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Home Life of the Highlanders 1400 - 1746
The Medical Knowledge of the Highlands
By Dr. Hugh Cameron Gillies

I DO not know any of the reasons why this period (1400-1746) was fixed upon by the Committee, but it happens to be of exceptional interest; in this connection from several points of view. It was in this time, and for the first time, that the native thoughts upon matters of health or rather of illness began to feel the influence of outside science so-called. Up to this time the native thought regarding illness and disease grew naturally, as we may say, out of the simple reasonable observations of the people themselves. They had, it is true, inherited a big body of superstition from perhaps prehistoric times, and of a quasi-religious superstition from a later time. This constituted their whole medical equipment.

In any attempt to understand the state of the Highlands from the medical aspect, and within this period, one or two things must be got clearly into the mind and the understanding before we can apprehend the position rightly or in any degree justly. First, we must endeavour to know the character of the people as well as we can, and how they felt themselves related to their environment or their natural surroundings. Again, we must with equal care endeavour to appreciate their circumstances with regard to outside civilisation so-called, and how far or to what extent any contact, in whatever direction it came, affected their thoughts or influenced their lives. Then, and in the light of these considerations determined, we must judge of their medical skill or knowledge from all the available facts.

We may safely take it that within the last thousand years there has been no fundamental race change affecting the essential character of the Highlanders of Scotland. The last effective invasion was that of the Norsemen in the eighth and ninth centuries. What they brought us remains with us in many interesting ways. It is, however, safe to assume that until within the last century no outside influence came into the character of our people which could essentially change it. It is safe also to assume that the grandparents of the older of the present generation were living and thinking as their people had done for hundreds of years before, so that the tradition which we have, and have kept, of their thoughts and actions may be looked upon as native and characteristic, for certainly nothing has been added to it in the time of our modern memory.

The Highland people were a healthy, sane, and sensible people in all their tradition and according to all history—excepting, of course, Lord Macaulay. The "duine foghainteach" was the ideal Highlander to himself as to his fellows. He was not an aggressive man, and in no sense a bully, but he was simply a sufficient man, as the fine expression, being translated, means—a man at home within himself, as Emerson put it well. That he was a brave man no one whose word was at all worth taking, and certainly no people has ever denied— not the Romans, and not "our friends the enemy," at any time. The word for coward was not in his language in all his history. He had no use for the word. When the creature was in the course of things discovered, he was looked upon as a new-comer, a stranger, a curiosity, an exception, and he was named "gealtair" or madman. There was no other word for him—nor a better. But health or wholeness, and even holiness, which is the same thing in the higher sphere, is the basis of all this. That is why I have referred to it. is righ gach sian, which the Caledonian Medical Society has taken for its motto, is a proverb at least a thousand years old, and it expresses in the fewest possible words one of the greatest truths ever expressed in any language. Every healthy man is a king—aye, and every diseased man is a beggar and a slave from the top downwards and from the bottom upwards. "Health," says Emerson, "is the highest wealth"; but he must have forgotten his philology or he would have known that he was only wisely quibbling, for otherwise he would have seen that Hâl-th to be whole "slàn" was exactly the same as Well-th to be well, and that wealth had nothing at all to do with riches in the monied sense. Every healthy man is a king, and none but he; and not all the powers of the earth can make a king of a diseased man. The Gaelic people knew this, which shows the very high state of real education which they attained.

They had another proverb, "Is i an oighreachd an t-slàinte." Health is the inheritance-—the "estate," as lawyers say, to bequeath to one’s children. The terrible truth of this is only fully known to those who have conveyed disease to their offspring—even if the offspring know it too. "Fortes creantur a fortibus et bonis" is how the Latins stated the same thing— the strong are procreated by the strong and the good, and the weaklings and wasters otherwise. How very many hospitals and jails and lunatic asylums and complacent "charities" would the practical realisation of this simple truth have saved us—if it was only understood and acted upon, as the Highland people clearly did.

They also said "Tha an duine slàn gu nàdarra" man is by nature healthy, which is worthy of all acceptation. It is only when he transgresses that he is diseased. Folly and ignorance are the only crimes against Nature—and Nature takes no excuse. With the transgression the seed is planted of disease and sorrow and suffering. Nature made man healthy, and Nature must have a healthy man—or none. Disease, destruction, and death are Nature’s instruments to save the race. Were it not for the purifying influence of death following upon the diseases of folly, filth and ignorance, the whole human race would have been extinct long ages ago. The Gaelic people knew this too. They said "chan eil euslainte gun ioc-shlainte, agus chan eil tilleadh air a bhàs." This is usually and somewhat foolishly translated, There is no disease without a remedy, and there is no turning back of death. The translation is utterly wrong. The word ioc-shiainte does not mean a remedy or drug or "specific," of which sensible honest people know there are none. It means compensation or sacrifice— payment in restorative suffering for the violence done to Nature’s healthy man. Every pang of suffering in the world is for the saving of Nature’s healthy man, and not for his destruction—if he only understands and obeys—but it is a compensation and a dear payment, too—an ioc-shiainte, a compensation or sacrifice claimed for injured health.

