[From Yn Lioar Manninagh Vol 3 pp303/314]


A. W. MOORE, M. A.

The methods resorted to by our ancestors for the cure of diseases may be divided into two categories. The first comprises those remedies which were employed for wholly superstitious reasons, and the second those which, though magical rites were not wholly discarded, were, for the most part, connected with the use of wholly discarded, herbs. Let us then, accordingly, divide our account of Manx Folk medicine into two parts, the first dealing with superstitious remedies.


The reason for many of the superstitious methods of cure are absolutely unintelligible until the primitive conceptions of disease and death are understood. It is almost certain that primitive man was quite unable to conceive the idea of disease and death arising from natural causes. In his experience, most deaths were violent, having been brought about either by men or wild beasts. In such cases he could see the cause of death. Therefore, when he saw a man prostrate by illness, the cause of which he could not see, he naturally supposed, arguing from the known to the unknown, that in this case, too, there was a personal cause, but, as he could not see it, he probably supposed that it resulted from the action of some god, demon, or evilly disposed human being who had obtained his or her power from a supernatural source. Thus every disease was supposed to have been caused by some persons acting supernaturally or by violence. A remnant of the once prevalent belief of diseases being caused by the supernatural or divine agency is enshrined in the Manx word for ringworm which is called " chenney Jee " or " God's fire." Out of this belief, too, doubtless arose the strange practice of personifying the more deadly diseases, and of attributing disease and death to the influence of the "evil eye," possessed by some malignant wizard or witch. The belief in the "evil eye " is in vogue even at the present day, and numberless instances of it have been recorded.1 The only token of the belief in the personification of disease which has survived, in the Isle of Man at least, is the following legend, which dates from the last century : It is said that smallpox, called in Manx yn vreac, " the spotted one," took the ghostly likeness of a man, and that in this guise he met a member of a well-known insular family on the bank of the Peel river, near St. John's, and, being unable to cross, asked him if he would carry him over, promising that, if he did so, neither he nor any member of his family should ever be afflicted with the disease in question. The man complied with the request, and it fell out as " smallpox" had promised. It was supposed, then, that, apart from violence, the two main causes of disease and death arose from (I) the anger of offended deities or demons, and (a) the supernatural powers of men or women derived from those deities or demons, 2 and it is upon these two ideas that the whole theory of superstitious Folk-Medicine is founded.

We shall now proceed to discuss the methods most in vogue for combating these destructive agencies under the following headings

(I) Transference. — It was one of the commonest ideas of the early medical practitioners that one of the most effectual ways of getting rid of a disease was by transferring it to some other person or thing. Thus when people visited the holy wells in Man they spat out the well water on a rag from their clothing, and they believed that not only was the disease in this way conveyed to the rag, but that any one who touched it would take the disease. They also believed that when the rag had rotted away the disease would disappear.3 Precisely the same ideas are found in the various recipes for curing warts which will be familiar to you. 4

(2.) "Sympathetic Magic." 5 — Unfortunately, however, the operations guided by this principle are for the most part directed towards killing or injuring rather than curing. For, one theory being that any effect may be produced by imitating it, a person, for instance, maybe killed by his image being stuck all over with pins; and, again, another theory being that magic sympathy is supposed to exist between a man and any portion of his person, injury may be done to him by the treatment which his hair and nails, for example, received. This accounts for the care taken formerly to destroy both hair and nails. 6, The principle has, however, its benevolent developments, for; as is well-known, it is believed that if a man or any animal is " butched," and the dust from the " butcher's " foot is promptly rubbed over him or it, the man or animal will soon recover. 7 Another form of the same principle embodies the idea that "like cures like;" yellow flowers, for instance, being good for jaundice, and the hair of the dog that bit you being the best specific for a bite. This latter idea, in its more modern form, appears to take the direction of a brandy and soda in the morning after undue potations during the previous evening.

