Chapter 16 - Home Medicine

With medical help neither free nor easy to get, the villagers depended on themselves and each other in illness. Many people were diffident to admit to being blood-stoppers, pain-curers and the like, but at a time when there was no professional help it was a merciful Providence that gave certain people these remarkable skills.

Blood-stoppers were found in the villages certainly as late as 1925 - indeed, there is said to be one still who unfortunately no longer practises the art. Most of them could work without visiting the patient. They might kneel down where they were or go outside for a while and then return to say that the bleeding had stopped, which it always had. A few came to the patient and in these cases it is suggested that they might have used cobwebs which act as a haemostat when applied to bleeding. It is thought that blood-stoppers used a spell which was a verse of Scripture containing pronouns which were replaced with the victim's name, but of course this is not known for a fact. Whatever it was, the power was handed on from man to woman and vice versa and now all have died with the secret, except possibly one.

Others had the power to cure strained backs by walking on them, a primitive form of massage, and this ability belonged to those born feet first or with a cowl.

Bone-setters were naturally also in demand. Walter Munro the Wheeler, a cartwright-joiner at North Balmuchy, was one; John Matheson, a blacksmith at Wester Rarichie, may have been another.  There was one who lived near Evanton but a visit to him meant a train journey with a walk to and from the station at either end, possibly carrying a child. Pain could even be cured by certain people, but now that modern medicine has taken over these remarkable powers have gone.

A common disease was King's Evil (scrofula), a form of tuberculosis affecting the neck. It was prevalent even into this century and one cure for it involved taking the patient to a corpse when the dead hand was laid on the affected part. Ivy leaves could also be applied and a poultice of hot boiled turnips was really effective though bursting glands might cause bad scarring.

A cure for TB which took place in living memory was the burying alive at midnight of a black cockerel by the seventh son of a seventh son. Extraordinary though it sounds it cured the victim. Powdered deer horn was also administered for TB.

An attempt to cure a mentally-ill girl about a hundred years ago again involved the use of a cockerel. It was bound and buried alive under the hearth stone of the house while a psalm was read and a prayer offered up for her cure. There is no record of the result but it is an interesting example of the combination of religion and superstition.

Many homely remedies were used. Singing over the patient, for instance the minister singing psalms, was considered efficacious and, of course, red flannel was thought to be invaluable. Flaked hard soap mixed with sugar made a good poultice for drawing poison and cabbage bree was good for skin complaints. A crushed plantain leaf would heal a cut if applied firmly and left to peel off itself. Dockens soothed sore feet and nettle stings, while brown paper was applied to a bad chest and cold tea to a sore eye.

Various natural oils and fats were used for rheumatism. Seals were sometimes skinned and their fat rendered down for this purpose; and the conger eel provides a small amount of tripe-like flesh which was melted near the fire in earthenware jars and when well rubbed in gave great relief. These oils and fats were good for sprains too - the only trouble with them was the appalling smell.

There was a lot of whooping-cough, as the school log book shows, and one cure for it was carrying the patient across running water. In Hilton this meant going up to an iron gate behind Denoon's shop, over running water, up to the ice-house and back - and it worked! 

Many forms of illness were attributed to the Evil Eye though in all probability they were completely natural. Certain people were thought to have this power and if they were suspected of putting the bad eye on someone an antidote was to go to the Well of Health in Shandwick, or to other wells, for waters, speaking to no-one going or returning.
The water was sometimes held in a wooden ladle, but not always, to be 'silvered' with a silver coin, a wedding ring and perhaps copper.  This water was then used to bath the patient, or was drunk by him or sprinkled over him. Fire was also used to ward off the Evil Eye. Hot ashes were thrown after anyone thought to have put on the Eye or a curse, but if anyone thought that the eye was in process concerned.

Wise women, and men too, prepared remedies by special request and the tinker women who visited the villages now and then were particularly skilled at these cures. A wise woman performed a cure by putting on a garter at the sick-bed. When she heard that the patient was getting better, she removed the garter knowing that it had done its work. Garters were not only used to cure; they were used here and throughout Scotland to induce illness as well, and in that case nothing was so effective as to say that the patient was better, whether true or not. The chances were that the garter would be removed and then the patient had a chance to recover.

Warts must have been very common as there were a variety of cures. The milk from spurge and scelag (charlock) was rubbed on with good effect, and silk thread could be tied round them till they came off. Meat was sometimes rubbed on the wart and then buried, and as it decayed so did the wart. Rubbing with a snail or a fasting spittle (first saliva of the morning) was effective, and there was an intriguing cure involving saying a certain name, turning round three times and rubbing the sole of the boot!

A purely local wart cure belonged to Hilton and they kept it to themselves. There is a stone alongside the chapel there, with a hollow in the top, known as the Wart Wellie. The water which gathers in the hollow was firmly believed to cure warts when rubbed on them.  Considering that warts are said to mean riches it is surprising that everyone was so anxious to be rid of them, except for one child who used to rub pigs' blood from the butcher's on to her hands in the hope that she would get them!

Continue in Chapter 17
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