Interview – Claire MacKay, The Herbalist, By D Elisabeth Aymett
Let’s be honest here. How many of us have fantasized about being Claire Fraser, an herbal healer in the Highlands of Scotland? Well, OHP was delighted to sit down with Claire (okay, her last name is MacKay, but we won’t quibble…) the real life herbalist, who was a consultant for Outlander, Season One.
OC: When were you contacted about working on Outlander?
Claire: In 2013, before Outlander started filming, I was working as the manager of an herbal medicine practice in the Highlands, along with my husband. We were on an estate which was overlooked by an 18th century building, living a very quiet life (does any of this start seeming eerily familiar???). At the time, I was researching traditional Highland herbal medicine and focusing on how they would’ve used the plants back then. I kept thinking “how on earth did they know what these plants were used for?”
OC: Good question! (And can we say here, talk about right place, right time?)
Claire: I was quite immersed in my research when I got a call from production asking me if I’d heard of Outlander and might I be interested in meeting with Ron. Well, I didn’t know who Ron D. Moore was, so when I got off the phone, I looked him up on the internet and then I thought “oh my!”
OC: I bet!
Claire: I’d been studying 18th century highland herbal medicine when I was contacted by the show. When I started reading the book, the first thing I noticed was that the main character is named Claire and that she’s going back in time and studying herbs and I thought, “is this the Truman Show?”
It seemed like it was my life written in the book; that made it extra special for me from the very beginning. So I went to meet Ron, thinking I’d meet with his assistant or someone first. But when I walked into the room, it was really him!
OC: Ron seems to be extraordinarily invested in getting the details right for this series.
Claire: Yes, he is. We talked a bit about the script and then he asked me if I’d be interested in consulting on the series. Of course, I said yes!
OC: Of course!
Claire: I kept reading the series of books and later spoke to Diana. I mean, as I read on, I realized the level of research she did. As a researcher myself, I noted that she has references to plants and uses that are not common knowledge among herbalists! I was really curious about her sources and her interest, so I contacted her. When I introduced myself, she said she couldn’t believe they were going to this level of detail and authenticity.
OC: So, that leads into my next question of how authentic and accurate did you find the herbal references to be in the book/TV series?
Claire: With one or two exceptions, very accurate. For example, there’s a mention in the book about Davy Beaton using Pennyroyal to treat an injured finger. While that wouldn’t necessarily be the first choice, Pennyroyal is a member of the mint family and has volatile oils which act as an antiseptic.
OC: Well, apparently, Davy Beaton wasn’t that great a healer, so maybe that accounts for that strange choice? (laughing again)
Claire: Yes. Maybe Diana was being cunning when she had him using a plant that wasn’t the best. The way she uses the plants in her books, I think, is quite original. I think she was an herbalist in a past life!
OC: Well, we know Diana is a scientist and used to doing extensive research.
Claire: She is extremely well-researched. I have a great admiration of her from a research point of view. She’s been an inspiration. She’s recently asked me to do a short history of the use of Highland herbs, which is going to be coming out in the new Outlandish Companion on October of 27th. That also happens to be a full moon! (And, close to Samhain….hmmm, time to take a trip to Craig Na Dun?). I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Diana does like her moon references in the Outlander series.
OC: Yes, she does. So that’s accurate as well? The harvesting references?
Claire: Yes, it is. When Claire talks to Roger at Fraser’s Ridge in one of the later books about when to harvest the plants, flowers and seeds, that’s all true about the different types of predators and why some plants are better harvested at night and some during day and certain cycles of the moon. So the chemicals are secreted at different times to be most effective and that’s when the chemical values are highest.
I teach in my workshops that some of the things that must seem like superstition from the 18th century, when you look at them now with scientific perspective, we can see that there is logic and truth to it. What they said back then would’ve branded them as heretics.
OC: So that leads me to my next question. Healers, or Wise Women, in the 18th century were often targets for accusations of witchcraft, as we saw in Claire’s and Gellis’ case. How did you feel about the episodes of By the Pricking of My Thumbs and the The Devil’s Mark?
Claire: (Laughing) Well, as an herbalist now, I’m so glad that I wasn’t around in the 18th century! I would definitely have been burned for a witch, no question. So, of course, I have a tremendous empathy for the people, especially women, who were caught up in that horrendous situation. I’ve read a lot of the history and oftentimes, people used the accusation of witchcraft just to get back at a neighbor who had annoyed them, for example. It was more than a wee bit wicked. The healers certainly didn’t deserve to die because of it.
The Wise Women, the healers, sort of flew under the radar then, so to speak. Medicine was just beginning to be more academically inclined, but women weren’t really allowed to University. Medicine was taught in Latin, and, of course, the wee wifeys and Wise Women of the Highlands weren’t taught Latin. So men appropriated the study of medicine and started to cut women out of the healing arts.
OC: So, two centuries later, how different do you feel things are in the attitude of “recognized” medicine towards the effectiveness of herbal or alternative medicine?