(3.) Sacrifice and Purification. — Both these ideas are evidently included in the lighting of bonfires on the hills, and rolling blazing wheels from their tops, on May Day eve and Midsummer eve. For these bonfires, according to the testimony of Julius Cæsar, were used by the ancient Celts for sacrificing human beings. This practice was typified in modern times by men and boys leaping over them, while cattle were driven between or over them to keep them from disease.8 It is possible also that the custom of " hunting the wren " originated in the idea of sacrifice and a benefit to be obtained from that sacrifice, and let us note in this connection that it was formerly the practice of Manx fishermen not to go to sea without a dead wren to protect them from storms 9 So also the procession of the laare-vane or white mare on 12th night, or at the mheillea, may have originated in the idea that the sacrifice it typified was of some benefit to those present on the occasion 10 The sacrifice of one of a herd of cattle in order to preserve the others from disease has been quite common in the present century in the Isle of Man 11, and there is evidence of the burning of lambs on May Day " son oural," for a sacrifice within living memory.12

(4.) Propitiation. — The sacrifice just referred to had probably also a further object, that of propitiating supernatural powers. Instances of this are afforded by the practice of never referring to the much dreaded fairies, except in a complimentary way, such as calling them " the good people " or " the little people," by leaving out food and crocks of clean water for them before going to bed, and by sticking small bits of dough and butter on the wall for their consumption at every baking and churning.13 Numerous stories are told of the fatal results of neglecting these precautions. There can be little doubt, too, that the custom of Manxmen in describing their state of health as only being " middlin," whatever it might be, had its origin in the idea that a moderate statement would propitiate the " powers that be," whereas one that seemed exaggerated would bring down their wrath.

(5.) Contact with the Dead. — It is a well-known superstition that cures are effected by the touch of a dead person's hands or by contact with clothes which have been used or touched by- them. Thus, an old woman near Laxey got an undertaker to draw a white handkerchief through the hand of a man who had just died, and then wore it for some days as a charm against sore throat, and a young woman troubled with epileptic fits was wrapped in a sheet taken from a dead person.

(6.) The colour red seems to have been the most effective in performing cures. Thus, a red piece of flannel round the neck will cure sore throat, or whooping-cough. White is also considered effective, as would appear from the pebbles found in or near Manx holy wells being almost invariably- white, and white stones are found in Manx graves both of historic and prehistoric. times. On the other hand, the presence of a white stone in a boat brought ill-luck14 Yellow flowers, as already mentioned, were supposed to cure jaundice.

(7) Personal influence. — -Certain families in the Isle of Man had almost a monopoly of the profession of " Witch-Doctor," but, even in these families, the true magical and healing powers could only be preserved intact by their being handed down from a man to a woman in one generation, and from a woman to a man in the next and so on.15 — Apart from these families the only person endowed with undoubted powers of this kind were the seventh sons of a seventh son, and they were naturally uncommon.

(8) Metals (iron). — To draw blood, by needle or pin, is an antidote to the effects of witchcraft. It is a well-known superstition that a pair of tongs or scissors will protect a baby from fairies, and that a horseshoe hung On a door will secure the inmates, whether of the house, cow-house, or stable, to which it is attached against the powers of evil. Silver is also supposed to be gifted with magic powers, as it is notorious that the only way to kill a witch, when in the form of a hare, is by hitting her with a Silver bullet, upon which those who have been under the malign influence of her evil-eye at once recover. To drake blood with a silver pin is an even more efficacious antidote to the effects of witchcraft than doing the same thing with a needle. Copper is less efficacious than either iron or silver, but cases have been known of injured eye-lids being cured by being rubbed by a copper pin, an incantation being pronounced at the same time. Warts could be got rid of by selling them;m for a penny, but perhaps this notion is more nearly connected with that of transference than with that of metal; as also may be the idea that the same troublesome excrescences could be removed by rubbing them with a penny, which had previously been sheared with bacon fat, and by then burning both the penny and the bacon.