It is impossible for us to imagine that a sane healthy people, living in unsophisticated contact with Nature in its great instructive simplicity, in the Highland glens of Scotland, and for long centuries, could fail to learn much of the inevitable consequence of cause and effect, which is the source of all the wisdom and the sciences. It would be from its first thought foolishness to imagine that such a barren relationship between the high intelligence of a fine healthy people and their kindred surroundings was at all possible. It was not possible, and it was not so. The positively splendid examples I have just given of their health-wisdom is proof enough of this. I have not met anything, anywhere, in any language to compare in essential wisdom with these wonderful words, and they are but a few out of the great many which the Highland people have crystallised in their own Gaelic tongue. Our people have positive’y rained upon us heavy showers of life wisdom of such a clean and clear nature as very few nations of the earth have vouchsafed their descendants. They could not write, and they did not write, and for this we have to be profoundly thankful. They saw, they thought, they realised, and they stored, and this is how we have inherited the finest and wisest body of proverbs in existence.

They were a people of lively imagination. They filled their hills and woods with fairies and their rivers and lakes with (.~ ir~yean, but they did not forget that salmon also was there, and trout, and feather-folk, and roebuck and deer in the higher reaches. They were therefore by nature healthy. Even as late as the Statistical Accovnt of Sir John Sinclair (1790), disease of any kind was rare among the Highland people. The reports made by the clergy from all parts of the country tell the same tale. "We have commonly no sickness," says the report from 1) ‘moon. "Very few diseases are known among the people "—Lochgoil. "No disease is peculiar to the parish from climate or any other cause "—Tarhat. "In-habitants all healthy "—Moy. "We have no illness to speak of "—Loch broom. "The people have very few diseases "—Campbeltown. And so on. But evil unspeakable was wrought in the life of the people by diseasing contact with the outside and by the destructive false and foreign economic conditions imposed on them. The report from Kilmaillle tells how a woman who had been harvesting in the south had brought home "some low-country disorder," which greatly upset the otherwise clean and healthy parish. Macleod in the Gloomy Memories states: "I may mention that attendant on all previous and subsequent evictions, and especially this one, many severe diseases made their appearance, such as had been hitherto almost unknown among the Highland population—viz., typhus fever, consumption and pulmonary complaints in all their varieties, bloody flux, bowel complaints, eruptions, rheumatism, piles, and maladies peculiar to women "—an ugly enough list, to be sure, and the price of our "civilisation"!

Their Practical Knowledge.

Let me now give examples of the valuable commonsense observations and practices of the old people—purely native and home-grown. Some years ago I was called to see a London business man, a Highlander. He went north in the Easter holidays, and caught a chill waiting for the steamer on the way south. He was suffering from a feverish bronchitis bordering on pneumonia. After a few days in bed be was free from fever and much better. He told me he must go to business next day—in vile weather. I knew the very great danger; and I knew I had a strong-willed man to deal with. All at once, as I was pacing his room, I had an inspiration. I asked him if he knew how the old people in the Highlands treated such illnesses. "No, what was it ?" I said they used to put something hot to the soles of the feet. "Och, yes, I remember, my mother did it always." I found a soft spot. I said it was a very good plan, and immediately applied two thoroughly effective mustard plasters, which kept him off his feet and in bed for over a week. When he got up he was quite well. He never saw the philosophy of his treatment for some six months, when, happening to meet him, I explained it. He got as mad as a hatter, and I only meet him in very dry ways ever since. I have known scores of useful lives lost which might have been saved if "something hot" had been put to the soles of the feet.

Another piece of sound wisdom. "Liver complaint," which the old people evidently took the correct measure of, as arising from over eating and drinking, was cured in this way. The sufferer himself must pluck and eat, on the spot with the dew upon it and just as the sun is rising, a small plant of the nasturtium species which only grows on high mountain tops. Let us call it Nasturtium nivale. That the cure is good was convincingly brought home to me some time ago. A gentleman in affluent circumstances sent for me. After short preliminaries, I asked him what exercise be took. "Not much." "How much do you walk I" "Not a foot." I suggested that he should take a shooting in the Highlands. "I hate shooting like poison." Well, I suggested that he should go in search of the little plant. "Yes, if you’ll come with me." We went. We began with "The Cobbler" on Loch Long. Next day Ben Lomond, next Ben Voirlich, and so from day to day, a mountain each day, until we finished, after a fortnight, with Ben Nevis, on a frightful day with twenty feet of snow on the top. We never found the plant, but we found supreme health and the strength of very oxen. I should never have suggested this cure but from my Gaelic mother-wisdom. Some of the most valuable lives of our modern history might have been saved if they had been sent to look for this little plant. We had no "liver complaint" or any other when we finished our quest.

