Although Soutra medieval hospital has long since disappeared, the remarkable story of the Augustinian monks who oversaw its medical practices and treatments has become part of medical history.
The hospital sat at the top of Soutra Hill, high in the Lammermuir Hills (elevation 1210 feet) on the border between two regions – the Scottish Borders and Midlothian.
On a clear day the view, described as the, “Finest in Southern Scotland, stretches north to the Ochil Hills and east to the Firth of Forth and the coast of Fife.
A small, solitary stone building, known as Soutra Aisle welcomes visitors to the top of the hill, a worn inscription on the lintel has the date 1686.
This is not the remains of the medieval hospital but according to Historic Environment Scotland (HES), it is “described in 1700 as the burial place of the Pringles.”
To avoid confusion HES have called the site Soutra Aisle.
The Pringles were a powerful Scottish Borders family with connections to Galashiels and Smailholm near Kelso. One prominent family member was killed at the Battle of Flodden in 1513
House of the Holy Trinity
Closer inspection reveals the sandstone building material comes from a much earlier structure.
It was the medieval Augustinian monastery and Hospital (House) of the Holy Trinity, an institution charged with helping travellers including, the aged, sick and the poor.
An engraved stone set into the west wall says, “This stone is inserted to mark the site of the ancient sanctuary and once powerful Hospice of Soutra”
It was the highest-known monastery and hospital in the British Isles and was granted a charter by King Malcolm IV in 1164.
Malcolm IV reigned in Scotland from 1163 to 1165. He was buried in Dunfermline Abbey.
Much of our current knowledge about the hospital comes from Dr Brian Moffat an archaeo-botanist who has spent much of his working life on what became known as the Soutra Research Project.
It was during the 1980s that a survey team led by Dr Moffat began to investigate the hospital’s long-forgotten history.
He estimated that between the 12th century and the middle of the 15th century about 300 monks and others. These figures give some indication of the scale of the hospital, certainly bigger than any modern Edinburgh hospital.
Site of Soutra medieval hospital
Despite its bleak outlook, the position was well chosen, sited near the ancient Roman road (Dere Street. Also known as the Via Regia (Royal Way), It was for many years part of the main Anglo-Scottish highway.
Over the centuries, countless Scottish and English armies and other travellers tramped past this lonely monastic outpost, stopping for food, rest and medical treatment.
One expert examining this medical treatment said,
Most of the stone from the site had long since disappeared but Moffat was more interested in the content of the hospital drains and what lay buried in the clay-based soil.
Medical practices and treatments at Soutra Hospital
The Augustinian’s meticulous record-keeping has greatly helped Moffat in his research. A range of catalogues advised on diagnosis, surgical procedures and the use of plants and herbs, while another section dealt with childbirth and more common problems.
We know that blood-letting was customary and physicians would draw three to four pints of blood, “To clear the mind.”
This process was repeated seven to ten times a year. “Based on the number of residents and visitors it gives us a figure of around 300,000 pints of blood over the course of the hospital’s lifetime.” said Moffat.
This stinking material (now solid) still lies in the soil on Soutra Hill.
Several surgical procedures, which included dentistry and amputations, were revealed.
Soutra’s medical system was based mainly on animal and mineral components.
Over 300 plant species have been identified as specific to the Soutra massif.
Unusual combinations of seed, pollen and plant fragments were found.
It seems the monks were prepared to use certain herbs known to be poisonous, such as black henbane, hemlock and opium poppy.
Seeds of these plants, found in a cache, but never found growing together, and all deadly in their own right were combined in an ointment or prepared as a drink and used as anaesthesia.
Traces of opium and lard believed to be an analgesic ointment were used to cover open wounds after surgery.
Human remains found on site are a testament to this practice.
In further evidence of the monk’s ‘expertise’ the discovery of the remains of stillborn babies and the unearthing of ergot fungus and juniper berries prompted Moffat to say, “It was impossible not to link them.”
One of the most exciting finds, that may have practical uses today, were tubers of the Bitter Vetch plant.
Moffat states, “These tiny tubers which have a leathery liquorice taste were chewed to make people forget to eat or drink for weeks, sometimes months”.
In times of war and crop failures Bitter Vetch was an essential part of everyday living.
Concluding the report Dr Brian Moffat said,
In conclusion, it’s important to appreciate that Soutra Hill Medieval Hospital stands as a testament to the resilience and ingenuity of healers during a time of limited medical understanding.
By exploring its forgotten history, we gain a deeper appreciation of the challenges faced by all those involved in the work of this remarkable institution – monks and those who required medical care.
The decline and eventual closure of Soutra Medieval Hospital
During the 1460s the hospital fell into decline when the master of the hospital’s scandalous behaviour forced the king to confiscate most of the estates which financed the hospital.
Consequently, the estates were transferred to the Trinity College Church and Hospital in Edinburgh. As a result, it left the hospital impoverished.
In 1460, Mary of Gueldres founded Trinity College Church and Hospital in memory of her husband James II.
It was dedicated to the Holy Trinity, the Blessed Virgin and all saints.
Sadly, to cut a long story short the building has long gone, demolished in c. 1845 to make way for an extension to Edinburgh Waverley station.
This collegiate church and hospital have a fascinating story for historical sleuths to research.
Historic Environment Scotland has this information about the hospital.
Warning of an approaching English army
Interestingly Soutra Hill (Soutra Edge) was one of a chain of sites chosen by an act of parliament in 1455 for a beacon to warn of the dangers of an approaching English army.
How to get to Soutra Hill?
Although there is a bus service that runs from Edinburgh that will drop you off close to the approach road, the journey is best made by car.
As the A68 approaches Soutra Hill, take the B6368 turnoff to Gilston and follow the road until you see the site. It’s only a short distance.
There’s a lovely cafe/restaurant called Soutra, with lots of parking, on the other side of the road to the B6368 turnoff.
- Crichton Castle, associated with Mary Queen of Scots and today managed by Historic Environment Scotland lies around 8 miles from Soutra Hill.
- Why not consider visiting the castle while you are in the area? This Feature Page on Truly Edinburgh has more information
Truly Edinburgh also has information on other places in the Scottish Borders worth exploring.
Further reading and research into Soutra medieval hospital.
.Acting as editor Dr Brian Moffat (et al ) oversaw the publication of a series of Reports on Researches into the Medieval Hospital at Soutra.
The publishers were Soutra Hospital Archaeo–ethnopharmacological Research Project (SHARP), Edinburgh, 1989.