(9) Plants.16 — On May-eve green leaves, boughs, and primroses were strewn on the threshold, and branches of the "cuirn," or mountain ash, were made into small crosses, and stuck over the doors of the dwelling-houses and cow-houses, as a means of protection from fairies and witches. Cokes were further protected from the influence by having the snug-wort, "bollan-feaill-Eoin," John's feast-wort, placed in their houses. On midsummer-eve the " bollan-feaill-Eoin," already mentioned, was made into chaplets, which were worn on the heads of man and beast, who were then supposed to be proof against all malign influences while the " lus-yn-aacheoid," sickness herb, which, according to Mr. Ralfe, is probably the "devil's-bit scabious,"17 and the honey-suckle, " lus-y-chellan," bee-herb, were reckoned to be preservatives against the "evil-eye." Vervain, "vervine," was, however, the most potent of all herbs in nullifying the effect of all malign influences. By means of it numerous cures of witchcraft and over looking were fully believed to have resulted. Vervain was taken by the fishermen in their boats to bring them luck, and they tied a sprig of it to the train of their nets for the same purpose. Mr Roeder says that it was sewn into babies' clothes, to protect them against fairies, and a tea made of it was drunk, presumably by grown-up people, for the same purpose. The elder, " trainman " was a safeguard against fairies and witches. A tree of it was found in every old cottage garden. The meadow-trefoil, " lus-ny-binjey," stomach herb, was considered efficacious against witchcraft at all seasons, while clover, " Jus ny three duillag," three leaves herb, was a safeguard against magic.

(10.) Animals. — The cures supposed to be effected by animals are very few in number, and are for the most part, as in the cases of the wren and of the "lagre-vane," white-mare, connected with the idea of sacrifice. The same idea may have been applied to the sacrifices of the calf mentioned by the " Hop-to-nag " boys,18 and of the hen on St. Katherine's Day. 19 We have already seen that the feathers of the wren were supposed to protect from shipwreck. The practice of leaving a cock in an empty house seems to have been with a view of protecting the incoming tenant from spirits. So much for the curative powers of animals, but, as Kelly states that toothache is called " beishtyn," beasts, in Manx, from the opinion that the pain arose from an animal in the tooth, 20 it may be inferred that they were occasionally supposed to cause disease.

(11) Water. — Water was considered a great safeguard against disease. Thus no disease could cross a river, and running water was supposed to be capable of preventing the Passage of spirits and ghosts, as the story already repeated about " smallpox" shows. Water also protected against witches. For it was supposed that washing the face in dew on May morning rendered their hostilities innocuous. It is possible, too, that this supposed protective power of water rendered the rite of baptism acceptable to the converts from paganism as being a safeguard against the evil eye. The Church seems to have persuaded them that it was equally efficacious against their abduction by fairies, and, at a much later date, it was able to convince the people that the sprinkling of water on the places haunted by the fairies would suffice to drive them away. But it was to the water in the sacred wells that the Manx people chiefly resorted for the cure of diseases, and for protection against witches and fairies. This subject has, however, been so fully dealt with by the writer in his paper on " Water and Well Worship in Man,"21 that we need not dwell upon it here.

(12.) Magic writing or Sayings 22 — Nearly all the cures performed by the Manx " Charmers," and even those which are said to have resulted from the use of medicinal herbs, are accompanied by some saying which is muttered with an air of great mystery, but which, on investigation, usually turns out to be a simple invocation of the Trinity, a portion of a psalm, or some text from the Bible. There are some, however, which contain the names of Saints, notably that of the famous St. Columba, and some, such as the charm against pins and needles, called in Manx " cadley" or "collan jiargan,23 are purely secular. At one time, no doubt, such writings and sayings contained the names of pagan deities, but these have long since disappeared. These writings were often directed to be worn round the neck for the cure of diseases and protection against evil spirits, &c. The same idea of the efficacy of magic or sacred writings is shown by the beliefs that certain cures at sacred wells could only be peformed when the books were open at Church, '24 and that a bible left in an empty house was a safeguard against evil spirits entering it. A bible in the Manx language, be it known, is considered more efficacious than one in English. The most efficacious of all methods of averting the evil-eye was, when you met one who had it, to say, " God bless your eyes," and then nine times " In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.25

