The Beaton Doctors of Mull

The cairn and cross memorial to the Beaton doctors

The cairn and cross memorial to the Beaton doctors

The Beatons of Mull, the famous ‘Ollamnh Muileach’, were a family of doctors, whose origins can be traced back to Béthune in France, and are said to have been very talented with a rather unique medical ability.

They family were hereditary physicians first to the Lords of the Isles, and then to the MacLeans of Duart, but they also performed an informal medical service to the people throughout the whole area.

It is claimed that the very first Beaton doctor, a young man who assisted a highly skilled Irish doctor, gained his ability as a medical practitioner by accident. Whilst helping create a magical potion, which included brewing a white snake and a hazel stick brought from Mull, a drop fell onto his hand and immediately this young Beaton transformed into a talented doctor.

It is also said that this Beaton managed to save the life of a chief of Lochbuie in a rather unique way who was suffering from a particularly serious throat abcess. He put together a potion in the presence of the chief which had a very unpleasant potent taste to it, and asked some people who were also present to taste it. The facial expressions of each one who tasted the mixture caused the chief to go into an uncontrollable fit of laughter which strained his throat enough for the abcess to be broken up, and save his life.

It is said that only once was this doctor unable to diagnose a medical problem. Unfortunately for him it was his daughter who was ill, and despite Beaton’s ability he could not prevent her death. A post-mortem was carried out, and the girl’s death was put down to the live frog found in her stomach. The frog was kept alive and fed a number of different foods which were non-harmful to humans to see what effects they would have on it, in an attempt to find a treatment for any future cases. The frog eventually died when one day it was fed some nettle soup; a simple cure which left the doctor distraught because he did not think to try it when treating his daughter.

However, it is said that he managed to save another young girls life with this treatment after she swallowed a tadpole which went on to grow into an adult frog. Legend has it that he was able to diagnose the condition simply by the tone of her singing voice.

From Campbell‘s West Highland Tales it tells of three brothers, Gilleadh, Fergus, and John. Gilleadh was an expert herbalist, Fergus specialised on Islay, and John, whose grave is on Iona, was said to be the most talented doctor, and was Mull’s chief practitioner. People were aware of John’s ability all around Scotland, and news of it even reached the king in Edinburgh who demanded to meet with him. The king had invited all of the country’s best doctors to the capital where he would test them and see which one was superior to the rest.

In order to assess them the king did one simple test: he feigned an illness and challenged the doctors present to identify what was wrong with him, and then prescribe an appropriate remedy. All the doctors took the task with extreme seriousness except from John Beaton who could see through the king’s act and correctly called his bluff. The king, so impressed with Beaton’s intuitiveness immediately proclaimed him the best doctor in the whole of Scotland. Jealous, John’s rivals slipped some poison into his food whilst he was heading back to Mull. However, these rivals completely respected John’s talent as a doctor, and so to make sure that the poison took its full effect, they removed anything from his possession that they thought could be used to create some sort of antidote. The poisoning was successful and John was unable to doing anything about it.

Not far from the Free Church at Pennyghael on the Isle of Mull is a monument in the form of a cairn with a stone cross mounted on top to commemorate the famous Beaton doctors of Mull. Inscribed onto the side is ‘GMB 1582 DMB’. Apparently these are the initals of the most prominent Beaton doctors.

Adapted from Peter Macnab’s “Traditional Tales of Mull”.


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4 thoughts on “The Beaton Doctors of Mull

  1. E taylor

    was great to read this as I am decended from Christina one the the seven beaton sisters (decended from the doctors of Mull). As far as I know the sisters also possessed great medical knowledge. I have six close relatives who are doctors or nurses – maybe its hereditary!

  2. John Ferguson

    Great to read I to am a descendant of Margaret one of the seven sisters. I am desperately trying to establish the link between the Beaton’s on the Ross of Mull and the Medical Beaton’s , but have got stuck at Roderick Beaton born in 1709 ,( the sisters Grandfather.) If anyone else knows anything about this link then please e-mail me. Unfortunately I have been unable to trace any Doctors in my search but there are a few nurses and my son is considering medicine as a career.
    Moran Taing

  3. angus beaton

    Some years back we had our family ancestry traced back over two hundred years, our grandfather came from Mull and we are supposedly related to one of the foremost doctor/surgeon in the world at that time in Edinburgh.The geneaology was traced by a company in London.


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