Claire: I feel the struggle has always been there between orthodox medicine and herbalism. Whether you’re looking at it from the religious point of view in persecuting healers as witches or from the medical point of view, the herbalist has had to struggle to justify her traditional practice by using scientific evidence to support her healing methods.
Not many people know this, but herbal medicine was banned between 1941 and 1958 in the UK. But the same government that banned herbal medicine, with the exception of “qualified” doctors, also requested that women go into the hills and harvest things like rosehips and yarrow to be used for the soldiers during WWII. There was a high incidence of scurvy, so they harvested the rosehips to prevent it.
OC: What a contradiction!
Claire: Yes! I think it comes down to power, control and money. I realize concerns of safety are there between orthodox medicine and herbalism, and practices which seem questionable to the masses. However, I think now we’re open to discussions of the knowledge. During the burning times, people would not have been able to share this knowledge of cures and herbal medicine without risking their lives.
Now there’s more of an element of science in determining why the herbal cures are effective. I think we’re coming back full cycle. I tend to think of modern medicine as the sort of rebellious teenage child of herbalism. Before there were “pharmaceuticals”, there was herbalism. Doctors used herbs to treat patients. Then came modern pharmaceuticals, but it’s really not separate from herbal medicine.
OC: That’s a great analogy. So, my fellow bloggers asked me to make sure I asked you about the infamous scene in Wentworth where Black Jack Randall uses lavender to …(I didn’t even get to finish this question).
Claire: (groaning) Oh, that breaks my heart! That was just a wicked, wicked thing to do. That scent, lavender, is so recognizable. It’s hard not to love it and most people do.
OC: Would it have aided healing or would it just have soothed?
Claire: Oh, lavender is an absolute healer, but I don’t know why Black Jack would’ve used that. I think we have to ask Diana. Perhaps he was trying to sort of trick Jamie’s senses. Essential oils access the deepest part of the brain, the limbic system. You know a certain smell can trigger memories, even taking you back to childhood. So I don’t know if it was manipulation of Jamie’s senses or what. But I find that to be the cruelest thing because it’s such a healing plant and later it causes real trouble for Jamie. I find it to be the most heartbreaking use of lavender imaginable.
Lavender is actually a sedative. It has a unique way of calming the senses. It can aid sleep, reduce pain because it’s an anti-inflammatory and even has antiseptic qualities. I use it in so many of my remedies. Some people find it too relaxing. It’s quite amazing actually.
OC: So it really is that powerful?
Claire: Yes and I feel it’s such a tragedy for poor Jamie!
OC: We were also curious about the Lily of the Valley. Did the Monks actually bring that from Germany and does it look that similar to wood garlic?
Claire: Yes and yes. Lily of the Valley is easy to confuse with wood garlic when it’s not in flower. They’re quite similar and there is a possibility of confusing the two. I’ve even done it myself. I realized the mistake when it came into flower.
|Lily of the Valley|
There are also a number of archeological sites where they’ve been able to identify that monks were there from the non-native plants that were found. One of those would have been the thorn apple Claire used to treat Ned Gowan’s asthma. Did you notice that when he inhaled from his little pipe he had that sort of satisfied smile? Well, thorn apple is also a narcotic, in a recreational way.
OC: Ohhhh! (Caution, before some of you go out and start cultivating, read on…)
Claire: I don’t know if many people know that, but if you take too much, it’s toxic. There was a time when people were smoking gypsum weed and dying of it, but it is a very effective medicine. That, too, was brought to the UK by the monks.
OC: So when you worked as a consultant on Outlander, did you work with Cait and Lotte or more with the writing staff?
Claire: I didn’t work with Lotte, but I did have the pleasure of working with Cait. She’s a lovely person. We discussed the use of potions and applications of plants and how to think about the plants used in the script. That was a lovely part of the job. Other than that it was mostly going through the script and making suggestions for accuracy.
OC: We hear it’s a really fun set and wonderful working environment they have there. Any funny stories you can share?
Claire: Well, one of the drivers, Davie, and this was before they’d cast Cait, walked up to the car where I was sitting and asked me something. He introduced himself as Davie and I asked him if he was one of the actors. He said no, just a driver and asked who I was. I answered that I was Claire, the Herbalist. He said, “Oh, you’re Claire! Well done!” Then he walked away and it was only a few minutes later that I realized he thought I’d been cast as Claire on the show.
OC: It is quite the coincidence about your name, your being an herbalist and being from the Highlands, just like Claire Fraser. In addition to the presentations during Tartan week, you run some demonstrations and tours in Scotland. Please tell us about that.
Claire: Yes, we’re running tours and workshops at some the Outlander sets, notably the gardens around Culross Palace, where filming of the scenes of Claire working in the garden outside Leoch took place. I’m also working with Historic Scotland doing some living history workshops dealing with herbal medicine during the Jacobite period. Some of those take place at Doune Castle, which was used for the exteriors of Leoch. There are also some Outlander Herbal workshops where you can come and make your own ointments and learn about the plants used in the books. I’m also working on a residential workshop for May of 2016 for Outlander Herbal which will focus on remedies used in the book series. Still working on the details of that. Then I’ll be doing workshops in New Jersey for part of Tartan week in 2016.