Shilpit Bairns, Part iii: treating a sickly child

Dr Shirley Curtis-Summers is a bioarchaeologist, a Trustee for the Tarbat Historic Trust, and a lecturer in Archaeological and Forensic Sciences at the University of Bradford. Shirley’s research focuses on reconstructing medieval and early modern diet, health and disease from skeletal and stable isotope analyses, with an interest in the lifeways of Scotland’s past inhabitants. In this third and final part of Shirley’s blog, she discusses some of the treatments used to treat the ‘shilpit’ child.

Treating a sickly child in medieval Scotland would have varied depending on several factors, including geographical location, family status, and community beliefs, with some treatments being borne out of folklore and tales of magic and mystery. For example, there was a strong belief of children being stolen by faeries and replaced with a changeling. Symptoms a child was indeed a changeling included incessant crying, refusing to settle or curiously distorted facial features or limbs. Some of these symptoms may simply be attributed to what we now know to be skeletal abnormalities. For example, rickets results in distorted limbs, and cleft palate alters facial features, yet such abnormalities in antiquity were simply attributed to otherworldly causes. Efforts to banish a changeling were not exactly child-friendly either. Exposing a changeling involved holding a baby over a hot stove or under water, or denying the child food, although this would more likely induce illness or trauma despite the parents’ good intentions. Water is a particularly powerful source of healing and evokes other-worldly beliefs. Clootie wells and ancient springs were popular sources of healing. Children would be dipped in water or submerged in a lake to cure ailments. Pilgrimages, another form of healing, were made far and wide across Scotland to places such as the revered well in Portpatrick (Wigtownshire); St Fillan’s spring (Stirling) and Fortingall spring (Perthshire). These were all popular choices for healing and mothers would travel for miles to treat their children, attesting to the level of care afforded to their young.[i] There are also several wells in and around Portmahomack that would have no doubt served as healing places, such as Tobar na Baistidh (Baptism well) situated south of the church. Pilgrimages to holy shrines were also popular, such as those to St Duthac’s shrine (Tain) and St Ninian’s cave (Whithorn); both of which are still popular pilgrimage sites today.

OS map Port mahomack 1880_NLS (002)

OS map of Portmahomack (1880) showing the baptism well (Tobar na Baistidh) near Tarbat Church[ii]

If affordable, herbal or more formal medicinal remedies were sourced from local healers or physicians, or even influenced by local elite families, many of whom wrote various medical recipes. One 17th century manuscript, the ‘Medical Recipes for the Family Erskine of Alva’ includes a recipe for ‘The Restorative Jelly for a Consumption’. How accessible would such texts or indeed ingredients be to the parish folk at Portmahomack around this time? Some ingredients such as snail shells and hartshorn shavings may have been accessible but others such as Seville oranges, Rhenish wine, and white sugar were surely too expensive. However, these medicinal recipes may have been adapted to meet the means of a less affluent household, meade to replace wine and honey to replace sugar for example, especially if the parents of a sickly child had exhausted all other possibilities.

The Restorative recipe_NLS.MS.5112 (002)

Medical Recipes for the Family Erskine of Alva, 17th – 18th century (Author’s photo)[iii]

Although it is beyond the scope of this blog to talk about the diet and isotope component of my research, it’s worth noting that sugar is an interesting foodstuff from an isotope perspective as it has a distinctive carbon signature. However, a carbon enrichment in an individual from medieval Portmahomack most likely reflects the consumption of fish rather than sugar.[iv] This is because sugar is not a native plant to Britain and was not introduced until the late medieval period. Even then, sugar was only affordable to the elite and only became more widely used from the 18th and 19th centuries. However, we cannot ignore the fact that from the 16th century, the acquisition and consumption of sugar was acquired in and around Easter Ross,[v] albeit by the elite. Thereafter, with increased demand and reduced cost, it rapidly made its way into everyday households.

So, I hope from my three blogs I have given a glimpse of how the study of past childhoods is just as fruitful and important as those of adults; it enables us to understand childhood health and well-being from the skeletal evidence, the importance of good diet and nutrition, and in the wider context, the role of children within their community and their treatment in life and death. It also enables us to be better equipped to influence policies, initiatives and promote positive health and well-being for our young society.[vi] Further research on past childhoods in the Highlands is much needed, but we are heading in the right direction – multidisciplinary research, collaborations and community support are key.

[i] MacKinlay, J.M., 1893, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs. Glasgow: William Hodge & Co.

[ii] Ross-shire & Cromartyshire (Mainland), Sheet XXX (includes: Tarbat), 1880. Map source: National Library of Scotland Maps: [Accessed 27/12/2019].

[iii] Medical Recipes for the Family Erskine of Alva, 17th – 18th century, National Library of Scotland, NLS.MS.5112.

[iv] Curtis-Summers, S., Montgomery, J., and Carver, M.O.H., 2014, Stable isotope evidence for dietary contrast between Pictish and Medieval populations at Portmahomack, Scotland. Medieval Archaeology 58: 21-43.

[v] Macgill, W. (Ed.), 1909, Old Ross-shire and Scotland, as seen in the Tain and Balnagown Documents. Inverness: The Northern Counties Newspaper and Printing and Publishing Company Limited; Worthington, D., 2019, Sugar, Slave-Owning, Suriname and the Dutch Imperial Entanglement of the Scottish Highlands before 1707, Dutch Crossing: Journal of Low Countries Studies, DOI: 10.1080/03096564.2019.1616141.

[vi] For example, the Scottish Government’s policy on promoting child and maternal health, in partnership with NHS Scotland: [Accessed 29/12/2019].

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