Gaelic Pharmacy and Its Ancient Traditions

folk healing gaelic pharmacy indigenous healers scottish herbs women healers of the world Jul 10, 2024
Mountains and clouds, courtesy Leslie Roberts

The following is a partial excerpt from Holly Bellebuono's award-winning documentary book Women Healers of the World, now celebrating its 10-year anniversary.

Ancient Gaelic Healing and Herbalism

Of all the world’s healing traditions, perhaps none are so charming and rich in nature lore as Gaelic pharmacy, a colorful product of the convergence of Christians and pagans in the windswept, remote regions of Scotland.

Gaelic pharmacy closely resembles the Folk Healing of Appalachia, but it is slightly different due to its complete dependence on the strong superstitions of spirits, sprites, elves, and demons. While Appalachian folk healing dealt with Scotch-Irish immigrants using ancient household remedies, objects and herbs to ward off illness, Gaelic healers of old went further than mere superstition and actually perceived spirits all around them. To a Gaelic practitioner, healing an illness required serious intervention in the spiritual realm to guard against a very real perceived notion of unseen evil spirits snatching babies and causing sickness.

The Ancient Gaelic Culture

The newly-converted families of Christian Scots emigrated from Ireland in the late fifth century A.D. and settled on the western coast of northern Britain in a small kingdom they named Dalriada. These adventurous and hard-working men and women brought with them their Celtic language (called Gaelic) and established communities near the pre-existing pagan Picts (who spoke an early Welsh, later-to-become British, language), the Britons, and the Angles. The arrangement proved destined to bloodshed, however, and the Gaelic Scots, after centuries of war between the four kingdoms, eventually conquered the others and named the newly unified country Scotland.

Over the centuries, the Gaelic culture in the Scottish Highlands flourished into a rich heritage of healing, story-telling, music, legends, and a unique and colorful superstition-laden religious life. The Gaelic Scots were nature lovers who incorporated nature, magic and myth into their rituals, ballads and daily life. Healers included white witches who removed evil charms, healed negative magic, and used herbal medicines that were considered valid and efficient treatments for all physical and mental complaints. Other cures involved magic, a sort of supernatural faith (in essence, Folk Healing) involving minerals, metals, animal parts, and other materials in the banishment and deflection of the many evil spirits, fairies and demons believed to lurk in every meadow, forest, and house. Iron and steel were believed to cast out devilish spirits, so that Celtic smiths who, in addition to being honored for their metal forging skills, were often lauded as important healers. Folklorist Anne Ross describes a sick patient who presented himself at the forge of a metal smithy, asking for treatment. The metal smithy lay the man on his anvil and approached him with his hammer held high, intent to strike him. The patient improved immediately—and we assume, left. 

It was strongly believed that invisible good and evil forces were working for or against people minute by minute, and that every move and word was important in maintaining safety and health. Ghosts and evil forces walked very much alongside the living and were a real menace.

Gaelic Scots practiced the reading of omens and honed their skills to avoid trickery, with the belief that luck, ill-luck and spiritual pranks by evil forces were constant threats. Times of childbirth, coming-of-age ceremonies, and sabbats of the year were of particular concern, for fairies, witches and devils were quick to steal children, kill babies and burn houses. Folk superstitions abounded: one must enter a house from the front door, never the back; iron rods were placed over cradles to protect the baby from thieving fairies; warts could be removed with pig’s blood; and strangers to a village were never permitted to count one’s children, cattle or sheep lest eavesdropping fairies would overhear the number and decide to steal one of the children. Meddling fairies were particularly despised and could be deterred with iron and holly berries.

To read more, purchase Women Healers of the World here:

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