(Feature image credit: AF Archive / Alamy Stock Photo)
laire 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.
Some plants widely used in Scotland at the time were known as “fairy herbs” for their seemingly magical powers: foxglove and dandelion, yarrow, vervain, and more. Foxglove was considered an especially potent remedy, with powers believed to come from the fairy realm. Its name means “fairy fingers” in Irish and “banshee herb” in Scottish Gaelic.
Before Claire came along, says Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series (see her interview in the Outlander Issue), “I didn’t have any particular interest in plant medicine. But when I began thinking about Claire, I got interested in herbs—after all, some of these plants have been used medicinally for thousands of years.” Gabaldon wanted to make sure the herbs and plants she featured in the books were “historically accurate, native to 18th century Scotland, and used for the purposes described.”
Although she now has a vast collection of books on botanicals, Gabaldon’s primary resource for her research on herbs and plant medicine is A Modern Herbal by Mrs. M. Grieve, first published in 1931. An impressive tome, it contains the medicinal, culinary, and cosmetic properties—along with information on cultivation and folklore—of more than 800 plants.
Here is an introduction to some of the most powerful healing plants native to 18th century Scotland, many of which are still in use today. The benefits described here are by no means comprehensive.
BELLADONNA (Atropa belladonna)
Also known today as deadly nightshade and banewort, belladonna was extremely effective for treating digestive pains and muscle spasms. It was also used to relieve menopausal sweats for women. Belladonna got its name—“beautiful woman”—in Ancient Rome, where women dropped belladonna into their eyes to make their pupils dilate, considered a highly desirous look back then. But belladonna is extremely poisonous if not administered correctly.
COMFREY ROOT (Symphytum officinale folia) An herb with pinkish-white flowers that grows in damp climates throughout Europe, comfrey was made into tinctures, teas, poultices, and ointments to ease digestive issues and heal damaged tissues. It should be avoided by pregnant or nursing women.
CONEFLOWER (Echinacea purpurea)
Plants that are part of the echinacea family are colloquially known as coneflowers and look like pretty purple daisies. Echinacea strengthens the immune system, shortens the life of an infection, and even makes the body more resistant to catching one, like a cold, in the first place. In 18th century Scotland, coneflower would have been made into an ointment or a salve, which is what Claire used to treat a gunshot wound.
FENNEL (Foeniculum vulgare)
In India, fennel seeds are a digestif that is always on offer at the end of a meal. In Scotland, the seeds were used for treating digestive issues from bad breath to gas, bloating, stomach upset, heartburn, and flatulence. Fennel is rich in vitamin C, which may have helped sailors prevent scurvy, and fennel seeds were used to block keyholes to ward off witchcraft and stop ghosts from entering.
FOXGLOVE (Digitalis purpurea)
Foxglove grows in the rich, loamy soil of Scotland and in cracks and crevices of stone walls. It is highly toxic, but despite that, it has been used for congestive heart failure and relieving edema (fluid retention)—what was then called dropsy. It causes a high rise in blood pressure and then a slowing of the pulse, and it can ultimately cause the blood flow and pulse to normalize. Only a very skilled healer, like Claire, could be entrusted to use it.
HAWTHORN (Crataegus monogyna)
One of the oldest words in English, “Hawthorn,” a.k.a. “cockspur thorn” is powerful medicine. It is known as the “heart herb” for its use over many centuries in treating heart conditions from high blood pressure to angina. Hawthorn contains antioxidants called flavonoids that improve circulation and protect blood vessels. HEATHER (Calluna vulgaris) Heather is said to be a soporific and induces sleep. Tired Highlanders would stuff their pillows with heather to help them rest.
LADY’S MANTLE (Alchemilla mollis)
Known as a “woman’s herb,” lady’s mantle was supposed to help healing after childbirth, and when the dew of lady’s mantle was applied to a girl’s face, it was said to make her more beautiful.
LAVENDER (Lavendula angustifolia)
Lavender is known for its relaxing and stress-relieving properties, which is why Claire gives Alex Randall a mixture of mint and lavender infused into poppy syrup to help him sleep in Dragonfly in Amber. Lavender is an antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory, and many cooks, myself included, keep a vial of lavender essential oil by the stove because it helps heal burns. The smell of lavender has aromatherapeutic properties along with a calming effect on the central nervous system. It can kill the bacteria that causes acne, soothe tired muscles, and help you sleep. In Elizabethan England—when housekeeping and hygiene left much to be desired—lavender buds were strewn on the floor to release their scent and perfume the air when walked upon.
LEMON BALM (Melissa officinalis)
With its lemony smell and pretty white flowers, lemon balm is just that—a soothing balm. It has been used since the Middle Ages to improve sleep, heal wounds, reduce stress, and promote longevity. It is also used to treat digestive issues, toothache, and headache and to ease melancholy.
