Scottish Herbalism

Scottish Herbalism – Class Notes

Herb GardenThe popularity of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels have captured our imaginations with the amazingly detailed world they describe.  The descriptions of Scottish herbalism and medicine of the time are fascinating to anyone with an interest in that era.  What did Master Beecham leave in his cabinet for Claire to use? Access to a healer with an extensive herbal medicine cabinet would have been a huge benefit.   In this class, we discussed some of the common herbs that were used to soothe and heal in Scotland during the 18th century.

Medical and Herbal Texts

Claire walks into a surgery in an 18th Century castle and is told to take over as the new healer in residence.  The previous tenant left behind cabinets and boxes full of both useful and dubious concoctions, as well as a small shelf of books.  What sort of healing texts might have been available at the time?   Here are some of the likely candidates that Claire would have to work with:

1486-1488 AD Arbolayre, or Le Grant Herbier Anonymous. Published in French as Arbolayre, later changed to Le Grant Herbier, it borrows heavily from Circa Instans; later versions include parts of other works as well, including Arabian sources. Origins in 15th century Latin codex entitiled Tractatus Herbarum, and a 14th or 15th century French codex Secres de Salerne. Later translated (and greatly changed) into English as Grete Herball. Illustrations from Der Gart. Its purpose was to inform both laymen and physicians about medicinal preparations and how to administer them.

1491 AD Hortus Sanitatis by Jacob Meydenbach (printer-publisher). The last work to be derived in its entirety from earlier herbal authorities and to deal with Old World medicaments only. The grand finale of the medieval era, contains a total of 1,073 pictures. Provided an innovative guide to zoology and mineralogical subjects. Henry VII of England purchased a copy for six pounds in 1501. Each later edition showed changes in the costumes in the illustrations to reflect the current styles.

1525 AD An Herbal (aka) Banckes’ Herbal by Richard Banckes (printer). Author unknown. First English book concerned with botany. Based on European plants rather than English ones.

1526 AD Grete Herbal. English translation of Le Grant Herbier.

1530 AD Herbarum Vivae Eicones by Otto Brunfels. Extremely realistic and beautiful plant pictures.

1538 AD Libellus de re herbaria novus by William Turner. (“The New Little Book About Plants”) Made mention of many Northumberland plants that had never been described before.

1596 AD Cataloge to John Gerard’s garden. The first work of its kind, a complete inventory of a private garden listing some 1,039 plants. He was the superintendant of Gardens for a member of Elizabeth I’s court, as well as his own extensive garden with native English plants as well as exotic specimens.

1597 AD The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes by John Gerard. A collaboration between Dodoens, L’Obel, Lyte, Priest, and Gerard. Highly plagiarized from other works, but steps were taken to conceal that fact. 1,800 woodcuts. First illustration of the potato.

1627 – 1705 AD. Historica Plantara, written by John Ray, included 18,000 species.

1640 AD Theatrum Botanicum: the theater of plants; or, an herball of a large extent by John Parkinson (1567-1650), of London, a gardener’s gardener, who served as apothecary to James I and Charles I. 1,755 folio-sized pages, over 2,700 woodcuts, with descriptions of more than 3,800 plants. It is encyclopedic, referencing virtually everything that had ever been written on the subject of medicinal plants.

1649 AD The Complete Herbal by Nicholas Culpeper. An English apothecary, he favored local plants over imported species, and used common English names instead of Latin ones. He felt Gerard and Parkinson were based too much on imported drugs and felt an English herbal was needed. He lived when Astrology was a kind of religion, and each plant has astrological associations.

1652 AD The English Physician by Nicholas Culpeper.

1656 AD Art of Simpling , by William Coles. Anti-astrology, pro-signatures.

Herbs of the Highlands and Islands

This list of Scottish herbs comes from a wonderful website: Herbology 101.  Please check out their page for much more information on these herbs.

