Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Healers and Herbalism of the 18th century

I was originally introduced to Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series by a co-worker, that was an Herbalist. We were in a book club at the time and after a club night, we were all eating, drinking wine and talking when she mentioned to the others (there were actually 4 Herbalists in the room) that the new Diana Gabaldon book was coming out soon. I asked her what it was about and the room lit up. They told me it was a story about a women, from 1946, that falls through the standing stones and winds up in 1743 Scotland. They went on to say that she was an Herbalist/Medicine Women, and there were 2 books already out in the series. The book sounded right up my ally. I love history, magic, Celtic lore and holistic medicine, throw in a beautiful love affair and an unbreakable family connection and I was hooked. The next day I picked up a copy of Outlander and I've been a fan of the series and the author ever since.

Claire's knowledge of homeopathy was very interesting to me (at the time I was beginning my own journey into Herbalism, making my own remedies, tinctures and salves) and in 1743 most people had to have some knowledge of herbal remedies (they didn't have Doctor's offices or hospitals in rural Scotland).
For instance, if someone in a Highland household had a headache, they would pick House Leeks (which grew on most of the cottage roofs) and pound them into a poultice which was applied to the patients head.

Diana Gabaldon obviously does her research and has amazing advisers, the books are incredibly accurate and truly can transport the reader back in time.

By Kim Murphy-Winslow

(Spoilers from books 1 through 5.)



"Yes", she said, "Jamie's part of me. So are you." She touched Bree's face quick and light then turned half away, reaching to take down a dried bundle of Marjoriam from the array of hanging herbs on the beam above the hearth. "But neither of you is all of me," she said softly, back turned. "I am.....what I am. Doctor, nurse, healer, witch - whatever folk call it the name doesn't matter. I was born to be that; I will be that ''til I die. If I should lose you - or Jamie - I wouldn't be quite a whole person any longer, but I would still have that left."


I extended the incision, swished my fingers thoroughly in the disinfecting bowl, then put two fingers on the loop and pushed it gently upward. Myers moved in a sudden convulsion, nearly dislodging me, and just as suddenly relaxed. He tightened again, buttocks rising, and my assistants nearly lost their grip on his legs. “He’s waking up!” I shouted to Jamie, above the various cries of alarm. “Give him more, quick!” All my doubts about the use of alcohol as an anesthetic were being borne out, but it was too late to change my mind now. Jamie grasped the mountain man’s jaw, and squeezing open his mouth, dribbled whisky into it. Myers choked and spluttered and made noises like a drowning buffalo, but enough of the alcohol made it down his throat— the huge body relaxed . The mountain man subsided into mumbling immobility and then into long, wet, snuffling snores. I had managed to keep my fingers in place; there was more bleeding than I would have liked, but his struggles had not brought the herniated loop back down . I snatched a clean cloth soaked in brandy and blotted the site; yes, I could see the edge of the muscle layer; scrawny as Myers was, a thin layer of yellow fat lay under the skin, separating it from the dark red fibers below. I could feel the movement of his intestines as he breathed, the dark wet warmth of his body surrounding my gloveless fingers in that strange one-sided intimacy that is the surgeon’s realm. I closed my eyes and let all sense of urgency, all consciousness of the watching crowd drop away.
I breathed in slowly, matched my rhythm to the audible snores. Above the reek of brandy and the faintly nauseating aromas of food, I could smell the earthy odors of his body; stale sweat, grimed skin, a small tang of urine and the copper scent of blood. To another, they would have been offensive, but not to me, not now. This body was. No good, no bad, it simply was. I knew it, now; it was mine. They were all mine; the unconscious body in my hands, its secrets open to me; the men who held it, their eyes on me. It didn’t always happen, but when it did, the sensation was unforgettable; a synthesis of minds into a single organism. And as I took control of this organism, I became part of it, and lost myself. Time stopped. I was acutely aware of each movement, each breath, the tug and pull of the catgut sutures as I tightened the inguinal ring, but my hands did not belong to me. My voice was high and clear, giving directions instantly obeyed, and somewhere far away, a small watcher in my brain observed the progress of the operation with a remote sense of interest.