(13.) Miscellaneous Remedies. — Among these the most famous is that by fasting spittle, i.e., Spittle before breakfast, not after it. Wonderful powers of curing diseases are attributed to the use of it. Salt is most efficacious against fairies, magicians and evil-spirits, many stories being told to prove this. We may note that it is placed in the mouth of a child at its birth and on the breast of a corpse. Warts maybe cured by tying knots, though knots are more usually connected with evil than good influences.26 One of the most general uses of superstitious remedies was in love philtres. Thus, in 1713, it was deposed in Court that one Alice Cowley, of Ballaugh, had " addressed herself to a youth, and told him, if he would give her a ninepenny piece, she would give him something that would make a woman fall in love with him. This was a powder in paper which the witness believed to be powder of some of the bright stones that are at Foxdale." For this and other misdemeanours she was sentenced by the Bishop and Vicars General, to "thirty days' imprisonment, and before releasement to give sufficient security to stand two hours in a white sheet, a white wand in her right hand, and these words, " for charming and sorcery," in capital letters on her breast, in the four market towns of this Island, at the public cross in the height of the market ; and afterwards to do penance in Ballaugh Church." In this connection it is interesting to note that 'Mr. J. B. Keig has recently been told that the Sundew is called lus-yn-eiyrtys, herb of the following, in consequence of its supposed magic powers in compelling the person to whom it is applied to follow the holder of the herb.27


It would seem that, after a time, even began to perceive that superstitious rites and ceremonies often failed to cure disease, and they doubtless observed that animals ate certain herbs which appeared to benefit them This would lead them to try these herbs and others, while not, as we have seen, altogether discarding their mystic rites and incantations. These elements, however, gradually dwindled, -,while the knowledge of the curative properties of herbs by the discernment and empirical research of generation after generation ultimately resulted in the discovery of many simples which modern science, by the aid of accurate chemical analysts, has shown to be really efficacious for the cure of the complaints to which they were applied. Indeed it may, I believe, be truly said that modern medical science owes much to the primitive practitioners in simples, and that vegetable drugs form an increasing proportion of the " Materia Medica " of the present day. In by-gone times, when doctors -were comparatively few, drugs, like almost every article of consumption, were largely manufactured by each household for its own use, and every capable housewife had some knowledge of a few simples. This was especially the case in a place like the Isle of Man, where, owing to the poverty, of its inhabitants, there was nothing to induce a doctor to take up his residence, and, indeed, it would seem that, even as late as 1760, when Dr. Dominique LaMothe arrived on our shores, there was no properly qualified medical man regularly residing here, and we know that the good Bishop Wilson added to his beneficent influence by the administration of prescriptions, many of which, from a scientific point of view, were scarcely in advance of those made use of by the local empirics. That the old Manx people had an unusually extensive knowledge of the properties of simples, seems to be shown by the large number of plants which have been named by them from their real or supposed medicinal qualities. We should mention, however, that herbs were not invariably applied for beneficent purposes. Thus, in 1712, evidence was given in Court that one of the herbs known to Manx witches had the effect of causing blindness, and that the first draught of the " drink" of another would cause a man to " forget himself," while the second draught would cause him " to forget himself for ever"; and we should ~t]so bear in mind the statement already made as to the necessity of an accompanying charm with many of the herbal remedies.

The usual generic names for plants are "his," and "bossan," or "bollan," the former of which may be translated b5- herb, and the two latter by " wort." The following- list contains the names of all the plants which I could discover to have been used in Manx Folk-A,Medicine, together with a statement of the diseases to which they were applied, but there are, no doubt, many more.

Broom, "guilcagh," a purgative and to reduce swellings * Bog-bean (?) " lus-y-garee," (sour-land herb), was smoked for toothache.

Burdock, " Bollan-ghoa " (sticking wort), for purifying blood for skin diseases and for nervousness. This is a very favourite , remedy. -

Buckshorn Plantain, " Ver-in Vridey " (Virgin Bridget), or

" Bossan-Vreeshey " (Bridget's Wore), considered " inie son lhiettal gain " (good for staunching wounds.)

Centaury, " Keym Chreest " (Christ's Steps), also called lus-y-viughagh (jaundice herb), for low spirits and jaundice. Dandelion, "lies-ny-minnag" (entrails her'-), for liver affections and as an aperient tonic for piles.

Dove's-foot or Cranesbill, "lus-ny-freeinagh)-n-vooarey" (big pins herb), for mouth or tongue sores and for anointing eyes. Dock, " cabbag," for sheep having scab. For bee, wasp, and nettle stings the leaf was rubbed on the affected part.

