31 May, 2013
The last blog highlighted the difficult business of transporting stone in medieval times. By coincidence, the same issue arose last week when I visited Ravenscraig Castle in Fife, where I noted the presence of wallflowers. The connection?
Well, it is widely believed that wallflowers were unwittingly introduced to Britain by castle builders working for William the Conqueror. These 11th-century Norman masons did not know what kind of rock would be available in England, and wanted to avoid hold-ups when building strategically important strongholds in a newly conquered country. So they brought their own. In a sense, they were pioneers of flat pack!
It is thought that wallflower seeds were transported across the Channel lodged within these stones. The wallflower has now become naturalised in the UK, but although it is common in the south of England, it is not commonly found outside gardens in Scotland.
Part of my job at Historic Scotland is to update the species lists that the agency holds for each of its properties. These are a useful tool in managing the monuments to increase biodiversity – but they can also inform the story of the monument.
The presence of unusual or rare plants is of course valuable and interesting, but many plants also have historical value: their presence can be closely linked to the history of a site.
For example, opium poppies were grown during the Middle Ages for medicinal use. They can be found at two of our sites, and I’m not saying which.
Another example is wild celery, an exotic plant that is not common in Scotland. However, it is abundant at Ravenscraig Castle, and can also be found at Craigmillar Castle in Edinburgh.
Wild celery is not native to Scotland and was introduced from mainland Europe. One of its common names is Norwegian angelica, and it is often found around east coast ports. This could explain how it became established at Ravenscraig, near Kirkcaldy harbour.
However, Craigmillar is several miles from the old harbour atLeith. The presence of wild celery at Craigmillar, and perhaps at Ravenscraig too, is probably due to its medicinal properties.
Angelica archangelica, to give it its proper name, is also known as garden angelica, Holy Ghost or wild celery. Angelica as a plant name means angel, and refers to its valuable healing properties.
Four hundred years ago Nicholas Culpeper wrote a book listing natural remedies that all people could afford. Among the many listed angelica remedies were cures for: infection, ‘diseases of lungs and breast, stoppage of liver and spleen, wind and internal swellings, gout and sciatica’. It is still used by herbalists today as a remedy for indigestion and externally for rheumatic pain.
Please note, however, some parts of the plant are poisonous. It also looks rather like some other plants which are very poisonous. So on no account eat any of this plant! Its sap can also irritate the skin, especially if exposed to the sun. So look – don’t touch!