Popular Observation Confirmed.

It is nothing short of wonderful how the keenest investigations of latest physiological science have come to confirm the simple natural observations of our people. The most firmly established medicines of modern pbarmacopoeias are those which were, for apparently long ages, familiar in the daily physic of our ancestors. I cannot here, even if I was esteemed competent for the task, enter upon the full revelation which the thought suggests. I must, however, refer to a few instances in point.

Foxglove was the cure for "dropsy." Now everyone knows that even at this advanced day Digitalis (strangely enough "Meuran nan cailleach") is our very sheet-anchor in such forms of heart disease as must invariably end in dropsy. It would be of course no sense to assert that the people knew, as we now know, the pathological sequence of cause and effect which leads to dropsy; but it would take more courage than I claim to deny that the simple observation of the people was the starting point of our fuller knowledge, however complete we may esteem it to be.

Broom-tops, again, and Juniper berries have a reputation as old as the hills for the cure of dropsy, and they are the most reliable medicines in our scientific armoury at the present time. True, we have differentiated their action from that of Digitalis. We know that these work by stimulating the kidneys, while Digitalis is effective by strengthening the failing heart. We naturally, therefore, use these things with more precision than the old people, but the bigger fact remains that it was the old and natural observation that made the discovery which we have merely elaborated in later days.

Mint was used for flatulence, and burnt oatcake for indigestion, but these, again, under various disguises, are acknowledged and approved aids in the practice of our time. We call them carminative now, and absorbent, in our science, but it needs more than the simple naked eye to see that this is a great advance in wisdom. The native knowledge knew that these things did help, and they cared not why or how, and this is sound sense.

The dried and ground gizzards of fowls was also a favourite remedy for indigestion, but this, under a cloudy name, is one of the best-known remedies of the day, when it is honest—but it can never be more honest than the original.

Male-fern for worms is now, as it was in the beginning, the only remedy for internal worms. It is extremely difficult to know bow this permanent knowledge had origin. There it is, however, and here it remains a fixed legacy of determined fact from the old time.

Tar-water, which was the remedy for chest troubles, especially for those of a consumptive nature, has endless imitations in our day; and no one can rightly say that there is any advance at all, not even in our pharmacy, upon the plain methods of the days of old. Tar also, and its water, was the favourite remedy in skin diseases. This adumbrated, as they say in high politics, the later day of the bacterion and the microbe, for even now we have no other remedies than these. They are germicides.

Coltsfoot, Horehound, Buckthorn, "and mony mae" have kept their place, and are as highly regarded to-day as in the day of their dawn.

It would be tedious to follow this farther. The whole matter may be summed up that we owe infinitely more to the simple nature-study of our people in the great affair of health than we owe to all the later science.


I am anxious to avoid entering upon this aspect of Highland medical faith and conduct, for several reasons—but especially and first, because it has been so well and so fully investigated and stated by others, especially by Alexander Carmichael, LL.D., in his life-work, Ortha Nan Gàidheal, and again, because I think I can use the space at my disposal to a more direct purpose. There are one or two things, however, I wish to refer to.

The belief in the curative efficacy of Wells and Waters which was, and even now is, so prevalent, is world-wide, and seems to have been inherited by our people from ages past, "Lord knows how lang." The idea may have been, and most likely was, simple and healthy enough in its origin as a mere concept of cleanliness, whether taken internally or used externally. It is, in fact, one of the most sensible and valuable methods of treatment in our day, being, without doubt, the basic idea upon which our spas and hydropathics have been built and developed. In early days the essential idea got perverted into a quasi-religious humbug, which the Church is now as diligently banning as in the old days it so very fervently blessed. There are hundreds of these wells all over the country, and if our young people wish to lave in them or drink of them on the early May morning or on as many other mornings as they can, so much the better, and if a little bit of superstition stimulates their devotion, then long live superstition.

