Plague is a disease that historically swept across towns, villages and cities indiscriminately, decimating and striking fear into populations of people. Until the late 19th century, people were almost in the dark as to what caused or how to treat this dark and devastating disease. For centuries, many thought it was an act of God, punishing those who had sinned and its spread, due to ‘bad air’. The last notable outbreak of plague in Scotland was from 1644 until 1647; the famous plague, which hit London in 1666, didn’t seem to travel north.
In his book ‘The Popular Rhymes, Sayings and Proverbs of the County of Berwick’ (1856), George Henderson (1800-1864) relates a curious incident in the village of Preston, during the time of plague.
‘It is said that onions have a peculiar power of attracting the virus of pestilence; and a friend informs us that, when the plague for the last time visited Preston, in Berwickshire, a beautiful village on the banks of the Whitadder, men were appointed to go along among the houses, with large onions affixed on the points of halberts, that these bulbs might collect the miasm or malaria, or virus of the pestilence, and when the onions became black they were supposed to be saturated with infection, and thence taken and buried in some unfrequented spot in the church-yard.’
If the onions were buried in the churchyard they were doing better than most victims of this disease who were deliberately buried in other locations for fear that the pestilence might somehow burst out. This might seem odd to us today but at the time people had little medical understanding for what caused the plague or how to treat it.
Ancient Egyptians are thought to have considered onions of high medicinal value and some people today still swear by them as a cure for many illnesses. Up until the 19th century one of the main medical textbooks was ‘The Complete Herbal’, by Nicholas Culpepper, first published in the 1600s. This is probably where idea arose that onions could absorb disease:
‘ …they have gotten this quality, to draw any corruption to them, for if you peel one, and lay it upon a dunghill, you shall find it rotten in half a day, by drawing putrefaction to it; then, being bruised and applied to a plague sore, it is very probable it will do the like.’Another plant-based plague remedy from this time is mentioned in the Domestic Annals of Scotland: ‘Tak three mutchkins of Malvoysie, and ane handfull of red sage, and a handfull of rue, and boil them till a mutchkin be wasted. Then strain it, and set it over the fire again; then put thereinto ane pennyworth of long pepper, half ane of ginger, and ane quarter of ane unce of nutmegs, all beaten together; then let it boil a little, and put thereto five pennyworth of Mithridate and two of treacle, and a quarter of a mutchkin of the best Angelic water.’