twenty-something escaped from Lochleven Castle and raised a small army.  Unfortunately, her army was defeated in the Battle of Langside and Mary fled to England into what she hoped would be the protective arms of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I.

It was Mary’s hope that Elizabeth would be sympathetic to her cause.  But, if you’ll recall from Part 1, there had alway been conflict over to whom the crown belonged. Many Catholics felt that as the senior descendent of Henry VIII’s eldest sister, that Mary was the rightful ruler of the throne.  Elizabeth (obviously) saw Mary as a tremendous threat and over the next nineteen years kept a watchful eye on her by holding her captive in various castles throughout England.

During the years of Mary’s captivity, Elizabeth’s fears were realized, as Mary was found to be involved in numerous plots for assassination.  The big question remains: Was Mary tricked into expressing her support for this effort or was it a deliberate attempt to dethrone her cousin and claim the kingdom for herself?  Maybe one day history will be able to give an answer.

Whatever Mary’s intention (or lack of intention), she was and would always be perceived as a threat to her cousin.  So, in October 1586, Mary, Queen of Scots was tried for treason and condemned to death.  She was taken to Fotheringhay Castle and on February 8, 1587 – at the age of just 44 – was executed.

Poor Mary.  What had begun as a promising life and a bright future had turned into a tragic chain of events and a sad reflection of the time in which she lived.  The questions remain. Was Mary a misguided martyr, swept up in the political and religious frenzy of her day?  Or was she a Jezebel, scheming and dabbling in murder to achieve her goals? That is a question that perhaps only Mary herself could answer.

Sixteen years after Mary’s execution, Elizabeth died of natural causes and Mary’s son James ascended to the throne his mother had coveted. And in perhaps the ultimate poetic irony, some four centuries later, the rival queens’ final resting place lies in London’s Westminster Abbey…

only a short distance apart.



Proud Mary-Part 1

Greetings everyone!  It feels like it’s been awhile.  A wonderful, restful vacation in sunny Florida and the regular busyness of life have taken me away from you lately.  It’s good to be back with you again.

Today, my blog topic is by special request from my friend and faithful reader, Paige. About to embark on a honeymoon trip to Scotland (fab decision), she asked if I would mind writing an article on the fascinating and controversial Mary Queen of Scots.  My friend has a similar interest in history so I am thrilled to oblige (even if it has taken me a long time to get moving on it!)  Paige, dear, this one’s for you.

So…if there is one takeaway from my research on Mary Queen of Scots, it is that the relationship between Scotland and England is a complicated one.  Always has been. May always be.

I want to begin by saying that the story of Mary is also complicated.  As with any events that took place half a millennia ago, sometimes that which separates fact from fiction is not crystal clear.  I imagine there will always be scholarly debate and political and religious bias which informs individual opinion, but I think most people would agree upon the major points of Mary’s life.  As for the finer, cloudier points, well, they are certainly fodder for the imagination.  That being said, let’s dig in.

Known also as Mary I or Mary Stuart, Mary Queen of Scots was born in 1542 at Linlithgow Palace, about fifteen miles west of Edinburgh.  She was the only surviving legitimate child of King James V of Scotland.  Mary’s mother was Mary of Guise (who played a prominent role in 16th century French politics) and she was the great-niece of King Henry VIII of England (you know, the one we all learned about in school that had his wife Ann Boleyn beheaded).

Mary was barely out of the womb when her father died and consequently, she inherited the Scottish throne.  At just six days old, tiny Mary became the infant Queen of Scotland.  Because she was obviously too young to rule (the child couldn’t even yet hold a cup), the country was ruled by regents until Mary became of age to assume her responsibilities.  Of course, in true human form, the regency itself was not without conflict.  The Catholic Cardinal Beaton and the Protestant Earl of Arran each claimed that the regency was theirs. Power, anyone?  Arran ended up in the position until Mary’s mother managed to remove and succeed him in 1554, serving until Mary became an adult.

With a passionate desire for Scotland and the powerful Catholic nation of France to form an alliance against England, Mary’s mother sent her young five-year-old daughter to be educated in the French court and to eventually marry the French Dauphin – Francis (the son of the French king, Henry II).  Mary Queen of Scots spent the next thirteen years in France, learning all the things that a young woman of noble birth should know:  several languages, horsemanship, falconry, needlework, poetry and prose, and music.  She was educated, talented, beautiful – quite the catch – and in 1558, she became the bride of the young French prince (just so we’re clear, I didn’t say the Fresh Prince – ha).

Meanwhile in England………

In 1558, Elizabeth I (a Protestant and cousin to Mary Queen of Scots) ascended to the English throne after the death of her sister.  Yet in the eyes of many Catholics, it was felt that Elizabeth was an illegitimate ruler and that our Mary Stuart, as the senior descendent of Henry VIII’s elder sister, was the rightful queen of England.  This issue of who the true and sovereign English ruler should be would mar Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship for the rest of Mary’s days.


playing-cards-167049_1280A happily ever after was not in the cards for Francis and Mary, however.  About a year after they were wed, following the accidental and untimely death of his father, Francis was crowned King of France (Mary as Queen).  And sadly, another year and a half after that in 1560, the young King Francis himself also passed away -from an ear infection that developed into a much more serious problem. According to a previous account by Francis’ father, Henry II, Mary and his young son had seemed to click from the very beginning.  Soul mates some might even say.

The loss of Mary’s young husband left her grief-stricken and the eighteen-year-old went home to Scotland to reign alone.  Her return came at a time of political and religious uncertainty, with Scotland caught in the throes of the Reformation and an ever-widening Protestant-Catholic split.

I try to imagine what Mary Queen of Scots would have been like at this point in her life. Eighteen, widowed and grieving, thrust into responsibilities and pressures not of her own choosing.  Possibly lonely.  The tender heart of a teenager caught somewhere between the child she was and the woman she was quickly becoming.

One thing is for certain, though.  Mary’s fascinating journey had only begun.

We’ll continue with more on the life of Mary Queen of Scots next time.  See you again soon, Friends.