Thursday, June 18, 2009

Tonight's Star Prize: A Blow On The Head!

Last week I found myself in the Talisker distillery on the Isle of Skye, where I noticed an old book in one of the display cases in the visitor centre. It was A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, published in 1703 by a local man named Martin Martin. According to the accompanying panel (shown below), the book is a naive record of island fables: "a fat pudding thrown into the sea calms the waves", "the huge King of Herrings leads the shoals" and so on. Best of all, it describes a blacksmith who "cures Faintness of the Spirits by laying the patient's head on an anvil and smiting it a mighty blow within an inch of the sufferer's ear".

This made me laugh because I had just read some articles via Bad Science about a modern equivalent, the hilarious Kadir-Buxton Method (I won't describe it here, just visit the great man's own site for the lowdown). It turns out K-B is a serial crank who also has some bizarre ideas about free energy and climate change, but at least he was original. Or so I thought! Now it looked like the Skye smithy got there three hundred years earlier.

I looked up Martin Martin on the net and found that his book is something of a classic. It stayed in print for over a century and has been revived several times since then, including a special anniversary edition in 2003. Maybe K-B had read it, and nicked the idea? No, the truth is odder still...

The full text of A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland is now available online, so I was able to track down the original passage in chapter 10. This is what Martin Martin actually said:

There is a smith in the parish of Kilmartin, who is reckoned a doctor for curing faintness of the spirits. This he performs in the following manner:

The patient being laid on the anvil with his face uppermost, the smith takes a big hammer in both his hands, and making his face all grimace, he approaches his patient; and then drawing his hammer from the ground, as if he designed to hit him with his full strength on the forehead, he ends in a feint, else he would be sure to cure the patient of all diseases; but the smith being accustomed to the performance, has a dexterity of managing his hammer with discretion; though at the same time he must do it so as to strike terror in the patient; and this, they say, has always the designed effect.

This is nothing like the description in the Talisker display! The smith does NOT strike a mighty blow, and Martin is not naively reporting that it works. The smith merely pretends, in order to give his patient a shock. Of course he doesn't actually hit the patient. This is so obvious to Martin that he can joke about it, saying that a real blow would certainly cure all diseases - ie by killing the patient. And there's a refreshing note of scepticism in the way Martin makes clear that he doesn't necessarily believe the stories: the smith is "reckoned" a doctor, the treatment "they say" has the designed effect. OK, by modern standards Martin Martin comes over as a fairly credulous witness, especially in the later chapter he devotes to Second Sight, but on this he is pretty sound. What would he have made of "Inventive Andy" Kadir-Buxton and his Method? I think he would have laughed his sporran off.

PS: The 18 year-old Talisker is pretty bloody gorgeous!