The Ballan

From Mary Beith’s Deanamh a’ Leighis column in the West Highland Free Press, 3 October 2008. The ballan, a cow’s horn used for cupping against the skin to draw out impurities and cure sciatica and rheumatism, was well known in Lewis and continued into living memory.  One such ballan used in  Lochaber was described by Betsy Matheson of Dornie via John N Macleod as the left horn of a two-year old bullock, six inches long, smoothly bored and trimmed, with a strip from the caul from a calf folded round its tip.  We don’t have a ballan in our museum collection, though Bernera has one in theirs.  Mary writes:

The first [description] was told to me personally by Agnes Maclennan, Achmore, and she said the procedure had once been very widespread.  She recalled:

“You just put a ballan on a knee that had fluid or any joint that was thought to have fluid, say the elbow. The one i have heard about is the knee.  I saw my old aunt have her knee cupped, using a sheep’s horn. The man came to the house, in Bernera, complete with his sheep’s horn, knife and methylated spirit.  The knee was cleaned with the spirit, he scratched the knee with the knife in the appropriate place, he placed the horn, wide-open end to the knee and through the narrow end of the horn he sucked the flued out of th eknee.  It certainly worked for my aunt but I was concerned as to why – was she afraid the horn would come back! Seriously, I do know it worked for many.”

The second is from Alexander Carmichael [1832-1912] who gives the story as told to him by twenty-six year old Muriel Macleod who was treated by the cow’s horn ballan of Murdoch Maclean in Brenish.

“If I leant forward my eyes filled with water and i could not see, and I had great pain and dizziness in my head.  The doctors at Stornoway, Lochs and Tarbert treated me twelve times with the cuileaga Spàinneach, fly blisters, but all to no purpose; if no worse, I was certainly no better. I then went to Murdoch Maclean. He places the ballan on the back of my neck, and sucked through it until he had raised a large lump. He pricked this lump with a needle.  Replacing the ballan, he again sucked strongly and steadily.

“He applied the ballan in all five times, four times on the first night and once upon the following night, this time upon the other side of my neck.  He thus drew two saucers full of clear water streaked with blook. I felt severe pain, as though racked from head to foot.  The marks of the ballan were deep in my flesh and the needle marks lasted a long time, but they were bathed and bandaged until they healed. I now feel as well and as healthy as I have ever felt in my life, and more than grateful to my kind benefactor Murdoch Maclean.”

Sometimes heat was applied to the horn, or a small lighted taper put to the inside to create a vacuum, but most accounts tell of the vacuum being caused by sucking out the air, which would certainly have been less alarming to the patient.