Ancient Soutra hospital findings updated

Researchers at Soutra Aisle have updated their findings in a new leaflet.

Scientists investigating the ancient hospital site give a short history of the medieval facility and list some of their discoveries since the project began in 1986 in the new pamphlet.

Investigations director and dig founder Dr Brian Moffat said: “The highlight probably is that we are systematically reconstructing recipes (of herbal medicines) from the Middle Ages.”

The researchers found waste in the hospital drains which reveals what conditions were treated, what was used to make the medicines and shows, from the thousands of recipes available, which herbal remedies were commonly used.

Dr Moffat said: “Some recipes are trivial such as slight adjustments to diet, but at the other extreme we’ve got anaesthetic preceding amputation. We’ve found amputated bits.

“We have also got active drugs which induce childbirth and the remains of stillborn infants. We know what was going on, but they never wrote it down, it would incriminate them – abortion was illegal in the Middle Ages.

“The site is unique because the clays at Soutra have consistently and dependably preserved blood, bugs and medications of all sorts.”

One exciting discovery was the heath pea, a root which acted as a famine first aid and hunger suppressant.

Chopped-up pieces were found in 1999, but Dr Moffat says it took years to get a firm identification.

“The tiny tubers, eaten a few at a time, have pan-European renown as the key anti-famine measure when field crops fail, and as an aid for personal dieting ... this is genuinely a forgotten and overlooked species, “ said Dr Moffat.

Other discoveries have shed light on how they treated psychiatric illnesses, managed epidemics and did dentistry in the Middle Ages.

The medieval hospital was built on the Royal Road, the main route between England and Scotland, and dates back to at least 1164. It was run by Augustinian monks looking after the poor, travellers, pilgrims and the aged, as well as those who were unwell.

Dr Moffat said: “Without a doubt it was the best funded hospital in Britain north of York. We know that on the basis of the lands it owned, 20 square miles of what is some of the best land in Scotland.”

The monastery and hospital hosted English armies, including the one heading to battle at Bannockburn.

The unique research project, which has charitable status, has attracted more than 400,000 visitors in its 27 years.

Dr Moffat said: “We are trying to make it not a dry academic subject, but to relate it to people: what went wrong in the human body in the Middle Ages is much the same was what happens now.”

He said of the research: “It’s entirely unpredictable, I can’t tell what one day or one week will bring and how we are going to make sense of it. It’s fascinating.

“People think if they have been once that’s it, but the project is ongoing and there are new findings.”

Soutra Aisle’s next open days are over the last weekend of August, but groups wishing to arrange a visit should contact Dr Moffat at brianmoffat@soutraaisle.org or 07845 875628. He can also send out the new leaflets.