Thursday, April 27, 2017



the blog about the medicine and surgery of yesteryear

Keith Souter aka Clay More

This month I am not going to talk about the medicine of the Old West. Instead, I am going to mention the 'old medicine' of the West of Scotland.

Recently I paid a visit to an elderly relative in Carnoustie, which is in the east coast,  before heading across country to spend a couple of days hiking in Glencoe. On the way across I made a detour to stop off at the beautiful little village of Killin. It is situated astride the River Dochart with the Falls of Dochart running through the village. 

The Falls of Dochart

The Healing stones of St Fillan
My purpose was to visit the Breadalbane Folklore Centre which is housed in the old mill on the bank of the river. The original mill was apparently built by St Fillan. Inside the mill are the famous Healing Stones of St Fillan.

St Fillan was a monk from a noble Irish family, a follower of St Columba, who came to Killin in the seventh century to try to convert the Picts from their ancient pagan ways. His name means wolf cub, or little wolf.There are many legends that have grown up around him and they have drifted into the folklore of Scotland. He was said to have been born with a stone in his mouth. His father threw him into a lake, but angels looked after him until he was found and cared for by Bishop Ibar. He brought him up as his son in the  Christian faith. 

So much for legend. It is known that he taught in the vicinity, operated a meal mill and worked as a healer.
In his healing work he used stones that had been gathered from the river bed. There were eight of them and he bequeathed them to the community, to be used after his death. They are kept in a corner of the mill beside a working water wheel. They are quite fascinating artifacts to see.

The healing stones of St Fillan

There are eight of them of varying size. Each of them represents a different part of the body. The largest is called the head stone and is about the size of a coconut. It appears to have indentations that correspond to the eyes, the ears and a smiling mouth. It is used for all sorts of head problems; anything from problems with eyesight, toothache, headaches and deafness. Then there is a stone with a belly button to treat problems of the chest and the abdomen; anything from bowel problems to kidney stones. A similar sized one without a belly button is used for problems of the back. And then there are four stones for the limbs and one for the ‘extra’ problems. People with a problem hold the appropriate stone then rub it on their affected part, and they say a prayer or make whatever sort of affirmation they like. 

They are used to this day, upon making a request to the proprietors. Tradition has it that the stones should be bathed every Christmas Eve and given a fresh bed of straw and reeds gathered from the river bank.

The Holy Pool of St Fillan
Another association with St Fillan is the Holy Pool near the church as Tyndrum, a small village on the West Highland Way. Immersion in it was said to cure insanity and wash away all nervous disorders. 

St Fillan's Holy Pool
Sympathetic and transference magic
These two associations with St Fillan are fascinating, for they are perfect examples of magic and medicine. The stones are an example of sympathetic magic, or the belief that inanimate objects shaped like the body can be imbued with healing power. It is  a belief that has been found around the world, where holy relics in different religions are thought to have healing power imbued into them. 

Sympathetic magic is widely seen in folk medicine practice around the world, where things that are sympathetic, or very like a condition that someone may be suffering from is used. Thus, an animal, insect or plant with a 'signature' indicating its efficacy, would be eaten, used in an ointment or applied in some such way.  Many fertility remedies and aphrodisiacs were made according to this principle. Mandrake and bryony roots, being phallus-like were considered potency stimulators. So too were the genitalia of innumerable animals renowned for their 'potency.'

Mandrake root used because of its resemblance to a man

Another way in which sympathetic magic was used was when taking a compound or substance which produced symptoms which were like an illness. In such cases it was believed that is someone was afflicted with certain symptoms, they could be improved by using the magic of a herb or whatever to overcome the ill magic, which was causing the illness. For example, a hallucinogenic fungus might be given to overcome hysteria or madness caused by an evil spirit. Or a herb which caused sweating might be given to someone with a fever. 

Transference magic depends upon using an object, plant or creature to take away an illness. For example, Nicolas Culpeper, the seventeenth century herbalist, advocated taking a black snail and rubbing it in both directions nine times over a wart, in order to get rid of it. The snail was then to be impaled upon a black-thorn. As it died, so too, would the wart waste away. 

Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) note the astrological signs around his portrait. He advocated collecting herbs and administering them under various signs.

The Holy Pool of St Fillan, of course, is a good example of transference magic, for the water was thought to wash away madness or any bad medicine or spirit that was causing it.

 Toothache and gum conditions were similarly treated by scratching the gum with a nail piece of wood found in a graveyard. The nail was then hammered into a tree or the wood was burned on an old grave. Either way, the pain was thought to be transferred from the sufferer.

Frogs came in for a lot of ill treatment in folk medicine.  In the highlands of Scotland, if a live frog was placed in a bag and hung up a chimney it was thought that as it caked its last, it would cure a child of whooping cough.

Frogs were also thought capable of curing mouth conditions by transference. A live frog's head was placed in the sufferer's mouth an then dragged out by its legs and hurled as far away as possible, it would take the ailment. 

Frogs commonly used in folk medicine

Transference magic was also used to treat epilepsy. An ancient 'cure' involved taking hair clippings and nail pairings and wrapping them up in a small bag together with a small coin. These were then buried or left at a crossroads, where three or four trails met. If the bag was picked up by some unfortunate passer-by, then it was hoped that the disease would transfer to them and mysteriously disappear from the sufferer. 

CURE CRAFT - Traditional folk remedies and treatment from antiquity to the present day
published by CW Daniel (1995)

A very old book! (but you can pick it up for a dollar or two!)

THE DOCTOR'S BAG - MEDICINE AND SURGERY OF YESTERYEAR has been published by Sundown Press, available in ebook or paperback.

Clay More's novel about Dr George Goodfellow is published in the West of the Big River series by Western Fictioneers. 


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Alex. I am always intrigued by folk practices.

  2. How very interesting. Are there records of any "healings" that took place as a result of using the stones of Saint Fillan?

    1. Thanks, Micki. No, nothing written, but that is the nature of folk medicine. It is oral tradition.

      I came across this other interesting snippet about a nearby stone. It is called The Whooping-Cough Stone.

      Almost a mile east of Kinnell House in the meadow which slopes down to the Loch, there stands a large boulder holding in its centre a basin-like hollow, so cunningly sheltered by an overhang that the rainwater which collects there never dries up. This water was believed to cure whooping-cough and some of our older people can remember being taken there as children to have their coughs “cured”.

  3. People are amazing in their capacity to believe something is a cure, and be cured. Thank you for the lesson in 'old medicine' Doris

  4. Thanks, Doris. Folk medicine practices have many roots. Some are derived from magic belief, others were old country practices and yet others are remnant of what was once accepted medical practice. Lots of the herbal treatments fall into the latter example, and there is no doubt that herbs work for many conditions.

    These different roots all drifted into what I call the folk medicine pool, some resurfacing relatively recently as alternative and complementary medicine therapies.

    The placebo is a fascinating concept in itself. It can be regarded as a nuisance in medical research, yet as a phenomenon it seems that somehow the human condition is capable of self-healing.

  5. Makes you wonder how our modern medical practices will be thought of in another thousand years. Thanks for another great blog. The Doctor's Bag is a must for any western writer's bookshelf!

  6. You are so kind, Jacquie!. Who knows about the future, perhaps we will have revalidated the treatments of the past!