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April 29th 1722

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Highland Health Care

By the end of the 18th century the quality of the medical and surgical schools of the Scottish universities had won for them a European reputation for excellence but the picture was very different in earlier years.

The Highlands abounded in magic wells, magic springs and saintly relics which enjoyed a good if undeserved reputation. At least they did little actual harm. In the towns the apothecaries relied upon the most revolting mixtures which were prescribed with great panache and apparent confidence. As a cure for epilepsy, for instance, there was “mercury and broth with earthworms”  and “Tincture of valerian root, white dittany, pigeon’s dung, charred bark of oak, rosemary tops and white wine.”  When the mixture was strained “add powder of human skulls, shavings of elk’s hooves amber and caster.”  Dried toads were a favourite ingredient “Put live toads in an earthen pot and dry them in an oven moderately heated to such a degree as they may be pulverised.”  Woodlice were also much favoured, “put in a proper pot and dried in a very slow heat.” 

The person suffering from pleurisy was directed to “take a ball of horse’s dung, well dried, beat into a powder, drink it and he will be cured.”  Or “Give him twice a day the juice of twenty slaters (woodlice) squeezed through a muslin bag.”  The recipe for ‘falling’ sickness in children “Take a little black sucking puppy (but for a girl take a bitch whelp) choke it, open it, take out the gall, put it all to the child in the time of the fit with a little tile-tree water and you shall see him cured as it were by a miracle presently.”  Hmmmm, perhaps!

Among the many unattractive ingredients were spider’s webs, Spanish flies, pigeon’s blood, ant’s bodies and eggs, the fat and gizzard of hens, frogs spawn, the excrement of horses, pigs, peacocks, pigeons and goats, human blood and urine, human skulls, snails, crab claws, goat’s feet and snakeskin’s.

Among the more exotic medicines was benzoar, a stony concretion found in the stomachs of the goats of Borneo, which was claimed to have wonderful powers in the cure of jaundice, vertigo and the plague. There was also powdered mummy alleged to come from the bodies of Egyptian kings - very efficacious for apoplexy and pleurisy.

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