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History of the Island of Mull
Chapter XI - Medicine and its Offices


Whatever may be the situation of man; however great his opportunities, or strong his constitution; still, he is subject to pain, misery and death. He dreads pain and shrinks from it, and when it is upon him he seeks to escape from it by the application of some balm, or partaking of some potion; and from time immemorial he has turned to the vegetable kingdom in hopes to find relief. To the vast majority of mankind medicine has been a charm,—a profound mystery, and hence imposition has always been flagrant.

The natives of the Highlands of Scotland have ever been known to be a healthy and vigorous race. The Old Statistical Account speaks of the people of Mull as healthy and attaining to long life; with few diseases known, though fevers not uncommon.

Diseases: James Robertson, in 1788, visited Mull, and under “diseases and remedies” says’:

“The diseases that the natives are most subject to are coughs, sore breasts, asthmas, cancer, a dry scabby eruption of the skin, itch, scropholous, tumors, fevers, and fluxes. The children ar much troubled with worms, for which they use an infusion of the Myrica gale or Goul. The women use a decoction of the Tlialectrum minus for obstructions of the menses, which they are frequently troubled with, also the girls, when they happen to prove with child, unmarried, are said to use a decoction of the Lycopodium selago in order to effect an abortion. The small pox have been inoculated on two children here. They visit this Isle once in six or seven years in the natural way, and are frequently mortal.”

On the other hand, Pennant who made his Tour in 1772, in speaking of the diseases in the Highlands, in general, observes:

“The common diseases of .this country are fevers and colds. The putrid fever makes great ravages. Among the nova coliors februm which have visited the earth, the ague was till of late a stranger here. The Glacacli, or, as it is sometimes called, the Mac-Donalds disorder, is not uncommon. The afflicted finds a tightness and fulness in his chest, as is frequent in the beginning of consumptions. A family of the name of Macdonald, an hereditary race of Macliaons, pretend to the cure by glaeach, or handling of the part affected, in the same manner as the Irish Mr. Greatracli, in the last century, cured by stroking. The Macdonalds touch the part, and mutter certain charms; but, to their credit, never accept a fee on any entreaty. Common colds are cured by Broclian, or water gruel, sweetened with honey; or by a dose of butter and honey melted in spirits, and administered as hot as possible. As I am on this subject, I shall in this place continue the list of natural remedies, which were found efficacious before they began to ‘Fee the Doctor for his nauseous draught.’

Adult persons freed themselves from colds, in the dead of winter, by plunging into the river; immediately going to bed under a load of clothes, and sweating away their complaint. Warm cow’s milk in the morning, or two parts milk and one of water, a little treacle and vinegar made into whey, and drank warm, freed the highlanders from an inveterate cough. The chincough was cured by a decoction of apples, and of the mountain ash, sweetened with brown sugar. Consumptions, and all disorders of the liver, found a simple remedy in drinking of buttermilk. Stale wine and bran made very hot, and applied to the part, freed the rheumatic from his excruciating pains. Fluxes were cured by the use of meadow sweet, or jelly of bilberry, or a poultice of flour and suet; or new churned butter; or strong creme and fresh suet boiled, and drank plentifully morning and evening. Formerly the wild carrot boiled, at present the garden carrot, proved a relief in cancerous, or ulcerous cases. Even the faculty admit the salutary effect of the carrot-poultice in sweetening the intolerable fae-tos of the cancer, a property till lately neglected or unknown. How reasonable it would be therefore, to make a tryal of these other remedies, founded in all probability, on rational observation and judicious attention to nature! Persons affected with scrophula imagined they found benefit by exposing the part every day to a stream of cold water. Flowers of daisies, and narrow and broad leaved plantane, were thought to be remedies for the ophthalmia. Scabious root, or the bark of ash tree burnt, was administered for toothache. The water ranunculus is used instead of cantliarides to raise blisters.” Medical Attendance: The people of Mull were exceedingly fortunate in having “a race of doctors” who took a deep interest in their welfare, and who were governed by practical common sense. Their influence long continued for good, even after their race had vanished. While the medical profession* has always been greatly commercialized, yet the Beatons were free from that charge. Their usefulness extended over several centuries and took a wide range in Scotland. One of them left a manuscript, still preserved, devoted to medical, metaphysical and mathematical discussions, all in Gaelic. The name is sometimes written Bethune.

One physician, and one alone, stands out on the horizon of Mull, for greatness and pronounced ability, and that is John Beaton. Many traditions concerning him are preserved in the folk-lore of the island. The trend of these stories indicates that he positively knew that medicine did not cure, and that the principle thing was "to ease or control the mind.

When the Beaton family first became doctors is unknown. In 1408, a charter of lands in Islay, was written in the Gaelic language, in the usual form of Latin characters, by Fergus Beaton, generally called the Mull Doctor. Preserved in Edinburgh is a manuscript written in 1530, in Gaelic, attributed to John Beaton, one of the family of physicians. Later three brothers became quite celebrated for their skill in medicine. One was called John, known as the Olladh Muilleach, or Mull doctor. Another was Fergus, who lived in Islay, called Olladh Ileach, and the third was called Gilleadha, who was a herbalist, and employed by Fergus to gather herbs and prepare them for use.