Eye-bright, " lus-y-tooill " (eve-herb), used as in eye salve. Elder, " tramman," for bites, etc.

Fennel(?), "lus-y-vooin" (urine-herb), for flatulence and as a diuretic.

Flux-weed (?), " lus-y-jiargey " (flux-herb), for curing flux. From evidence given in a witchcraft trial in 1712, we find that there were several herbs used in the Island as preservations against flux and fever. Flux was a terrible scourge here in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Fox-glove, " slieggan-shleau " (cleaver sharpener). Its leaves were applied as a poultice for bringing boils, etc., to a head. Ground ivy, "ard-losserey" (Quayle) (chief-herb), for purifying the blood and for coughs.

Gout-wort, " lus-yn-ollee " (Quayle) (Cattle-herb), for sores in the mouths of cattle, and for toothache. Clucas, the well-known cow doctor and bone-setter at the Strang Village, near Douglas, considered this plant to be an unfailing remedy for these sores.

Groundsel, "grunlus" (ground herb), an aperient for cattle and and birds, also used for ague.

Honeysuckle was called "lus-y-chellan" (bee-herb), as it was supposed, though mistakenly, that bees could reach its honey, it was considered " mie dy reayll bainney veih rannagh, as yn eeym veih dooid " (Kelly's dictionary), "good to keep milk from stringi-ness and butter from blackness."

Lice-bane (?) "lus-y-chartan" (lice-herb), was "mie son meelyn, ny son taghys" (Kelly's dictionary), "good for lice or the itch."

Milk-wort (?), "bollan-y-chee" (nipple-Wort), was used to promote the flow of milk into the breasts.

Mouse ear (?), "cleaysh-)ugh'; (mouse-ear), or "cleaysh-lheeah" (grey-ear), was "mie dy jannoo mooin" (Kelly's dictionary). It was also used as a diuretic

Navel wort (?), (]us-ny-imleig ") (navel-wort), was used for womb ulcer.

Nettles, "undaagagh," were used for relaxed bowels. The plants were employed for restoring circulation by beating the skin. Penny-wort, "wooisleeyn," according to Mr. Roeder, was used for preparing a poultice for a scald or for a pimple (" blass ") on the arm. It, with nine other ingredients, was also used for erysipelas. Pellitory (?), " vn ouw creggah " (the rocky weed), was used for heart disease.

Raven's purse (?), "sporran feeagh" (raven's purse), was "mie son ching scoaldit" (Kelly's dictionary), " good for a scalded sore."

Ribwort Plantain, " cabbag Pharick " (Patrick's Dock), was used as a plaister for cuts and wounds.

St. John's Wort, "lus-y-chiolg" (stomach herb), was used for low spirits or nervousness. The roots were scalded in buttermilk to remove freckles.

Scurvy-grass, "lus-y-vinniag " (pinch herb), was used for scurvy (Kelly explains "minniag," or " minniag merriu," as " that lividity called dead man's nips or pinches, which is no more than the symptoms of scurvy or incipient jaundice.")

Shamrock (clover), " lus-ny-three-duillag " (three leaves herb), used for toothache.

Spurge (wartwort), "lus-y-vuinnagh" (aperient herb), used as a purgative. Its milky juice was employed to remove warts.

Vervain, "vervine," used as a febrifuge and emetic.

Wild-sage, " lus-y-toar-vrein " (bad smell herb), was boiled in milk, and used in cases of dysentery.

Woody nightshade, "croan reisht"-" a decoction of it is said to be good for healing of inward bruises" (Cregeen's dictionary, pp. 49-50)

Varrow, or Milfoil, " airh-hallooin" (earth-gold), was used as a vulnerary and for inducing perspiration.

Kelly speaks of a plant, " lus-roddagagh," which he says was used for dyeing, and for destroying fleas. It has not been certainly identified, but Mr. Quayle thinks that it is a sort of willow.

He also, but wrongly, gives the name of "purple meadow-button " to " lus-yn-aacheoid " (sickness-herb), which he says was used for internal bruises. Mr. Ralfe says it is the "devil's bit scabious," but that he has not yet been able to identify a specimen.

