Scottish Archive Network Exhibitions

Other Exhibitions
For Warts
For Headaches
For Pimples
For Beauty
For Diets
For Dizziness
For Earache
For Removing Earwigs
For an Abcess in the Ear
For Baldness

Archaeological evidence informs us that herbs have been used in medicine in Scotland since at least the Bronze Age. Written evidence of the dissemination of herbal remedies in Scotland begins much later, about the fifteenth century AD, with a Gaelic manuscript, Regimen Sanitas, the Rule of Health.

In the seventeenth century physicians trained in continental Europe, notably Robert Sibbald and Andrew Balfour, took an interest in indigenous herbs, and began studying these systematically; establishing the Edinburgh Physic Garden. In 1683 the Head Gardener, James Sutherland, published his Hortus Medicus Edinburgensis - a catalogue of the plants in the physical Garden at Edinburgh. A copy of this survives in the National Library of Scotland.

In 1703, four years before the birth of Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish scientist who developed a binomial system for naming plants, a Gaelic speaking physician, Martin Martin, who had been trained at Montpellier in France, published an account of his travels in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, which included descriptions of native plants and their uses in folk medicine.

It is often assumed that the practice of folk medicine by traditional healers in Scotland was persecuted by the church through witchcraft trials. However, this may be too simplistic a summary. Church authorities often differentiated between herbal remedies and superstitious charming. Notes of herbal remedies in a volume of kirk session minutes in an Ayrshire parish provide evidence that ministers used local knowledge of herbs and cures to augment the medical training they acquired at university.

The unbroken oral tradition of folk medicine since Celtic times, detected in the nineteenth century by Alexander Carmichael in his Carmina Gadelica (published in six volumes between 1900 and 1971), is also evident in records left by the literate classes. Collections of correspondence, household accounts and manuscript compilations of recipes and cures left by landowning families in Scotland reveal something of the dissemination of herbal remedies among the gentry and nobility. The survival of many herbal cures for baldness and hair conditions reminds us of the role of barber surgeons in the development of medicine.

This small exhibition indicates the wealth of such material in collections of public and private records with a selection of images of documents (some with transcripts to help decipher older forms of handwriting) from many different Scottish archives and libraries. It suggests that the handing on of knowledge of herbal remedies, far from being an 'underground' activity in remote areas, was, rather, a significant part of life in the country houses, manses and scientific institutions of Scotland.

Some of the items in this exhibition are taken from a volume of herbal remedies (reference RCPSG 1/20/3/1) in the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow and the entire volume can now be viewed online, along with transcriptions of each remedy at: