Scottish plant remedies
(originally appeared in the Clanranald Trust Magazine)
The Scots have known about the medicinal qualities of plants for millennia. Here are just a few examples of some of the traditional uses of our native plants.
Heather was probably one of our ancestors’ most useful plants. As well as providing material for thatch, cord, nets, mats, brooms, baskets and panniers, it could also be used to make beer. Archaeologists on the Island of Rhum found the remains of a prehistoric heather flower brew. Even today we raise our glasses with Fraoch heather ale, which has heather tops and the leaves of bog myrtle amongst its ingredients. An infusion of heather tops was a traditional remedy for tuberculosis, coughs and heart problems and an ointment made from the flowers was said to be efficacious against rheumatism. The fragrance from the flowers is said to have a soporific effect, and heather beds were commonplace in rural Scotland. James VI’s tutor described them as ‘a bed so pleasant that it may vie in softness with the finest down’. White heather had particularly magical properties, as it was believed to grow where fairies had rested. It is said that in 1544 at the Battle of Blar-na-leine (field of shirts) John of Moidart, later to become Chief of Clanranald, was victorious because his followers wore white heather in their bonnets.
Meadowsweet is the herbal aspirin, and was used in the past to treat fever and headaches. This plant’s Gaelic name is crios chu-chulainn, named after the Celtic hero Cuchulainn, who is said to have been cured by bathing in meadowsweet.
Tormentil, which is also known as bloodroot in Scotland, was the cure for dysentery and bloody diarrhoea, and was also taken as an infusion to expel intestinal parasites. Archaeological excavations at Jedburgh Abbey uncovered the remains of tormentil pollen alongside the whipworm parasite, which causes severe diarrhoea. Externally, a poultice of crushed tormentil could be applied to dry up ulcers and sores.
St. John’s Wort is known by the Gaelic name of achlasan Chaluim Chille, roughly translated as ‘Columba’s oxterful’. The story goes that a young lad, entrusted with taking care of his family’s cattle, was afraid to spend his nights alone in the hills with only the beasts for company. On hearing of his predicament, St.Columba pressed a handful of the plant into the boys armpit, whereby his fear vanished. Not as daft as it sounds – today, St. John’s Wort is known as Nature’s Prozac, and, by placing a remedy either in the armpit or the groin, it is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin. In the Hebrides, it was believed that if the plant were carried secretly it would ward off witches. It was also said to offer protection against lightning strikes.
A poultice of dock roots could be used to treat nettle and bee stings. Nettles themselves were a popular remedy for skin conditions, gout and rheumatism. The young nettle tops also made a nutritious soup, rich in iron. Nettle stalks, gathered in autumn then stripped and beaten to separate the fibres, could be processed into a linen-like fabric.
Bog myrtle was used in Scotland as a substitute for hops in the brewing of beer. It is also an excellent insect repellent, and was used in the past to repel the attentions of the dreaded midge. Scottish women used to place it in their linen chests to repel moths, and made a drink with it to worm their children.
As well as providing a nutritious food, oats were frequently used to make drawing poultices for boils and abscesses. The oatmeal was mixed with hot water and butter then applied to the sore. In particularly stubborn cases, fresh urine was added to the mixture!
John Lightfoot, in his Flora Scotica of 1777, described an ointment made by the Highlanders from yarrow to ‘heal and dry up old wounds’. He also observed that in order to cure a headache, they ‘sometimes thrust a leaf of it up their nostrils to make their nose bleed’, thereby presumably releasing the pressure!
Archaeological excavations of the medieval Augustinian monastic hospital at Soutra uncovered a cache of hemlock and henbane seeds, known to have a powerful anaesthetic effect, and which were probably used by the monks to sedate their patients during operations and amputations around the time of the Wars of Independence (don’t try this one at home – both of these plants are extremely poisonous and amputations should probably be left to the experts). Other plant material found at Soutra includes bilberries (used to treat E-coli infection), tormentil (for diarrhoea), myrrh (an antiseptic), watercress (for scurvy), ergot, St. John’s wort and juniper berries.
Although not a native species, the potato has earned an honorary place in Scottish culture (as in ‘neeps and tatties’ and the local chippie). In 1739 Clanranald was introduced to the humble tattie, although the clansfolk informed their chief that while they were quite happy to grow potatoes if that was what he wished, he needn’t expect them to eat them! However, the battle-weary soon found a use for them – a slice of raw potato is very soothing to a black eye!
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Last updated 3rd September 2013 ©Purple Sage Botanicals