Holly and ivy are for Christmas, juniper for Hogmanay. This ancient Scottish conifer used to grow throughout the country and, like so many other plants, is steeped in myth and magic as well as gin.

The Statistical Account for Scotland, published in 1799, records information about all our parishes and the entry for Cluny tells us that “A good deal of juniper grows here ... the smoke of the juniper is said to be destructive to moths and bugs [probably bed bugs].”

As a result, our ancestors traditionally took advantage of these special powers at this time of year, when the main winter festival was Ne’erday, not Christmas. As you’ll doubtless know, during the Reformation, John Knox had banned Christmas in Scotland as a papist festival, so everyone celebrated Ne’erday instead.

Our ancestors were keen to extract every last morsel of juniper’s remedies; it warded off witches and acted as a purifying fumigant. Branches were hung above doors and windows to keep the witches and evil spirits out.

Folk also dried branches by the fire the night before using it as a purifier. They started by firmly shutting every door and window, then lit a fire in all the rooms.

The Herald: JuniperJuniper

Pests and diseases were all killed off as the smoke permeated the house.

Everyone tholed as much smoke as they could bear before opening doors and windows and letting the asphyxiating fumes out.

It was reckoned on Colonsay that anyone burning juniper or even living close to a tree was spared the ravages of plague.

I bring juniper into the house for the Midwinter festival, and we arrange it on top of a cupboard.

We’re not too badly troubled by witches here, haven’t as yet succumbed to the plague, or suffer from bed bugs. So perhaps we have benefited from juniper’s magic as well as enjoying the wonderful fragrance of the fresh branches.

But juniper has long played a critical role in the management of good as well as evil spirits as The Statistical Account notes: “A little of this [juniper] fruit taken before breakfast is said to be as good as a dram…”

The Account also points to the financial benefits of the berries, adding that “sometimes the poor people [of Cluny] gather it in large quantities and take it to Dundee where they sell it at about a shilling the peck.”

In fact, juniper berries for flavouring gin were an important export to Holland in the 17th century when Scotland was still an independent country and traded widely with the rest of Europe.

Plant of the week:
Hamamelis mollis Early Bright is one of the earliest flowering witch hazels whose thin, yellow, spidery petals open in mid-winter along the bare branches. They have a lighter fragrance than the later flowering witch hazels, especially Hamamelis x intermedia varieties. The soft, felty leaves turn a beautiful clear yellow in autumn and the shrub has a naturally open shape that makes it attractive in the garden at all seasons.

Follow Dave on X @boddave

READ MORE: Edinburgh project to turn neighbourhood into orchard