This narrative is concerned with John, the most celebrated of that race, who lived at Pennyghael, in Mull. Near his residence he had a botanical garden where he raised many different kinds of plants, with which he experimented, usifrg such tests as should indicate what effect would result when administered for various diseases. It is probable that to this garden may be traced many exotic plants that long continued to be used for curative and other purposes.

Some of the legends relating to Dr. John Beaton are worthy of preservation. It is related that the wife of a man who was suffering from rheumatism consulted him. He went to see him bringing a birch rod, and removing the man from his bed, ordered the wife to apply the rod violently upon the back of the patient, and chase him until the doctor should order her to desist. He forced her to persist until the poor man perspired freely, and become supple, and freed from pain. A certain man went to see him to be treated for sore eyes. After an examination it was pronounced that he was more in danger of suffering from horns on his knees which would soon appear. The patient greatly alarmed appealed to him to save him from so great a calamity. “No way,” said the doctor, “but by keeping your hands on your knees for three weeks. At the end of that period come to me, that I may see how you get on.” “Well,” said the doctor, “have the horns made their appearance?” “No”, said the man. “Have you attended to my advice?” “Oh, yes,” said the man, “I have continually, night and day, kept my hands on my knees.” “How are your eyes?” “My eyes are quite well,” replied the patient. “Very well, go home and keep your mind quite easy about the horns, and don’t rub your eyes.”

At one time MacLean of Loch Buy was dangerously ill from throat affection, being a formation of a huge abscess near the larynx, which interfered with his breathing.. The medical skill was in attendance without favorable results. Dr. Beaton was sent for and made a minute examination of the affected parts, in the presence of several other physicians. He then ordered every person out of the room, and made a very loathesome powder, and placed it on a table near the patient’s bed. The professional men were admitted, and immediately they began to examine the potion,—Beaton meanwhile sitting unconcernedly near the fire and seemingly paying no attention to the other sons of Esculapius. TJie sick man keenly observed all that was taking place, and when he realized the effect the tasting of the powder had on the doctors, the strain on his risibles was so severe that the suppressed laughter burst the abscess in his throat, and in a few minutes the sought for relief was obtained. Beaton had realized that the only way to reach the internal abscess was by provoking laughter in the patient. It is related that Beaton’s daughter became seriously ill with a disease that baffled his diagnosis and treatment, and which terminated fatally. An autopsy revealed a live frog in the intestines, which the father kept for a long time, constantly varying its food. One day, during his absence from home, the frog was given nettle soup, and as very short time afterward was found dead. On learning the fate of the frog and its cause, Beaton cried out, “Alas! alas! how easily I could have cured my daughter had I known that a medicine so simple could have counteracted a disease so treacherous.” In changing the food of the reptile the motive was to ascertain what vegetable would kill it. After that he recommended nettle soup every spring. Even to this day the older folk follow the physician’s advice, and nettle soup is the favorite during that season, and is claimed to have great virtue in giving tone to the system.' At another time, in company with a friend, Beaton was passing a house in the Ross of Mull, where a number of women were waulking, or fulling cloth. A young woman with a beautiful voice was singing a Gaelic ditty. The physician remarked, “’Smath an guth air-uachdar losgainn,” ’tis a good voice on top of a frog. It was supposed that the lady had a complaint similar to that of his daughter. At that time it was believed that an egg of a frog could be swallowed from a pool at night; and owing to this circumstance many people in Mull are very careful about drinking water after nightfall. The end of Dr. John Beaton was traggic. The king of Scotland determined to know who was the ablest physician in his realm. Feigning sickness, he summoned twenty-five of the most noted physicians to make a diognosis of his complaint. Among those summoned was Dr. Beaton. The people learning that he would at once depart for Edinburgh, gathered around him and asked advice as to their health during his absence; to which he replied, “Be cheerful, temperate, and early risers.” He then took his departure. The king refused to be examined, and even to bo seen by any of the medicine men. Beaton at once divined the trick, and was received into the king’s favor. This aroused the jealously of the others, who entered into a conspiracy to

destroy him. • The inn-keeper of the first stage-house was bribed to carry out their plot. A short time after they hadl left the inn, Beaton and his servant arrived. Beaton asked for a cup of water which was handed him. The moment he swallowed it, he pressed his hand against his chest, and called for milk. He was informed there was none in the house. He then ordered his servant to go to the kailyard and bring him some cabbage, but he found none. “Well,” said Beaton, in the agonies of death, from the virulent poison which the innkeeper had placed in the water which he gave him, “take care of yourself and get home; I am poisoned.” Within a few minutes he breathed his last. The villans had removed every antidote to the poison administered. His tomb is in the sacred isle of Iona.    '

Martin, in his Description of the Western Isles, says:

“Several of the inhabitants of Mull that they had conversed with their relations that were living at the harbor (Tobermory) when this ship was blown up (Florida, 1588) and they gave an account of an admirable providence that appeared in the preservation of one-Doctor Beaton (the famous physician of Mull) who was on board the ship when she blew up, and was then sitting on the upper deck, which was blown up entire, and thrown a good way off; yet the doctor was saved; and lived several years after.”

It will be particularly noticed that whatever treatment is resorted to in disease, the remedies are successful, with incantations, vegetable or mineral. The general tendency of disease is to rectify itself.


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