A Healing Garden

(Feature image credit: AF Archive / Alamy Stock Photo)

The top 20 medicinal plants and remedies, some known as “fairy herbs,” from 18th century Scotland

Claire Fraser, one of the two main characters in Outlander (with her husband, Jamie Fraser), was a World War II combat nurse in England before she time-traveled back to 18th century Scotland. In an environment with few doctors and crude surgical options, her medical training certainly came in handy. A gifted diagnostician and healer, Claire had to work with what she had, which meant she foraged for native healing herbs and plants and used them to concoct (and decoct) remedies for everything from pesky skin irritations to gunshot wounds.

Scotland has a long folk-medicine tradition, and plant remedies were the only means of treatment in Claire’s time. (They still make up 25 percent of modern-day medicine.) Botanical remedies were passed down through the generations by word of mouth, until handwritten collections, like the 18th century Book of Herbal Remedies, began to appear. The University of Glasgow created an early medical school, around 1704, and constructed “the Physic Garden,” an herb garden with medicinal plants. The garden was set aside for students to use for the study of plants and their healing properties under John Marshall, surgeon of Glasgow, who was the keeper of the garden and a teacher of botany. (In addition to herbs, fruits and flowers, like the lily of the valley, were important apothecary staples.)

The study of plants was essential to the medical students, who learned how to distinguish between them and use them for herbal healing. But doctors were still a rarity, their services were costly, and it was difficult for them to travel great distances, especially to rural areas. That’s why most relied on local healers, or “wise women,” like Claire to administer herbal tonics, teas, elixirs, poultices, and more. Claire stored hers in glass jars, which are nonreactive, in a beautiful carved-wood apothecary cabinet.

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