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31 Aug 2020

A Gladstone’s Land plague remedy

Written by Anna Brereton, Visitor Services Manager, Gladstone’s Land
Close-up of small piles of colourful spices, including cinnamon sticks, turmeric and star anise.
A selection of spices to ‘cure’ the plague
For hundreds of years plague ravaged Scotland. People believed that it had been sent from God as punishment for sin and corruption.

It was understood that plague could be caught from infected people, but that it was also caused by foul-smelling air, or ‘miasmas’, and was prevalent around areas with stagnant water and exposed rotting food and livestock.

An old illustration of two men in medieval dress standing on a cobbled street, with a skeleton standing between them.

Edinburgh Council was well aware of the dangers of infection and began instituting measures to protect the populace as early as the 15th century. But the residents of Edinburgh had their own ideas about how to keep themselves safe. A book published in 1594, Present Remedies Against the Plague, outlined the best antidotes and remedies to fight the disease. Burning herbs like frankincense, juniper and rosemary was understood to air the rooms of a home and was thought to counteract the dangerous miasmas from the street. It was also believed that leaving three or four peeled onions on the ground of an infected area for 10 days would absorb all the infection, leaving the inhabitants safe.

The remedies and antidotes were many and varied, but perhaps the most popular involved using strong-smelling spices. These spices would have been imported from all over the world, and sold in shops like those at Gladstone’s Land. John Riddoch operated a grocer’s shop on the ground floor of Gladstone’s Land, selling things such as herbs, spices, tobacco and wine. His will shows that he stocked several items in his shop that would have been useful to a 17th-century person wanting to ward off the disease: ginger, saffron and cloves were all believed to be effective. These could be incorporated into cordials, lotions or pouches stuffed with herbs and spices to prevent the bad smells being inhaled. Even common invalid foods, like mutton broth, were recommended to have herbs such as rosemary, mint or thyme added to help ward off the disease. These herbal remedies were also endorsed by the government.

Illustration of a plague doctor in a long black cloak, with a bird-like mask with a long beak. There is medieval'style script at the bottom and in the middle of the illustration.

The famous Plague Doctor masks would also have had the beaks stuffed with sweet-smelling herbs to prevent the dangerous miasmas from reaching the wearer. Riddoch’s business would have been in high demand across Edinburgh.

A ‘preservative’ from the Remedies book suggests the following recipe:

Take an Egge, make a hole in the top of it, take out the white and the yolke, and fill the shell onelye with Saffron, rost the shel and Saffron togither, in embers of Charcoales, vntil the shell waxe yeallow: then beat shell and altogether in a marter, with halfe a spooneful of Mustard-séed: Now so soone as any suspition is had of infection, dissolue the weight of a French crown in ten spoonefuls of posset-Ale, drinke it luke warme, and sweat vpon it in your naked bed.

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