"He was wounded—we know that. Even if he escaped, there would have been" …no one to care for him.”Her voice caught slightly at that; she was a doctor now, had been a healer even then, twenty years before, when she had stepped through a circle of standing stones, and met destiny with James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser.


“My wife was a healer. What they call in the Highlands a charmer, but more than that. She was a white lady— a wisewoman.” He glanced up briefly. “The word in Gaelic is ban-druidh; it also means witch.”“The white witch.” Grey also spoke softly, but excitement was thrumming through his blood. “So the man’s words referred to your wife?”



"It was clear that Geilie knew her business as an herbalist. The room was equipped with long drying frames netted with gauze, hooks above the small fireplace for heat-drying, and open shelves along the walls, drilled with holes to allow for air circulation. The air was thick with the delicious, spicy scent of drying basil, rosemary, and lavender". A surprisingly modern long counter ran along one side of the room, displaying a remarkable assortment of mortars, pestles, mixing bowls, and spoons, all immaculately clean. It was some time before Geilie appeared, flushed from climbing the stairs, but smiling in anticipation of a long afternoon of herb-pounding and gossip. It began to rain lightly, drops spattering the long casements, but a small fire was burning on the stillroom hearth, and it was very cozy".


The workroom was dark, but a faint, eerie violet glow hovered over the far end of the counter. There was an odd burnt smell in the room, that stung the back of my nose and made me sneeze. The faint metallic aftertaste in the back of my throat reminded me of a long-ago chemistry class. Quicksilver. Burning mercury. The vapor it gave off was not only eerily beautiful, but highly toxic as well. I snatched out a handkerchief and plastered it over my nose and mouth as I went toward the site of the violet glow. The lines of the pentacle had been charred into the wood of the counter. If she had used stones to mark a pattern, she had taken them with her, but she had left something else behind. The photograph was heavily singed at the edges, but the center was untouched. My heart gave a thump of shock. I seized the picture, clutching Brianna’s face to my chest with a mingled feeling of fury and panic. What did she mean by this— this desecration? It couldn’t have been meant as a gesture toward me or Jamie, for she could not have expected either of us ever to have seen it. It must be magic— or Geilie’s version of it.



Mrs. FitzGibbons was soon back, with an apron full of garlic bulbs , gauze bags of dried herbs, and torn strips of old linen. A small black iron kettle hung from one meaty arm, and she held a large demijohn of water as though it were so much goosedown. “Now then, m’ dear, what would ye have me do?” she said cheerfully. I set her to boiling water and peeling the cloves of garlic while I inspected the contents of the herb packets. There was the witch hazel I had asked for, boneset and comfrey for tea, and something I tentatively identified as cherry bark. “Painkiller,” I muttered happily, recollecting Mr. Crook explaining the uses of the barks and herbs we found. Good, we’d need that. I threw several cloves of peeled garlic into the boiling water with some of the witch hazel, then added the cloth strips to the mixture. The boneset, comfrey, and cherry bark were steeping in a small pan of hot water set by the fire. The preparations had steadied me a bit. If I didn’t know for certain where I was, or why I was there, at least I knew what to do for the next quarter of an hour. “Thank you … ah, Mrs. FitzGibbons,” I said respectfully. “I can manage now, if you have things to do.” The giant dame laughed, breasts heaving. “Ah, lass! There aye be things for me to do! I’ll send a bit o’ broth up for ye. Do ye call oot if ye need anything else.” She waddled to the door with surprising speed and disappeared on her rounds.