Baldmoney (Meum anthamanticum) = Muilceann (scented head) A herbaceous perennial found in the central Highlands and south-western areas in old undisturbed pastures and wayside habitats.

Bearberry (Arctostaphyllos uva-ursi) = Grainnseag (grain like berry)  An evergreen perennial growing in dry stony places at high altitude.

Blaeberry/ Bilberry / Whortleberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) = Braoileag (berry) Native to Britain this berry prefers acidic upland moors and open woodlands.

Bogbean/ March Trefoil (Menyanthes trifolata) = Tri Bhilean (three-leaved) Bogbean grows in the calm, clear water – usually lochs.

Lesser Burdock (Arctium minus) = Bramasag (burr-head)

Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus) = Oidhreag “beauty and elegance” A native of the Scottish Highlands, Cloudberry grows at altitude, literally thriving in the clouds above the tree-line. It loves the moist, peaty soils and can survive the harsh sub-arctic conditions (and very little sunshine) very well.

Bog Myrtle/ Sweet Gale (Myrica gale) = Rideag A deciduous shrub native to northern Europe, Scotland and Ireland that grows happily in  moist/damp acidic soil.

Common Centaury (Centaurium erythraea) Ceud-bhileach (hundred leaves) Common grassland flowering biennial that is found throughout Britain.

Cranberry (Vaccinium oxyciccus) = Muileag (frog berry) This is the European cranberry, as opposed to the American cranberry, a small evergreen creeping shrub that likes the company of moist sphagnum bogs in upland areas.

Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) = Dearcan feannaig (crow’s berry)

Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) = Creamh (chew) Quite a common herbaceous perennial that grows in shaded, moist woodlands throughout Europe.

Hart’s Tongue (Asplenium scolopendirum) = Greamh mac feidh (wild boars’ plant)

Wild Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) = Cas-fa-chrann (twisted around tree)

Juniper (Juniperus communis) = Aiteal (to pierce) Juniper trees are native to the north of Scotland where they used to be very widespread – less so now due loss of natural habitats, but sill often found in ancient gardens and estates.

Wild Marjoram /Scots Oregano (Origanum vulgare)= Lus-Marsalaidh The wild marjoram that grows in Scotland is part of a large genus of many species that have been used for millennia for food, aroma and medicine.  Originally a native of the Mediterranean, it grows happily up to the north of Scotland besides rivers, on well drained soils and in sunny sites.

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) = Crios Chuchulainn (Chuchulinn’s belt)

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)  = Groban or Liath lus (grey plant) This is commonly found in the lowlands of Britain, often in wayside places.

Oyster Plant (Mertensia maritime) This lovely shingle loving, foreshore plant grows naturally on the north and west coasts of Scotland and along the facing shores of Northern Ireland and Cumbria.

Roseroot (Rhodiola rosea) = Lus nan laoch (plant of the Hero or Champion) Growing high on the sea cliffs of northern and western Scotland, it is also found from Iceland to Scandinavia and Siberia where is originally is from.

Sea Holly (Eryngium maritimum) = Cuillion-traghad (seashore holly) Growing along the sand dues of the west coast of Scotland, this small thistle-like pernniel has blue shiny leaves and powder blue flowers in late summer.

Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) = Slan lus (healing plant)

Tormentil (Potentilla erecta or tormentilla) = Braonan fruich (earth nut of the heather)

 Common Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) = Lus nan tri bhilean (three-leaved plant)

Vetch / Wild Liquorice (Lathyrus monanaus/linifolius) = Carmeal (dig-enjoy) A Scots Highland herb, Bitter, Mountain or Tuberous Vetch

Common Scottish Herbs

Dulse – “In Skye, seaweeds such as dulse were used as treatment for headache, colic, constipation and worms.”  (Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh)

Fennel – Culpepper says that all parts of the plant “are much used in drink or broth to make people thin that are too fat”. Medievals would carry seeds to nibble on during long church services. On fast days, the seeds were considered an appetite suppressant. Others used fennel to prevent witchcraft. On Midsummer’s Eve it was hung over doorways with herbs like St. John’s Wort. Keyholes blocked with fennel seed prevented the entry of ghosts. Pliny used it as a cure for many complaints and for improving eyesight.

