Thursday, 23 August 2012

Soutra - medieval medicine meets windfarm technology

“To a traveller coming from the south, the view from Soutra is most enchanting .  Passing for a considerable way through the dreary moor, where nothing meets the eye but barren health, here, all at once, the fine cultivated counties of Mid and East Lothians, with the Firth of Forth and coast of Fife, burst upon his view.  The suddenness of the change, and the mingled group of hills, and dales, and woods, and waters, which now stretch extensive to the eye, give such a throb of pleasure to the heart as is not to be described.” (pp79-80)


Landscape indicating hills of Fife, Forth estuary, Lothians
as viewed from Soutra, Scotland
20 August, 2012
© Prof Whitestick
So wrote the Rev. James Ingram in the New Statistical Account of 1845.  This had been ‘cut and pasted’ from an earlier Statistical Account. 

This view would have been familiar to the Romans, who built and travelled the nearby Dere Street which linked Melrose (Newstead) to the Roman fort at Crammond, to the west of Edinburgh. 

The scene is relatively unchanged and on driving north on the current A68, the 21st century appears with windmills as part of a wind farm development on either side of the road. 
Landscape of windfarm with host of windmills and some sheep in the foreground
from Soutra Hill, Scotland
20 August, 2012
© Prof Whitestick
My father always had a theory that if one could actually see the hills of Fife from either Edinburgh or Soutra Hill (elevation about 1200 feet) it would soon rain.  While not claiming to be following in the traditions of John Gough and Luke Howard (, I did remark about this to the owner of a dog who had made a charge at me in the car park.  The owner had said the dog is after your hat (there was no wind and the hat was firmly on my head).  I commented that this was the calm before the start of bad weather and we agreed. 

At the Wellcome Library the links with science and medicine are openly discussed and I found the John Gough observations he had reported to him inspiring with regard to how visually impaired people can do science, with a bit of help. 

I later went to Carfraemill Hotel for lunch and sure enough, it started to rain while we were having lunch!

Few people realise that going north to the left of Soutra Hill are the remains of an early medieval establishment.  It is known locally as Soutra Aisle and has been the subject of research into medieval medicine. 

Soutra Aisle
Remains of medieval hospital
20 August, 2012
© Prof Whitestick
The site is rather overgrown and the information boards have shown signs of weathering.  There is, however, an Open Day series planned as follows:

Open Days at Soutra

August 25, 26, 27 (Sat, Sun, Mon) 2 PM prompt

Learn about the archaeo-medical investigations

You can also get there on a Munro's bus 51/52.  Ask the driver for Gilston road-end and walk up the hill for about 8 minutes

Some of the captions on the information boards are legible and were read out to me.  They included information on the discovery of a variety of seeds and flowers which have been identified in this location and which were used for medicinal purposes.  These included:  opium poppy, hemlock, juniper berries, coltsfoot, liquorice, common valerian, stinging nettle, St John’s Wort and mistletoe.

The Statistical Accounts are a very good source of history as it was put down by Church of Scotland ministers, many of them with an axe to grind.  It was ever thus, and following the Reformation, Edinburgh Town Council got their hands on the hospital of the Holy Trinity (as it had been renamed), much to the annoyance of the neighbouring Presbytery of Dalkeith in the period from 1560 to 1618. 

“By the seizure of its charity revenues, the ruin of its hospital, and the reduction and afterwards the abandonment of its church, the village of Soutra was stripped of its importance, and brought to desolation.  The seat of conviviality and busy, though doubtful charity, of a great hospital, and of a general refuge for the distressed debtor, the weary traveller, the friendless pauper and the afflicted invalid is now silenced and abandoned to the lonely visits of the mountain sheep.”

Soutra lies on the Lammermuir range of hills, which mark the divide – geological faultline – between the southern uplands and the central lowlands of Scotland.  The area has been fought over for centuries and has switched counties, regions, parishes for as long as I can remember.  Currently, Soutra Aisle lies near a sign welcoming Edinburgh bound travellers to Midlothian, while for those going south, one is welcomed into the Scottish Borders.  The area inspired Sir Walter Scott to write the Bride of Lammermuir and this was used by Donizetti for his opera Lucia di Lammermoor. 

My peripheral vision allows me to pick up the windmills on both sides of the A68, with the high voltage electricity pylons which connect nearby Cockenzie coal-fired power station and the nuclear powered station at Torness (Dunbar) to the Scottish grid system.

The current energy policy of the Scottish government may appear to be at odds with Westminster and the future of nuclear energy in Scotland is under review.  Carbon capture and storage, wind farms and solar panels have been researched locally and there is a prospect of wave-power being generated off-shore in the North Sea. 

More information on Soutra Aisle can be found on the following links: