Herbs of the Outer Hebrides

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mixedherbsI recently visited the Uists, in the Outer Hebrides, and was able, with the help of a trusty friend, visit many beautiful areas and meet a huge array of herbaceous plants that grow there.

The main thought that struck me was how self-sufficient people would have been, especially before the development of roads, in terms of their health and medical care. Many habitations were only, or most easily, reached by water, rather than overland, as the sea here creates many small islands and headlands. Also any trees here were cut thymedown many years ago so the plants used for medicine would have been primarily low growing herbs, roots, lichens, mosses and seaweeds. I rely so much on plants such as Elder, Lime and Hawthorn, and except for a few small areas where hardy trees like Rowan and Birch grow, there is little woodland. An exception to lousewortandcottonthis is an area that has been planted by one person with a vision at Loch Aineort, on the sheltered East coast. Now there is a wonderful woodland of mixed trees with a heronry and plenty of small bird life. There were many plants including orchidsFigwort, Flag, Bramble, Plantain, Cat’s Ears, Lousewort and Bog Asphodel. There were also many Orchids, as across all these islands, such as Lesser Butterfly Orchids, Spotted Orchids and Marsh Orchids. Orchids have been used for soothing the stomach and bowels, as aphrodisiacs, and the Spotted Orchid for the removal of foreign bodies in the flesh (Beith, 2004).

machairThe Machair is a unique ecosystem on the West coast of these islands. It is a gaelic word for an extensive, low lying fertile plain of sand dune pasture, and is one of the rarest ecosystems in Europe (snh.org.uk). Much of the land is no longer cultivated by the crofters and so beautiful meadows of flowers bloom now at this time of year. I saw so many herbs here that I will list only a few: Lady’s Bedstraw, Red Clover, Plantain, Wild Carrot, Self Heal, Tufted Vetch and Meadow Rue.

The following day I collected Self Heal, Prunella vulgaris, as I walked, which I made in IMG_9088to a tincture, as I wanted to take home a remedy I had made on the islands. Mary Beith, 2004, calls this plant All-Heal and said it was used for ‘removing all obstructions of the liver, spleen and kidneys. ‘Green’ wounds were treated by an ointment made of Golden Rod, All-Heal and fresh butter (a Lewis recipe)’. Tess Darwin, 1996, gives it’s local names as ‘heart o’ the earth’ and ‘prince’s feather’. It’s gaelic names are dubhan ceann chosach (sponge headed kidney), lus a chridh (heart weed) and slan-lus (healing plant). Darwin adds it is used for chest ailments, sore throats, mouth ulcers and a compress for piles and wounds.

DSCN7696As we moved to the hillier and boggier parts of the islands I searched for Bogbean, Menyanthes trifoliata,  as it was not a plant I had seen or used before. We found some near Ruabhal, in a boggy area full of Sphagnum moss. The Bogbean was not yet in flower, only the three leaves visible which give it it’s gaelic name of lui’-nam-tri-beann, three leaved plant. A fresh tea of the leaves, stem or root was used as a tonic in the Western Isles, and a rememdy for colic, ulcers, TB, and coughs to name a few. The leaves can also be used as a poultice for boils and burns (Darwin, 1996). Beith, 2004, describes Bogbean used as a cough remedy in Glencoe, a most prized remedy in Badenoch, and a constipation remedy on the Uists. DSCN7648

DSCN7665I saw many plants, with many medicinal applications, but I will finish with one more that I had not harvested before. The islands rely highly on the gifts of the sea, as they did in days gone by, which include sea plants that are used as fertilisers, food and medicines. Our visit to Roisinis coincided with low tide so we were able to harvest some kelp, and some sea lettuce.kelpruffle

The kelp I have dried and already used in some cooking (I like it with kale, or toasted with seeds) and the sea lettuce was stir fried that night with supper. Beith, 2004, describes a type of sea lettuce, Alva lactuca, being applied to the forehead and temples for migraines. Kelp, Laminaria
digitata
, is also called Tangle, Sea girdles, Slat-mhara (sea wand), and Doire (tangle, Skye). Kelp was an important kelpdryingpart of the diet, it was roasted, eaten raw and chewed like tobacco. It was effective against scurvy and glandular problems, due to it’s iodine content. A poultice of it was also used to treat warts (Darwin, 1996).

It was wonderful to see so many plants in flower and appreciate the importance they had to secluded island communities. I look forward to visiting again and learning more about the uses of local flora in healing.

simone melanie, July, 2016.

 

Healing Threads of the Highlands and Islands, Mary Beith, 2004.

The Scot’s Herbal, Tess Darwin, 1996.

 

 

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