Whilst it is impossible to know exactly when
we first started using herbs and plants for medicinal purposes,
archaeological evidence suggests that herbs have been used in Scotland
since the Bronze age. Indeed the use of herbs as healing remedies goes
back to the very beginnings of medicine itself, from 3700 B.C. Egypt,
followed by the Chinese and later the Greeks and Romans. The earliest
written account of herbal remedies comes from China and dates back to
In Scotland there has been a long held tradition of herbal folk
medicine. However, written accounts of commonly used remedies did not
appear until very much more recent times, knowledge of plants having
been initially passed from generation to generation by word of mouth.
Particularly in the more remote areas of Scotland, folk medicine was
handed down by tradition, with little change, until the 17th Century.
Opportunities for medical education were limited, and means of transport
extremely bad, making it difficult for medical practitioners to reach
patients out with the principal towns. As a result many had to rely to a
great extent upon remedies which were available locally.
The provenance is unknown for the Colleges 18th century herbal but it
is believed to come from lowland Scotland. It was digitised courtesy of
the Scottish Archive Network and is an excellent example of the way in
which the remedies, previously passed from generation to generation as
an oral tradition, began to be collected together in hand-written
volumes. Many examples of similar documents can be found within
collections of household manuscripts, correspondence and accounts, and
it would appear that many households across the social spectrum kept
Many herbals, particularly those belonging to Scottish land-owning
families, were very decorative, typically leather bound and often
interspersed with ornately decorated pages with drawings and elaborate
hand-writing. Individual volumes were often written in different hands
with recipes and remedies occasionally being attributed to individuals.
Indeed a particular 18th century volume (in the National Library of
Scotland) entitled Physick and Cookery of various Kinds compiled by
Martha Bruce, Countess of Elgin, contains contributions from eminent
individuals including Dr Herman Boerhaaves cure for Chilblains and
Asthma and remedies from Dr Ratcliffe, Physician to Queen Anne.
Herbals often contained not only herbal remedies but also recipes and
beauty and household remedies, and in later years, the traditional
household herbal came to resemble more of a cookery book with sections
for herbal remedies being relegated to the back of the volume. The
remedies and recipes often remained unchanged with the same herbs and
methods being used for centuries.
This particular volume is only a small illustration of the abundance of
similar material which can be found in public and private collections of
household papers, and provides a small insight into the strong tradition
of herbal medicine which has existed in Scotland down the ages.