Thursday, 21 January 2010

Lightfoot on Sorbus

John Lightfoot was an 18th century English naturalist who wrote the two volume Flora Scotica published in 1777.

He travelled widely and in 1772 spent five months on  a tour of Scotland with Thomas Pennant, another well-known 18th century naturalist.  Lightfoot's flora contains some interesting material on the medicinal uses and folklore associated with the plants he describes and many of these seem to be from first hand experience and sometimes appear to have found their way into later literature, often without the caution that Lightfoot expressed on the reputed properties of some of these plants.

Of the mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) he says the Scots name is Roan-tree and the Scottish Gaelic Craobh-chaorain.  On its uses he writes "in the island of Jura they use the juice as an acid for punch".  This is curiously like the lines in Virgil's Georgics where he says of the Scythians "Et pocula laeti/Fermento atque acidis imitantur vitea sorbis ( And for an intoxicating drink/they mimic wine with a brew from acid service berries).  He adds that Highlanders often eat rowan berries "when thoroughly ripe and in some places distil a very good spirit from them."

On the folklore of S. aucuparia he writes that in North-Britain "the superstitious still continue to retain a great veneration of the wood which was undoubtedly handed down to them from early antiquity.  They believe that any small part of this tree carried about them will prove a sovreign charm against all the effects of enchantment or witchcraft.  Their cattle also, as well as themselves, are supposed to be preserved by it from evil; for the dairy-maid will not forget to drive them to the shealings or summer pastures with a rod of Roan-tree, which she carefully lays up over the door of the sheal boothy or summer house and drives them home again with the same.  In Strathspey they make, for the same purpose, on the first day of May, a hoop of the wood of this tree, and in the evening and morning cause all the sheep and lambs to pass through it."

Lightfoot does not seem to know the whitebeams very well, which is rather surprising for a well-travelled botanist, but he does say, in Flora Scotica and presumably of Scotland "the berries when ripe are red, and capable, by fermentation and distillation, of affording a good spirit."

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