There was among the people a most interesting form of thought which has for very long puzzled me. They gave to disease a positive entity and in some cases a distinct personality; and, what was far more mysterious, they always spoke of these diseases euphemistically and with great respect. A most intelligent man told me not long ago that in his boyhood when they had small-pox in the house his mother insisted upon the young people referring to the disease as the bean mhath the good wife. I know many others of the same forms of extraordinary expressions and other nations also had them. The reason why I refer to them is because I believe it explains in an extremely crooked way some very strange "cures" which I could never reconcile with the clean lives and concepts of the Highland people, who gave us a great body of the cleanest and prettiest thoughts imaginable. That fine Highland woman, Mrs. K. Grant Whyte, gave me, I think, the key to this strange paradox. She relates a case where a man was subjected to violent treatment in order that the rheumatism would be punished out of him. It was for the disease and not for the poor sufferer that these sometimes unsavoury treatments were intended—but the sufferer was there too. Great is simplicity. I have met with the same concept and practice even in London, so it is not even yet quite a thing of the past. I refer to it simply because it was a very remarkable phase in the very devious evolution of human intelligence. By feigned courtesy they extended the bean mhath a polite hospitality on the one hand, and on the other they hoped to expedite her departure. There is a good deal of human nature in it after all.

Surgical Knowledge.

Whether they knew anything of a surgical knowledge natively I have never been able to learn. Of modern "Operations" we may take it that they were entirely innocent. Of their treatment of broken bones, from which they could not have been altogether exempt, we have no tradition or record whatsoever. Mr. Carmichael gives one practical kind of incantation for "sprain," which to me has always suggested a very correct treatment for fracture, because for sprain it has no meaning, it is thus. "Christ went out in the morning early; He found the legs of the horses in fragments small; He put marrow to marrow; He put pith to pith; He put bone to bone; He put membrane to membrane; He put tendon to tendon; He put blood to blood; He put tallow to tallow; He put flesh to flesh; He put fat to fat; He put skin to skin; He put hair to hair; He put warm to warm; He put cool to cool. As the King of Power healed that, it is in His power to heal this, if it be His own will to do it—through the bosom of the Being of Love and of the three of the Trinity." This is quite a wonderful statement of the aim of modern surgical "coaptation," and we can hardly believe such an exact form of words imaginable without a very clear comprehension of the natural necessity of correct and precise setting. There are many others of these practical incantations, but this is the most complete and instructive one in my knowledge; and as we must take them to have been part of the common stock of understanding, we must look upon them as indicating a very healthy and correct appreciation of the surgical service necessary in such cases.

Of the position of professional surgery at this time I prefer here to say nothing—until it is more fully revealed—but that it was fully up to date, in the time, may be taken as quite certain.

Gaelic Medical Writings.

It was in this time, in the period under consideration, that a supremely interesting development took place in the medical history of the Highlands. There was a very remarkable family of Macbeaths, sometimes called Beatons, who seem to have held medical sway over the whole Western Isles and the North of Scotland for centuries. There was another family of Connachers which took a similar position in Lorn and Argyll. There may have been others, but as yet they are not known. These families, with whom the practice of medicine was hereditary, in this time began to translate or bad translated for them all that was best in the medical literature of Europe and into their own Gaelic language. So many of these writings as are known to be extant have found their way to some of our public libraries, such as the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh and the British Museum, and some are in private possessions. These very important works have for ages and till very lately remained utterly unknown. They are from many points of view of the highest possible interest. It is only lately that any part of them has been restored to the light of to-day. Some years ago I myself made the first effort to bring them to light in an Essay for the Caledonian Medical Society. It was published in the Society’s Journal, April, 1902, and it is well worth referring to. I have now again just finished in book form another portion of one of these manuscripts. That is all as yet done. There is a great mass of these writings, and it will take generations to reproduce them, which of course must and will be done. They of course embody the highest available knowledge of the time, which speaks well of the professional knowledge of the Highland physician. I have, however, a very strong suspicion that these writings did not affect the simple natural thoughts of the people to any appreciable extent. These books were written to be the companion pocketbooks of their professional owners, and if tradition is not very purposely false, they were not very keen to impart their knowledge to the crowd. Until these manuscripts, then, have come very much more fully into our knowledge we better not judge of their merit or of their possible influence, and keep our eye entirely upon what is native, natural, and unsophisticated, which, if I may say so, and so far as I as yet know, is far better.

These seemingly simple things, seen in the perspective of a dull imagination, may appear small and insignificant, but they are not so at all. They are of a supremely valuable importance. They have survived, as they served, many generations and long centuries in the life of the finest peasantry the world has ever seen. They remain with us after whole cosmoses of loud-lauded "scientific" tomfoolery—the simple remembrance of which makes us ashamed—have passed into the utter darkness of oblivion; and they shall remain doing a good and faithful service long after most of the miserable myopic myopathy of to-day (an cead na cuideachd) shall have passed away into its native element. Na deanamaid-ne, mar sin, idir, "dimeas air latha na nithe beaga."

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