“Och, here ye are, lad! I see ye’ve found your healer already; perhaps I won’t be needed.” Mrs. FitzGibbons waddled through the narrow entrance to the courtyard, squeezing a bit. She held a tray with a few jars, a large bowl, and a clean linen towel. “I haven’t done anything but fetch some water,” I said. “I think he’s not badly hurt, but I’m not sure what we can do besides wash his face for him.”“Och, now, there’s always somethin’, always somethin’ that can be done,” she said comfortably. “That eye, now, lad, let’s have a look at that.” Jamie sat obligingly on the edge of the well, turning his face toward her. Pudgy fingers pressed gently on the purple swelling, leaving white depressions that faded quickly. “Still bleedin’ under the skin. Leeches will help, then.” She lifted the cover from the bowl, revealing several small dark sluglike objects, an inch or two long, covered with a disagreeable-looking liquid. Scooping out two of them, she pressed one to the flesh just under the brow bone and the other just below the eye. “See,” she explained to me, “once a bruise is set, like, leeches do ye no good. But where ye ha’ a swellin’ like this, as is still comin’ up, that means the blood is flowin’ under the skin, and leeches can pull it out.” I watched, fascinated and disgusted. “Doesn’t that hurt?” I asked Jamie. He shook his head, making the leeches bounce obscenely. “No. Feels a bit cold, is all.” Mrs. Fitz was busy with her jars and bottles. “Too many folk misuses leeches,” she instructed me. “They’re verra helpful sometimes, but ye must understand how. When ye use ’em on an old bruise, they just take healthy blood, and it does the bruise no good. Also ye must be careful not to use too many at a time; they’ll weaken someone as is verra ill or has lost blood already.” I listened respectfully, absorbing all this information, though I sincerely hoped I would never be asked to make use of it. “Now, lad , rinse your mouth wi’ this; ’twill cleanse the cuts and ease the pain. Willow-bark tea,” she explained in an aside to me, “wi’ a bit of ground orrisroot.” I nodded ; I recalled vaguely from a long-ago botany lecture hearing that willow bark in fact contained salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin.

“Won’t the willow bark increase the chance of bleeding?” I asked. Mrs. Fitz nodded approvingly. “Aye. It do sometimes. That’s why ye follow it wi’ a good handful of St. John’s wort soaked in vinegar; that stops bleedin’, if it’s gathered under a full moon and ground up well.” Jamie obediently swilled his mouth with the astringent solution, eyes watering at the sting of the aromatic vinegar. The leeches were fully engorged by now, swollen to four times their original size. The dark wrinkled skins were now stretched and shiny; they looked like rounded, polished stones. One leech dropped suddenly off, bouncing to the ground at my feet. Mrs. Fitz scooped it up deftly, bending easily despite her bulk, and dropped it back in the bowl. Grasping the other leech delicately just behind the jaws, she pulled gently, making the head stretch. “Ye don’t want to pull too hard, lass,” she said. “Sometimes they burst.” I shuddered involuntarily at the idea. “But if they’re nearly full, sometimes they’ll come off easy. If they don’t , just leave ’em be and they’ll fall off by themselves.” The leech did, in fact, let go easily, leaving a trickle of blood where it had been attached. I blotted the tiny wound with the corner of a towel dipped in the vinegar solution. To my surprise, the leeches had worked; the swelling was substantially reduced, and the eye was at least partially open, though the lid was still puffy. Mrs. Fitz examined it critically and decided against the use of another leech. “Ye’ll be a sight tomorrow, lad, and no mistake,” she said, shaking her head, “but at least ye’ll be able to see oot o’ that eye. What ye want now is a wee bit o’ raw meat on it, and a drop o’ broth wi’ ale in it, for strengthenin’ purposes. Come along to the kitchen in a bit, and I’ll find some for ye.” She scooped up her tray, pausing for a moment. “What ye did was kindly meant, lad. Laoghaire is my granddaughter, ye ken; I’ll thank ye for her. Though she had better thank ye herself, if she’s any manners at all.” She patted Jamie’s cheek, and padded heavily off. I examined him carefully; the archaic medical treatment had been surprisingly effective. The eye was still somewhat swollen, but only slightly discolored, and the cut through the lip was now a clean, bloodless line, only slightly darker than the surrounding tissue.

For a history lesson of European herbal medicine, going back to the ancient gods of Greek mythology, click this link THE HERBAL TRADITION:

Outlander's own Herbalist CLAIRE MACKAY's website:

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