18th Century Scottish folk medicine

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The 18th century was a time of great change in Scotland – its major cities were full of learning and progress in areas such as architecture, philosophy, science, religion and – importantly – it marked the beginning of the change from medieval to modern medicine.

Modern medicine is, essentially, just folk medicine that worked. A huge proportion of modern western medicine is derived from plants that had been used for centuries. A well-known example being willow bark used to treat pain; a derivative from this was eventually used in Aspirin. Foxgloves, known to be poisonous (especially to children) were used to treat heart disease and heart attacks – chemicals from these flowers are used today for the same thing. One particularly unappealing cure was eating woodlice (or mixing them with wine) to treat stomach aches, heartburn and indigestion – and considering that their exoskeletons are predominately calcium carbonate (a main ingredient of Rennies) – it might have actually worked.

However, for every tincture, potion, ointment and salve that worked; many more had no more power to heal a wound or illness than the Primary School method of putting a wet paper towel on it. It was a belief that if there was an illness – God provided a cure. Unfortunately, unlike diseases like scurvy, which was cured by something as simple as Vitamin C from Kale or Citrus fruits, a large number of diseases had many treatments, but no cures. Smallpox remained the scourge of the 18th Century, responsible for as much as 10% of all deaths worldwide. Unfortunately, because of the lack of scientific understanding behind how the treatments worked and why, attempts to cure these more serious diseases were for the most part unsuccessful. Any survival was almost entirely down to luck and the patient’s overall health. The cure for Rabies (which still remains incurable today without immediate retroviral drugs) was a prayer for the patient’s soul and then a swift smothering. Our own Bard is testament to the fact that submerging yourself in the ice cold Solway Firth to cure heart problems was not one of these cures that were eventually incorporated into the NHS.

Throughout the 18th Century, the people of rural Scotland were dependant on their home remedies for treating illness; home remedies that were often medieval in their origins. The issue was that although trained Doctors did exist at this time; they were expensive to hire, rare and travel was difficult from city to isolated village. So communities made do with what they could.

Home remedies were often passed down from word of mouth, stories, songs, letters and kitchen cookbooks – meaning they changed very little over the years – much opposed to orthodox medicine, which underwent a huge shift in the 18th century.  There were many books on home medicine – including Buchan’s Guide to Domestic Medicine, however, a large proportion of the rural population could not afford the books and illiteracy was still very high.

Most diagnoses and medicines were administered by a local healer, wise-woman (or man), apothecary or family members – as most housewives would have grown herbs for medicinal use or at least have known where to look for them; making potions and ointments to be stored away for later use. Local healers would often be members of a family known for practicing medicine, or even a landowner who owned some of the ‘do-it-yourself’ medicine books. Burns famously wrote of ‘Dr Hornbook’, a teacher who practiced as a healer, albeit not successfully if the Grim Reaper was to be believed.

A famous book of ‘do-it-yourself’ medicine was William Buchan’s succinctly titled ‘Domestic Medicine: or, a Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines’. The list of local plants and herbs that could be used in treatments in the book is exhausting;

Wormwood was a cure for jaundice and, as its name suggest, worms. Peppermint was used to treat wind. Common Mugwort was thought to be a cure-all, for everything from consumption to weariness. Juniper was a disinfectant, Bettony healed infected wounds, Poppies were sedatives and Carline thistle was an antibiotic (it’s also worth noting Carline is a scots word for witch). Nettles were for skin conditions, Heather is an antiseptic, Bog myrtle is a midge repellent and fever remedy. Eventually, due to the increasing professionalisation of medicine over the 18th Century, the gulf between local healers and trained, professional Doctors widened – the latter saw the former as superstitious and looked down upon traditional forms of medicine quite vehemently. This led to many folk medicines being abandoned in favour of more modern, clinical and chemical cures. However, even today we still sometimes use folk medicine in its original from, for example: the Dock Leaf, which grows around nettle patches, crushed and is used to cure their stings, is an ancient cure passed down generation to generation.

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