We thought it was time to bring our much loved #IslandLifeDistilled feature back, where we take a little peek into the lives of the people who make North Uist, South Uist & Benbecula such special places to live and visit. This time we popped to see Simon El Nahal, the Hebridean Herbalist.
Hi Simon! Tell us about Hebridean Herbalist and what you do…
Hebridean Herbalist is a herbal medicine clinic that I have set up here in North Uist, where I use plant medicines in combination with my medical training to help people with a variety of problems.
How did Hebridean Herbalist come to be?
After training to become a doctor I spent several years working in hospitals and wasn’t really sure about a particular specialism I wanted to pursue. I felt like there was something missing from what I could do within a hospital and western medicine setting, and while pharmaceuticals are helpful and can be lifesaving, there was so much more to people’s wellbeing that wasn’t being addressed. I was looking for something more and that’s how I came to herbal medicine, the oldest system of healthcare that we have. That’s why I was drawn to it, it’s got all this history and is still alive in lots of parts of the world. Most indigenous cultures use herbs and plants to manage health, and many of our drugs even come from herbs and plants, so it just made sense to go towards that as a way to expand from what I already knew.
Where did you learn your herbal medicine skills?
I studied medicine in Birmingham, and then worked in Inverness and Aberdeen before moving here to work at Western Isles Hospital in Stornoway. I studied herbalism over three years with Heartwood UK, who are the educational arm of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists. It was an online course that I studied with a group of other people and part of that was travelling to do residential workshops, and getting experience in clinics. I spent a lot of time at Napiers in Edinburgh where I worked with Dee Atkinson, whose team I’ve now joined as a herbalist working from Uist.
What is the most important tool or material that you use in your practise?
The most important materials are the plants, for sure! In terms of tools, muslin is invaluable for straining tinctures and for making the herbs possible to use. Also my journals, they’re the place where everything I have learned about plants and medicines is stored so they’re very helpful references.
What do you enjoy about living in Uist? And any disadvantages?
I love the sense of community here, being in a place where you can make genuine connections with people. I love the space, the openness of the landscape, and being so close to the elements.
Disadvantages, I’d like more trees! But I know lots of people are working hard to make that happen! I love trees and forests and I think that’s the only thing I miss.
Is living in Uist important to your practise?
Yes, definitely. There is a long tradition of herbal medicine in most places in the world and there are still echoes of it here. People often tell me about their parents or grandparents using herbs for certain conditions when they were younger. It’s not as prevalent as it once was but it is within memory, and it’s rich in the Gaelic language too. Uist is a place where the oral tradition of herbal medicine is still a little bit alive, which isn’t true of many places in the UK.
That ties in with what I was going to ask next, which is if Gaelic and local heritage and culture are important in your work?
Yes, absolutely. All of the plants have their Gaelic names, and those names often refer to the ways they were used and tell you how they can be medicine. The Gaelic herbal tradition is a very ancient one that has been preserved through Gaelic language, and that is really valuable.
What is your favourite part of what you do?
I love getting to meet someone and know them through the herbal consultation, and then finding the plant or herb that could help them the most; I think that’s just amazing. I like to see people who haven’t found the help they need from the orthodox options that are available. That is often the case with poorly understood conditions like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and chronic Lyme disease where we just don’t have adequate mainstream treatments. I think that’s a place where herbs can really help.
Do you have a favourite plant or herb that grows wild in Uist?
I have many! An easier question would be what is my favourite this week! At the moment I’m really enjoying a plant called Rhodiola rosea or Rose Root. It’s almost succulent-like and grows on cliffs on the west side. I haven’t found it here in Uist yet, but I’ve been told it grows in the Hebrides and it’s just a beautiful plant. It’s energising but calming at the same time, relaxing and restorative and really good for stress and anxiety. It’s just really great!
Where do you see Hebridean Herbalist in five years time?
I would love to have a physical clinic space here in Uist that people can come into, maybe with a shop and garden, a place where people can come and spend some restorative time. I’d love to spend a bit more time with the Gaelic tradition and history of herbal medicine too, helping to gather, preserve and honour this wisdom from the people who still have the knowledge. I’d love to be involved in a project gathering and sharing that information.
Do you have a favourite drink?
Definitely a variety of herbal teas in the daytime, but in the evening it’s probably whisky (I’m very excited for North Uist Distillery’s!)
Any memorable Uist foraging experiences?
Oh yes! When we first moved here I was convinced that every plant had to have a use for something and managed to find a very, very old recipe for making flag iris seeds into ‘coffee’, having read elsewhere that it was pretty poisonous. Anyway, I decided to give it a go and the results were… awful! Undrinkable! It was an important lesson that every plant may have a use but it’s not always for human consumption!
Finally, valentine's day is coming up, any local love potions you would recommend?
Yes, a Downpour G&T!