Fear mo ghaoil an t uisge-bheatha
Vellum from Malcolm Beaton's composite collection on Virtues Aqua vitae - 'uiscebeatha' NLS Edinburgh
Whisky is the one I love...
As the song Comunn an uisge-beatha by Lachlan Macpherson of Strathmashie begins, and confirms the high regard which the Gaels held for the Water of Life, from antiquity through to modern times: "Fear mo ghaoil an t uisge-bheatha" (Whisky is the one I love). William MacMurchy, 18th century Gaelic bard, similarly pays tribute to the beloved beverage with a dedicated poem entitled Uiscebeatha (The original of which can be viewed online, in the National Library for Scotland Gaelic poems collection.)
'Uiscebeatha' in the hand of William MacMurchy -MS Adv.72.2.15
Yesterday, I visited the National Library for Scotland in Edinburgh with The Amber Light film crew, who are filming the final shots for their exciting documentary film, due to premiere in June this year. In August last year, we spent 3 days on Islay, home to no fewer than eight whisky distilleries, and of equal importance, home to the earliest Beaton physicians who made their way to Scotland, leaving a powerful legacy, and some of the most important Gaelic written records in our history. (You'll have to wait for the film release to find out more about our island adventures... no spoilers here, I'm afraid!)
Browsing the medieval manuscript collection, ultimately belonging to Malcolm Beaton, but a composite of medical texts and documents, spanning two centuries, and passing through hands of many famed hereditary physicians, we are reminded that what we now know as whisky, was not merely a medium for merriment, but was in fact considered as an important medicine to the Gaelic physician. Hardly surprising, since the origins of the spirit we know today, are directly distilled from the alembic of ancient medicine.
Scanning the abbreviated treatise, listing the virtues of this special medicament, as well as indications for the various therapeutic applications, it does leave one wondering if the humour and wit that the famed doctors were known for, can be read between the lines, or if the true extent of the medicinal properties are cited in earnest, making this particular panacea, a popular medicine indeed with the Highlanders, and applicable in almost any ailment...
"...It will heal wounds and it will brighten brass, and it will help those suffering from fistula and round cancer, and if it be given to epileptics in their drink it will help them, and it will cure every gripe or colic caused by cold or paralysis, and it will sharpen the wits, and it will make you remember the things you have forgotten, and it will make the sad man into a happy man, and it will preserve youth for everybody, and it will remove the impurities of the night, and it will soothe and cure those who suffer from salty phlegm, and it will dispel toothache and remove putrid matter from the nose and from the roots of the teeth and from the jaw, and it will burst the quinsy, that is, imposthumes of the throat, and it will help the tertia and the itiresia and it will most marvellously help the ciamatis and the melancholia and it will be adequate for sciatica and it will cure the dropsy that is caused by cold and it will help the colic fever and it will reduce poison and throat disease and deafness of the ears, and should a man suffering from leprosy drink it, it will get no worse than it is, and it will help women to conceive and it will shift the catarrh if the person keeps it in his mouth, and it will help headache if the head is rubbed with it, and it will help trembling limbs . . . and it is gentler than water of roses, and it floats on oil and on every mixture of wine and water if poured on them . . . and it makes good wine out of stale wine and strong wine out of weak wine and very good wine out of good wine . . ." *
One thing is obvious, from looking through the medical manuscripts of the Beatons, while some are immaculate, written on pristine white parchment or vellum, (leading some scholars to speculate that they were merely 'decorative' in their purpose, and used by the physicians, only as an accessory to impress patients, and appear wealthy and knowledgable), others are well thumbed, stained and include the additions of marginal notations in the hands of multiple physicians, whom had clearly made practical use of the texts.
This particular page, exalting the virtues of Uiscebeatha and the medical uses, happens to be so well used, that it is now almost illegible, the words almost rubbed from the page, through use, so you can take from that what you will about the relationship these clinicians and their patients had with the healing properties of the amber spirit!
For more about the Amber Light Film, you can follow them on Twitter for updates and release dates.
There will be more blogs from me to come soon, on the materia medica of the medical manuscripts.
*Translation courtesy of Ronald Black