Such are some of the herbal remedies used by Manx people in the past. Many of them are, doubtless, totally ineffective for the purposes for which they were used, and some have been superseded by more potent medicines ; but, before condemning them, let us give some instances of the remedies recommended by learned English physicians two centuries ago :-

For Inflamed Eyes-" Take the right eye of a Frogg, lap it in a piece of russet cloth and hang it about the neck ; it cureth the right eye if it be inflamed or bleared. And if the left eye be greyed, do the like by the left eye of the said Frogg."

For the Falling Sickness — " If a man be greyed wyth the fallinge sicknesse, let him take a he-wolves harte and make it to pouder and use it ; but if it be a woman let her take a she-wolves harte."

'I If you would have a man become bold or impudent, let him carry about with him the skin or eyes of a Lion or a Cock, and he will be fearless of his enemies, nay, he will be very terrible to them. If you would have him talkative, give him tongues, and seek out those of water frogs and ducks, and such creatures notorious for their continual) noise making."

For Weakness and Feebleness — " Harte's fete, Does fete, Bulle's fete, or any ruder beastes fete, should oft be eaten ; the same comfort the sinews. The elder these beastes be, the more they strengthen."

Bleeding Nose — " If a mane's nose bleede, beat eggs shales to ponder and sift them through a linen cloth and blew them into hys nose: if the shales were of eggs whereout yonge chickens are hatched it were so much the better."

Ague — " Either frogge or toade, the nails whereof have been clipped, hanged about one that is sick of quartane ague, riddeth away the disease for ever."

In 1681 Elias Ashmole entered in his diary: — " I took this morning a good dose of elixir, and hung three spiders about my neck, and they drove my ague away. Deo gratias!"

Jaundice — "A good ponder for the jaundis is as followes : Take earth-worms and cut them small, and brake them with a little wyne so that ve may swalow it. Drincke the same fasting."

The recipes are, of course, more futile than most of those then in vogue, but they suffice to show that scientific medical treatment is comparatively a thing of yesterday, and that the therapeutics of our forefathers in the Isle of Man were, if anything, in advance of their time.

I hope that one result of this paper, which only touches the fringe of a very interesting subject, will be to induce Dr. Clague and others who have studied Manx herbal remedies to give us the benefit of their researches. I wish to especially acknowledge the assistance I have had from Mr P. G. Ralfe and Mr W. Quayle in correcting the mistakes made about plant names in the Manx dictionaries and in identifying some of the plants.


1 Manx Folk-Lore, pp. 93-6.

2 Black (Folk-Medicine, p. 4) gives also a third cause, i.e.: " The displeasure of the dead," but the only trace I can find of this in the Isle of Man is the dread of disturbing the ancient tumuli, and in the burying of persons who had committed murder or suicide at four cross-roads, lest their spirits should return to do harm. It is possible, too, that tumuli were made so large with the idea that the great mass of super incumbent earth would keep the uneasy spirits in.

3 Folklore, vol. v., pp. 217-18. " Water and well worship in Man. "-A. W. Moore.

4 Manx Folklore, p. 100.

5 Frazer, " Golden Bough, p. 9.

6 Manx Folklore, p. 145.

7 Ibid, pp. 94-5

8 Manx Folklore, pp. 118, 14z.

9 Ibid, PP. 133, 134.

10 Ibid, PP. 10+, 122.

11 Ibid, pp. 92, 93

12 Ibid, p. 111

13 Manx Folk-lore, P. 34.

14 Folklore, Vol. V., p.p. 218-:9.

15 Manx Folk Lore, p. 79.

16 The superstitous use only of plants is referred to here.

17 See P. 313.

18:Manx Folklore, pp. 123-5.

19 ibid, pp. 126-7.

20 Manx Dictionary, p. 21.

21 Folklore, Vol. V. pp„ 212-229.

22 For specimens of these see Manx Folklore, pp. 96-99.

23 For Mr. Roeder's version of this charm see " Yn Lioar Manninagh," vol. iii., part iv„ p. 172.

24 " Water and Well Worship in Man," Folklore, p. 213.

25From Mr. C. Roeder.

26 Folklore, p. 76.

27 Communicated by Mr. Ralfe,

* Unless stated to the contrary, it is to be understood that it was a decoction, or tea, of the herb that was administered.


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