Sunday, June 10, 2012

Practical Herbalism & The Scottish Tradition

A transformation came over me when first standing at the foot of the Santa Monica mountains at 24 years old, and then again at the foot of the Scottish Cairn Gorm mountain at 34. Having stepped into the pulsing life force of nature, feeling the promise of growth I was sure of both refuge and renewal. This was the beginning of my journey to discover practical Herbalism, my ancestral Scottish wellness and herbal healing tradition.
Please walk with me on this wee journey.
Santa Monica Mountains

As a part-time interpretive guide in the National Park Service in the Santa Monica Mountains, we were trained to identify native plants and to teach the traditional native Chumash uses. Allowed small ‘scientific experiments’ on the trail for teaching purposes, these became a fun trick to show hikers. The adhesive bandage effect of sticky monkey flower leaf (Mimulus aurantiacus) and the fragrant hand-soap effect of the blue ceanothus flower (Ceanothus spp.) rubbed between the hands with water were a few trailside demonstrations.

All very lovely, but it seemed rather pointless from a practical standpoint. It was knowledge for folly, as the people attending the hikes continued to talk about their favorite hand soaps and pharmaceutical use, and the plants there were protected from harvest.

When offered a NPS Ranger post in a place that I consider heaven, Yosemite, it included the necessity for carrying a handgun and a rifle because of ‘beers and bears’. My life took a decidedly different turn. I was knowledgeable in plant identification and native uses, bows and arrows, and making interpretive displays, which is why they offered me the post, not to deal with unruly campers. 

As it is wont to do, reality sometimes gets in the way of a good fantasy. Instead of taking the Yosemite post, I continued an apprenticeship with a natural foods chef, took a job at a health food corporation and taught natural foods cooking to city folk. I went to the mountains to visit, but not for work.
 Budding Herbalist 1980's

Given an all expense paid training in nutrition by the health food corporation and then lured into the vitamin and herb department, something was happening to my plant knowledge. It was becoming functional and practical.

Soon I was being offered a position teaching in the community colleges, then as a chef in private homes. I did these things, but the mountains were still calling me. 
San Francisco Peaks, Flagstaff

Moving to Flagstaff Arizona made sense at the time, near to the sacred mountains. This is where I met Phyllis Hogan of Winter Sun Trading Company, who adjusted my bearings, as mentors will do. She introduced me to the use of therapeutic grade herbs grown on an herb farm, not from a supplier. She had me drink infusions of common herbs, not take pills or potions of rare exotic plants.

Apparently my ancestors were trying to reach me too now, as a Native man I met asked who my people were and what they believed. Determined to never be at a loss for that answer again, I began the search. My grandmother was never one to hide our Scottish ancestry, so that was a likely place to start.

Third Year Of Study Graduation From Herb School
Being Celtic in ancestry, the desert climate was hard on me. The dew and rain brought me to Oregon. It was there that I met the woman who would train me formally as an herbalist, Gina McGarry. In her Oregon School Of Herbal Studies she taught what she had learned as a student and then apprentice of Rosemary Gladstar at the California School Of Herbal Studies. Gina also taught the herbalism she had been learned and researched from her own Irish Celtic ancestry. Not only did this perspective speak to my DNA, the practicality, methods and mentality, made sense to my mind and was easy to use. Each herb we learned had a clear and logical use, each one an ‘ah-ha I’ve finally found you!’ moment.

“The belief was common among all Caledonians (The Scottish) that for all the diseases to which mankind is liable, there grows an herb somewhere, and not far from the locality where the particular disease prevails, the proper application of which would cure it” - Mackenzie

Many of the herbs that European, Irish, Scottish and Welsh immigrants brought with them for food and medicine have become invasive species, or have naturalized to America. It seemed like a very Scottish thing to do to try and curb the effects on the American native plant species I learned while being an interpretive guide, by learning how to use and apply these ‘immigrant’ herbs, harvesting them freely and planting them near to me. 
Cairngorm Mountain

Cairn Gorm or ‘blue pile of stones’ in Scotland was the next mountain to call to me to it. Needing to see the place where all of these immigrant herbs, and I was originally from, I went to the mountain to study, write and teach about ethno-botanically Scottish uses for herbs in common use in Western Herbalism.

Nine visits in seven years to Scotland, living there for six months at times, had brought me to meet journalist Mary Beith, who specializes in the Scottish history of medicinal plants. Using my training, I had explored the historic uses she had reported. When I spoke to her of my theories that there seemed to be a distinctly Scottish herbalism, she had come to the same conclusion. She had never met before a person on the functional side of using the herbs to discuss this with. Apparently she hadn’t intended for these herbs she had written about to actually be tried or used and so called me her ‘little empirical scientist’.

Wee Euro- Scottish Herbalism History

In a time throughout Europe when bacteria, germs, viruses, sexual fertilization and blood circulation were still mysteries, ‘folk healers’ were obtaining apparently magical results to cure the most difficult illnesses. They mysteriously knew when flowers were about to bloom and were able to identify the medicinal uses of herbs they had never before encountered. These practitioners became feared for their personal power and became the objects of jealousy regarding their skills. They were seen as people who had knowledge of natural secrets, considered to be aided by the devil. To the mind-set, only their God healed, not plants or people

Witchcraft, was an accusation which was defined by the “misuse of supernatural powers derived from the devil to cause harm” by religious authorities. This was in attempt to explain evil in the world, despite the belief in an all powerful and benevolent God. This accusation was used to keep these folk healers in their subordinate place, making them scapegoats on whom all illness and problems were blamed. 9 million deaths are estimated as a result of this persecution of healers whose only crime was being different, skilled and possibly able to assist the human body to heal. Of all the people that were executed for witchcraft, more than 80% were women.

