Monday 4 July 2011

A Cure for Syphilis

Fr. George Rigg
Folk cures taken down by Alexander Carmichael form not an inconsiderable part of his fieldwork notebooks. Book-ended between a song and a note about North Rona, a cure for syphilis is related, whereby the healing power of ‘Sugh brist lus-nan-laogh and the Meacal’ [the sap from bruised golden saxifrage and its root] is noted as ‘ordered by’ Fr. James MacGregor (c. 1790–1867) who was a priest in Iochdar, South Uist, for many years.

Sugh brist Lus-nan laogh
and the Meacal ordered
by Rev. Father MacGrigor
Ioc[hd]ar the man in S[outh] Uist
for cure of syphilis.

Irrespective of whether such a cure was effective or not, it reflects the fact that such cures were known about and perhaps even used in the absence of a qualified practitioner. Medical assistance in South Uist even in Carmichael’s own day would have been difficult to come by and there are eyewitness accounts of disease wiping out many of the poor. One such outbreak of typhus, similar to the one mentioned recently regarding Lismore, carried away Fr. Alan McDonald’s close friend (and successor at Daliburgh) Fr. George Rigg who died from the disease in 1897:

News has been received of the death of the Rev. George Rigg, priest at St. Peter’s, Dalibrog, in South Uist, one of the Outer Hebrides, in the diocese of Argyll and the Isles. Father Rigg met his death owing to a devotion not less that that of Pere Damien. The family of one of his parishioners, a Hebridean cottar, consisting of a man, his wife and child, were all attacked by typhus fever at one and the same time. The neighbours were loathe to approach the cottage in which the stricken family lay ill, and for weeks, with the exception of the doctor, who paid his daily visit, the priests unassisted nursed the sick household, cooking for them, and performing all the necessary and unpleasant menial offices attached to this self-imposed task. As a result he contracted the fever in its worst form, and died, after terrible sufferings, a few days ago, in the presence of his sister and the priest of the other South Uist parish, who had nursed him devotedly.

Such was impact of such a loss that not only did Fr. Allan compose a Gaelic elegy for him but so did Donald MacCormick and Donald Patterson.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries syphilis was common throughout Europe but with the advent of modern antibiotics such as penicillin has subsequently seen the rate decline rapidly. If left untreated syphilis in its tertiary stage of development is severe and may result in syphilitic insanity as well as death.

CW120/303, ff. 84 v–85r.
Laments composed for George Rigg can be heard here:
Image: Fr. George Rigg (1860–1897).

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Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [©]