Ortha nan Gaidheal


THE reciter said that this poem was composed by a woman in Harris. She was afflicted with leprosy, and was removed from the community on the upland to dwell alone on the sea-shore, where she lived on the plants of the plains and on the shell-fish of the strand. The woman bathed herself in the liquid in which she had boiled the plants and shell-fish. All her sores became healed and her flesh became new - probably as the result of the action of the plants and shell-fish.

Leprosy was common everywhere in mediaeval times. In Shetland the disease continued till towards the end of last century. Communities erected lazar-houses to safeguard themselves from persons afflicted with leprosy. Liberton, now a suburb of Edinburgh, derives its name from a lazaretto having been established there.

The shrine of St James of Compostello in Spain was famous for the cure of leprosy. Crowds of leper pilgrims from the whole of Christendom resorted to this shrine, and many of them were healed to the glory of the Saint and the enrichment of his shrine. In their gratitude, pilgrims offered costly oblations of silks and satins, of raiments and vestments, of silver and gold, of pearls and precious stones, till the shrine of St James of Compostello became famous throughout the world. The bay of Compostello was famed for fish and shell-fish, and the leper pilgrims who came to pray at the altar of the Saint and to bestow gifts at his shrine were fed on those and were healed - according to the belief of the period, by the miraculous intervention of the Saint. As the palm was the badge of the pilgrims to Jerusalem, the scallop-shell was the badge of the pilgrims to Compestello :-

'My sandal shoon and scallop-shell'

Niall MacFhionnlaigh, A' Chiste Ghàidhlig, a chuir na teacsaichean seo gu léir bho Carmina Gadelica air an làrach-lìn aig Sabhal Mór Ostaig ann an 1995
2001-04-09 CPD