In Scotland however, something different happened. All ‘witchcraft’ cases had to go to Edinburgh, being too much for the Highland authorities. The details had to be translated from Gaelic and so many cases never came to anything. These Healers were also seldom accused of witchcraft in the first place because of their common-sense reputation, their lack of exploiting any eccentricities, and because they were often taken under the wing of a clan chieftain who ensured their safety. It is my belief that this is why much of the traditional healing knowledge of Scotland survived and it is only more recently being neglected and forgotten.

"...the Gaelic healers had a good reputation, probably because, on the whole, useless practitioners were weeded out early on, community grapevines being what they are."
~ Mary Beith, Scottish Journalist
and Author
writing on traditional Scottish herbal medicines.

Traditional knowledge of Gaelic healers known as Henwives, Adept Healers, Yarb Doctors and Charmers in Scotland concerning healing and the use of healing substances is a part of a rich nature heritage that survived a terrible time in history. These healers, performed cures in general or may only have been able to remedy specific problems. We would now call them generalists and specialists. How they obtained personal powers, skills and gifts, was by learning practical healing, which would be orally handed down and physically demonstrated. This would appear to others to materialize right when it is needed for the sheer fact that the knowledge was now in them, not just in their heads. They studied disease prevention and how to pursue a sensible way of life. They procured a reputation for common sense by practicing it. And they quietly and firmly dispensed care, guidance, herbs and comfort.
Herbalism and nutrition are the first medicines in existence, dating back hundreds of thousands of years, predating written history. All of it preceded conventional medicine. This collective knowledge has been handed down through time by oral tradition, practice and later in written documents.There is an evolving unbroken chain of herbal knowledge that is continuing to be passed down in many cultures to the next generation. We only need to turn our attention to it, to insure that it continues.

A Few Scottish Herb Uses

Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria) also known in Gaelic as Mur draidhean or ‘grief/affliction magician’. As a Nervine and Tonic, mental tension, anger, frustration and inner torment are all relieved with the internal use of an extraction of the leaf and flower. It is a specific for physical tension, especially that which affects the internal organs, helping to tone weak tissues. It is used to aid in the relief of cramps and migraine, menorrhagia (excessive menses) and dysmenorrhea (painful menses).

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) known in Gaelic as Bearnan Brighde or ‘the notched leaf plant of Brigid’. Saint Brigid was attributed with more healing miracles than any other saint. There is very little this herb cannot do. As an Adaptogen, the fall or spring harvested 
root is useful in healthy pancreatic function, physical and mental hyperactivity, improved endocrine function and hormone balance. It will not raise blood pressure, but is helpful in cases of low blood pressure, obesity and lethargy. This can be eaten or extracted in vinegar, an alcohol between 20 to 40% or in water.

Blackberry (Rubus fruticosus) known in Gaelic as Dreas or ‘force entangle’ is currently on the U.S Department Of Agriculture list as a noxious weed and invasive species. As an Astringent, Nutrative Tonic the leaves taken in an infusion nourish and strengthen muscular and organ tissues and so are of help in arthritis and with a prolapsed uterus. The roots are boiled in water to create an Astringent Tonic to stop diarrhea, and being rich in vitamin K, help with blood clotting to remedy hemorrhoids.

European Daisy (Bellis perennis) known in Gaelic as Neoinean or ‘noon-flower /baby daisy’ It is believed that when an infant is taken from the earth, one of these daisies was sent to take it’s place. Using these daisies in baby blessings and as baby medicine is significant because of this. As an Anti-spasmodic, Pectoral and Mucolytic taken internally for children’s restlessness, colic and excessive mucus it is effective. As an Anti-microbial and Anti-mycotic, extracts can be taken Internally or applied externally on parasitic fungal infections including tinea versicolor, tinea pedis (athletes foot), candidiasis and ringworm fungus.


Teaching Herbal Chemistry At A Conference
Regimen Sanitatis ‘Rule Of Health’ John Beaton 1563
Only fully translated to date Gaelic medical manuscript housed in the British Library in London.

A Description Of The Western Islands Of Scotland. by Martin Martin 1697 & 1703 Gaelic speaking medical doctor who compiled detailed knowledge of the properties, both medicinal and magical of the herbs in their native areas, remedies for all common ailments, and brief chronicles on the healers of these areas.

Flora Scotica by John Lightfoot 1777 Botanist who focused on identification, distribution and detailed plant uses.

The Gaelic Names Of Plants Collected And Arranged In Scientific Order With Notes On Their Etymology, Uses, Plant Superstitions, Etc. Among The Celts With Copious Gaelic English And Scientific Indices.
by John Cameron 1900

Carmina Gadelica by Alexander Carmichael 1900
Six volumes in Gaelic and English of collected rhymes, hymns, songs, charms & incantations. Contains evidence of an unbroken tradition from the most ancient Celt.

Healing Threads: by Mary Beith, 1995
Traditional Medicines of the Highlands And Islands of Scotland

The Scots Herbal by Tess Darwin 1999

Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition by David Allen & Gabrielle Hatfield 2004 An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland

All contents copyright  Heather Nic an Fhleisdeir.
First published in
Plant Healer: A Journal of Traditional Herbalism 2011