Juniper Berries (Juniperus communis) = Aiteal (to pierce) Juniper trees are native to the north of Scotland.  The berries have been used medicinally and as culinary ‘spice’ from pre-historic times. Used to flavor drinks, cheeses, and burning the wood and branches acts as a purifier.  The oil is used in modern day aromatherapy as a detoxifier and rejuvenator for rheumatism, arthritis and skin disorders (Herbology 101)

Lavender – 
Captain Jack Randall’s Lavender Essence
“…“I’m all right,” he said.  “Claire, I’m all right, now.  But for God’s sake, get rid of that stink!”
It was only then that I consciously noticed the scent in the room – a light, spicy floral smell, so common a perfume that I had thought nothing of it.  Lavender.  A scent for soaps and toilet waters.  I had last smelled it in the dungeons of Wentworth Prison, where it anointed the linen or the person of Captain Jonathon Randall.” Outlander (Chapter 38 – The Abbey), by Diana Gabaldon (1991)

Black Jack had a taste for the scent of lavender, and it stuck with Jamie throughout his life. As mentioned, lavender is a scent for soaps and cosmetics, along with being a powerful headache remedy and stress reducer (maybe not for Jamie, but for most everyone else). Creating an essence to spray lavender water on freshly pressed shirts and linens was a common way to perfume the laundry.

Lavender Essence

lavender essential oil
rubbing alcohol, or pure grain alcohol or vodka, or vinegar
atomizer spray bottle

Dissolve 10 – 20 drops of lavender oil in 1 – 2 ounces of alcohol. This preserves the volatile essential oils not generally soluble in water.
Place in an atomizer spray bottle and label.
Use as an air freshener, or spray on linens and clothing, or use as a body spray.


Peppermint – Mint steeped in wine or vinegar was used for toothaches. Mint was rubbed on the teeth for sweet breath. Known in Japan, China, Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Culpepper says Spearmint or Garden Mint (maybe lemon balm) “applied to the head and temples… eases the pains in the head”. Also it “helps the bite of mad dogs”. Useful in “all disorders of the stomach, as weekness, squeamishness, loss of appetite, pain and vomiting.” He strongly recommends the spirit (distillation) as even better. Peppermint he suggests even more strongly for stomach complaints, “for which there are few remedies of greater efficacy.”

Thyme – The Scottish highlanders of old would prepare a tea of wild thyme for courage and vigor in battle, as well as for warding off nightmares. Culpeper recommended an infusion of thyme to relieve “the headaches occasioned by inebriation.”

Whiskey – The Water of Life, ‘uisge beatha’ in Gaelic, usquebaugh in Scots and whisky in English, considered to be almost a panacea, given for a variety of ailments but believed to be specific for smallpox. In 1785, the right of Forbes of Culloden to distil duty-free whisky at Ferintosh in Cromarty was withdrawn by law, which prompted Robert Burns to write:

Thee Ferintosh! O sadly lost!
Scotland lament frae coast to coast!
Now colic grips an’ barkin’ hoast
May kill us all!

Clearly confidence in the medicinal value of whisky endured in Scotland long after the Middle Ages.

Check out this article from the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh on Celtic Medicine in Scotland for much more information!

While I haven’t tried these blends, I found this site while cruising the net looking for information and thought they looked interesting, so I thought I’d share:  Scottish Gourmet USA

Attributions and Disclaimer

Some of this information about the use of herbs comes from my herbal notebook that I have scribbled in for years.  Some of it comes from the websites noted, please visit them for more information and accurate source citations.  None of the information above is meant for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions, but rather information on their historic uses, specifically those that would have been available to a fictional character.  Check with a doctor or professional herbalist before using any product on yourself.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *