Environment Plant Life and Superstition in Medicinal Folk Practice of the Scottish Highlands

Of perhaps all of the critical elements of a culture, perhaps one of the most telling is the ways in which people treat their ill and utilize the resources around them. Whether a culture treats its sick through ritual trance dances or prescribes antibiotics, no one culture has a singular method that has proved to be more or less effective than another; there is no universal cure. When it comes to a country like Scotland, there are many factors that have interacted over the centuries that have contributed to their unique methods and perspectives on practicing medicine, including the geographical, biological, and social factors.

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In terms of medicinal practices and perspectives, Scotland’s history is unique to many other countries. Its long history with conflict and oppression are part of the reason why some of the practices associated with Scottish Highlanders are so distinct. Many of the best known events in the nation’s history involves Highlanders defending their ways of ife in Jacobite battles at sites such as Culloden. By exploring the history of past Scottish medicinal practices, this analysis will show the cultural ties between the practices of the past and how they influence contemporary Scottish culture.

Just as the practices of those in the modern Scottish highlands are driven by those of their ancestors, the ancestors found their roots and developed their practices amid the vivid landscape of the Scottish highlands. The mountainous terrain of central and northern Scotland is where the glens, trees, and stones became the foundation of the Highlander’s beliefs as the environment served as a source of sustenance and protection simultaneously (Karasik, 1998). From the understanding that Highlanders have relied on their surroundings as a means of survival, just as humans of all cultures and origins have, it then becomes apparent that the isolated surroundings that the Scotttish Highlanders have existed in had one of the greatest impacts on their development of folklore and subsequent culture because they prevented the fluid movement and cultural interaction than those in less geographically sectioned off areas of Europe. Thus, the Highlanders came face-to-face with the need to build a strong relationship with their environment, which ultimately led to the association of nature with power. Highlanders yielded nearly unconditionally to this power as they sought to answer life’s questions and evade death and disease by understanding nature and manipulating it to their advantage.This bond between the environment and Highland belief and folklore surrounding nature is best represented by the oral traditions documented by Martin Martin whose work explores the relationship the Scottish Highlanders have established with plants in both practical and magical uses (Bennett 2009). Bramble (Rubus fruticosus L.), for instance, found practical use in its role as a source of medicinal teas and a more magical purpose as a good luck token that could be used to ward off evil (Bennett 2009). This particular instance, though not all encompassing for the wide range of Highland folklore surrounding various plant usage, is an excellent example of the plant life offered by the Highland environment. It becomes interesting here to note that while there is no singular plant that can be identified as the cornerstone of folk medicine, each plant has been given meaning based on a biological response and the responses elicited by superstitions. On a grander scale, this detail ties back to the contributions of Highland geography to the development of both folkloric beliefs and the environmental dependence that contributed to them.

Once establishing that the landscape of the central and northern Scottish Highlands has cultivated a strong relationship with nature among its inhabitants, it then becomes necessary to understand how Scottish folklore and practice has emerged from the themes and ideas that have underscored its development. Medicine of the early-modern practitioners in the central and northern Highlands was practiced on the terms of humoral medicine which centered illness around the notion of balance among the four vital humors (fluids) in the human body that each have their own characteristics and natural states that, when not in balance, was the root of the problem (Dingwall 2003). In order to achieve this balance, the people once again turned to the environment as a resource for fighting any ailment that may have plagued them. Due to the nature of humoral medicine and the Highlander superstition and dependence on the environment, medical practice and treatment came to center around folk practices and beliefs along the lines that an imbalance in one of the humors, such as a person ingesting a hot poison and being prescribed a root or mushroom that was considered cold to balance it. This in and of itself demonstrates a close connection with the environment and the development of cultural practices that combine the medical with the superstitious in order to create the practical. Yet, at the same time, though this close relationship and understanding that Scottish Highlanders have with their environment has woven its way into their oral histories and become an element that is associated with folk practice, it has also served a vital role in the contemporary views of those who aren’t from the Highlands (Macdonald 1997). For many, an unrealistic notion that Highlanders are unmodernized and still prescribe to traditional practices and superstitions endures (Macdonald 1997). Today, Scotland uses just as many types of modern medicine as the Western world for their primary treatments. However, it is interesting to note that many will come to associate this region of the world with practices that have been lost to their English neighbors.

Bringing back this notion of the traditional understandings of medicine, a rich history of folk practices emerges in which plants and animals come to serve as ways to cure various ailments and bad luck. In handling disease, especially mental illness, families practiced medicine in accordance with their beliefs of classical medicine and folk practice. They commonly treated those who had gone “mad” with sacred wells such as St. Fillian’s where treatment would range from leaving a rag or a coin in order for a saint to grant health to dipping the afflicted person in the water so as to benefit from it (Donoho 2014). This method of treating a disease or disorder is an excellent example of folk practice among the Scottish Highlanders because it provides demonstrates their folk medicine as a combination of regard for the environment which is seen by the natural element of water and their understanding that a cure would be possible because of the religious significance they placed on it. This is also an interesting case because this traditional way of treating an illness by leaving tokens for saints and for good fortune can be tied to other cultural beliefs. Practices such as modern day “wishing wells” are an adaptation of the Highlander thought process that where medical significance has been replaced by a cultural norm. At the same time, in much the same way that plants and even a resource as common as water was used to treat illness, there was also great folk practice and ritual surrounding veterinary medicine such as the Red Book of Appin which is most famous for telling of how to cure cattle through rhymes and incantations that were prescribed from the healers known as “skeelie folk” who may give a plant, herbal remedy or crystal stone paired with this (Cheape 1993). Though the Red Book of Appin remains one of the only original books that details traditional ways of protecting cattle, it does not exist in the condition that would allow it to offer the specific plants and herbs that would have been used for treatment. Rather, it offers the idea that folk practice of medicine did not only dominate the central and northern Highlanders way of life and how they treated their ill. It also was a way that these people used to manage their livestock and natural environment by allowing them to sustain lifestyles that allowed them to prosper from the environment despite diseases or misfortunes that may have ran among livestock.

The examples and instances presented have laid out an image of the central and northern Scottish Highlands as a complex web of natural geography and plant life that has lent to the implementation of herbal remedies that are tied to a deep dependence and belief of the superstitions surrounding the environment. Yet, just as the environment has played a crucial role thus far in traditional folk medicine, to some extent contemporary superstitious beliefs surrounding health and these traditional folk practices were infused into the written language during the 1900s when human traits became affiliated with physical characteristics and thus loss their medical basis such as the perceived correlation between nose shape to alcoholism (Coyer and Shuttleman 2014). While perhaps initially this does not appear to be directly related to how the plants and folk medicine found their footing and influence in contemporary Scottish culture in the Highlands, it does demonstrate the shift in thinking that began around the 1900s as Highlanders started to shift away from their superstitions and began to transition more to anatomy and other hard sciences to explain the natural world that they had for so long perceived as a mystical and magic-ruled realm. To bring this subject full circle, it then becomes imperative to understand plants in the contemporary role that they play symbolically in the Scottish Highlands which can be best represented by the modification of the earlier discussed clootie wells which were used traditionally to cure insanity by hanging rags from nearby trees and what now have adopted meaning as community instead of being used for healing (Eynden 2010). Again, this example explores the transition of medicinal folk practice that has evolved to take new meaning and significance. What once acted as a ritual to cure one of mental illness has lost the meaning of healing belief and in many ways as evolved. The new meaning that has emerged centers around the idea of community and a sense of pride regarding their national identity and ancestral roots in the land.

Having begun to delve into the blossoming of Scottish medicinal folk practice into contemporary practice and thought, the modern day significance of the ancestral land for Scottish Highlanders emerges and comes full circle as a tie to contemporary culture and traditional folk practice. There, too, exists a bond between the Highland sense of national identity and how modern inhabitants and descendants view the land of their ancestors as a source of pride and livelihood that allows them a way of life that connects them to their heritage and culture (Withers 1996). As time has passed and the advent of modern medicine has caused folk medicine to take a small and far less prominent role in healthcare, it has become this lasting link to the environment reinforces this connection between ancestral land and heritage. Folklore now surrounds the harrowing battles and struggles for power that took place among the hills and no longer quite takes on the appearance of fairies and devils who bring about and cure illness. As a final homage to the medicinal folk practices of Scotland and how they themselves are remembering today apart from the remaining strong ties to the land, present-day Scottish Highlanders have concerned themselves far more with preserving and remember their past than they are with predicting the future from it (Spadafora 1990). This is one of the reasons why remnants of folk medicine are present in the culture and why it has changed so rapidly from the superstition-based peoples to the inhabitants of the twenty-first century world Scotland and the Highlands became a part of (Spadafora 1990). These marked changes from folk medicine to the culture that no longer practices chants and incantations. This has been one of the greatests cultural changes that those in the central and northern Highlands have undergone.

While undergoing this research, I have begun to scratch the surface of the realm of medical anthropology and how local culture is crucial in determining how people will understand and treat human diseases. Further research that could be completed on this topic involves many things from the modern boom in holistic methods and how it reinforces or is different from traditional Scottish folk practice. It could also be of particular interest to research the continued symbolic significance that plants that have historically found the most utility in ritual and medicine such as thistle are still recognized today. During my study abroad experience, I hope to continue to learn how Scottish folklore influences the daily lives of the people and how they interact with their ill and their environment.

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