LILY OF THE VALLEY (Convallaria majalis)
With medicinal properties similar to foxglove, lily of the valley was a common substitute. It can also be toxic. The flowers, however, have a lovely sweet scent that belie their potentially deadly nature. Starting in the Middle Ages, a poultice of lily of the valley, peppercorns, and lavender was applied to the forehead and the back of the neck to treat melancholy, depression, and seizures.
PENNYROYAL (Mentha pulegium)
A member of the mint family, pennyroyal has similar properties to peppermint. It can help ease indigestion, nausea, and the symptoms of colic. It was also used to bring on menstruation or miscarriage. Pennyroyal can be dangerous and should be avoided.
NETTLES (Urtica dioica)
Loaded with vitamins and minerals, and especially rich in iron, nettles were used to ease muscle cramping, gout, menstrual issues, and a range of skin conditions from eczema to skin rashes. Also known as “stinging nettles,” it is important to boil them first to remove the sting.”
PEPPERMINT (Mentha piperita)
Peppermint thrives in moist spots, especially around riverbanks in Scotland. It helps relieve nausea, upset stomach, and flatulence, or what was called “wind” in Claire’s day. A cup of peppermint tea at the end of an overindulgent meal will help settle the stomach. Geillis Duncan used a remedy with extract of peppermint on her husband for that purpose, and Claire makes a tea of peppermint and blackcurrant to help Jamie beat the flu. A peppermint soak is also a great way to relieve tired, achy feet. It reduces inflammation and relaxes the muscles, plus it feels cooling. Mint contains menthol, which cools the skin, increases the blood flow, and is an antibacterial.
SAINT-JOHN’S-WORT (Hypericum perforatum)
Saint-John’s-wort is used to treat depression, and even today it’s an active ingredient in anti-depression medications. In the 18th century, depression was believed to signify possession by the devil. A small pouch filled with Saint-John’s-wort was held under the armpit of the sufferer, and it was believed that the medicine would absorb through the skin and drive away the devil. Saint-John’s-wort was known in Scottish Gaelic as achlasan Chaluim Chille, or “the armpit package of Columba,” and was believed to ward off the evil eye and bring prosperity. Saint-John’s-wort, when soaked in vinegar, was also used to staunch bleeding. Claire used it to disinfect wounds in Outlander. She also claimed it would ease headaches and carried it in her portable medical kit.
VALERIAN (Valeriana officinalis)
Valerian was a sedative, used to relieve stress, anxiety, and insomnia, as it sedates the central nervous system. It’s now known as herbal valium. Valerian also has a relaxing action on the muscles of the bowel and blood vessels, making it very useful for treating cases of stress-related irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and hypertension. The Ancient Greeks used it as a love potion, since it was said to ease conflict and resolve arguments. The Greeks also believed that valerian could ward off evil and would hang sprigs under their windows to keep it out of the house.
VERVAIN (Verbena officialis)
Vervain is an herb with many poetic common names like simpler’s joy, enchanter’s plant, herb of the cross, Juno’s tears, pigeon’s grass, herb of grace, wild hyssop, ironweed, wild verbena, and Indian hyssop. It is an anti-inflammatory, also used to treat anxiety and menstrual cramps. In Claire’s day, it was used as a mouth rinse to help relieve gum problems. It was known to help lift the spirits and keep postpartum depression at bay.
WHITE WILLOW BARK (Salix alba)
White willow bark is a powerful remedy, commonly used to treat pain. An analgesic and anti-inflammatory, white willow bark was used in the 18th century to ease the symptoms of rheumatism, gout, headaches, diarrhea, and dysentery, and to reduce fever. In fact, we still use it today: a white willow bark derivative contains salicylic acid, which was used to make aspirin. It is also called creek willow because it grows by the water. A tea made from its pinkish bark is an effective remedy for aches and pains.
WILD GARLIC (Allium Sativum)
Garlic can be a miracle cure: anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, antifungal, antiviral. Claire used it to treat Jamie’s gunshot wound in an early scene. Its use dates back centuries. It was used to repel insects in the Middle Ages, when it was also thought to repel the plague. Ancient Egyptians would bury garlic with their dead to ease their journey. Garlic contains an antioxidant-rich sulfur compound called allicin, which helps regulate blood pressure and blood sugar and balance the digestive system. It also gives garlic its smell. Wild garlic, crow garlic, and field garlic are the varieties found in Britain.
YARROW (Achillea millefolium)
Yarrow was historically used as a disinfectant, and Claire washed her hair with yarrow to ward off lice. Rosemary was used for that purpose too.