Birch water from the Scottish Highlands is the sap of Betula pendula, commonly known as silver birch, European white birch, or warty birch. This iconic tree lives across northern Eurasia, and birch woodlands cover over 90 thousand hectares in Scotland. Along with Scots pine trees, silver birches were a fundamental component of the ancient Caledonian Forest that covered much of Scotland for several millennia after the last ice age. Birches are known as pioneer species because they are among the first trees to appear on the landscape after fires or the retreat of glaciers; this may partly explain birch’s association with fertility, renewal, and purification in various northern cultures, many of which consider birches sacred. In Celtic cultures, birch has a strong connection with the autumn and spring festivals of Samhain and Beltane—birch wood was traditionally used to fuel bonfires during these celebrations. In the Old Gaelic ogham alphabet, several letters were named for trees, and the letter beithe means “birch.” In addition to its symbolic and ritual significance, there are numerous practical uses for birch in the Scottish folk tradition: It is the preferred wood for smoking meat and fish, and is used to keep the fires going for distilling whisky. Birch sap, or birch water, has been used as a refreshing drink, as the basis for birch wine, and for medicinal purposes—it is rich in minerals, vitamins, enzymes, and amino acids. In the Scottish Highlands, it was traditionally fed to newborn babies or taken as a spring tonic; Highlanders believed it to be beneficial for the liver and kidneys. It was also used to prevent hair loss and to treat skin conditions.
Birch water is usually collected in the Highlands around March, and the season only lasts about 3 weeks. It is best to take sap from mature trees in old groves—a good tree can yield more than 7 liters in a season. It is worth noting that old silver birches do not, in fact, have the characteristic silver-white color and smooth, papery bark that most people associate with birch trees; instead, the bark becomes rough, dark, and often covered in moss and lichen. To tap a birch, a small hole is drilled in the trunk and a tube is inserted into the hole (in the old days, a hollow twig or grooved wooden peg was used, but today plastic is more common). The sap drips from the tube into a bag or bucket. Once the tapping season is done, the whole is plugged back up to protect the tree against infection. Birch water is crisp and fresh and has a silky texture and a very slightly creamy, nectary sweetness. Drinking it is like consuming pure essence of birch tree. In addition to being consumed on its own as a drink, birch water can be used as the liquid to make porridge, or for poaching fish. It is also good as a mixer with spirits.
The depopulation of the Scottish Highlands, due to the Clearances of the 18th-19th centuries and then continued emigration and urbanization, has resulted in the loss of a great deal of traditional knowledge: Today, very few people in Scotland (apart from some members of the older generation living in the Highlands) still tap birch trees for their sap. One of the reasons that birch water is difficult to find nowadays is that it is a very active, unstable product that can spoil or ferment quickly if not handled properly. However, birch water is making a resurgence, and younger generations have taken an interest in this product due to its taste, health benefits, story, and connection to the environment. There is a very small handful of companies that have begun to harvest and market birch water, and the hope is that this new trend can contribute to rural economies and revitalize interest in Scotland’s natural heritage, including the few remaining fragments of the ancient Caledonian Forest, which holds a special place in the hearts of the Scottish people.