District Nursing in Ness

Catherine MacKay from Cross Skigersta Road (Ceatag Dhànaidh) was a District Nurse in Ness for a number of years and gave Comunn Eachdraidh Nis an interview that offered a wonderful insight into nursing in rural Lewis during the early years of the UK's National Health Service.

RIGHT: Catherine MacKay

"It was on the 1st of March 1946 that I came to Ness as a District Nurse. I believe I was 29 or 30 years of age at the time. There was a cottage provided for me to live in - next door to Calum Te's house in Cross.

"The following day I went up to the cottage and received a visit from the Nursing Committee. Those on the committee at the time were: the ‘Bocsair’, Mrs. MacArthur (the headmaster's wife), Kenny Chraig and his wife, Dòmhnall Deig's wife and Dòmhnall Cruaidh. I had lit a fire in the house but unfortunately the smoke refused to go up the chimney. They were talking about taking the chimney stack apart in order to unblock it - oh, the cold! My brother Angus and Sanaidh a' Choilich arrived later and climbed to the roof. Soot had caked in the chimney and the brushes refused to go down. When they eventually managed to get it clear there was sufficient ventilation there to pull me and the rest of the district up the chimney!

"I remember that I acquired peats and I started building a peat stack. Sanaidh saw me from his own house - he was a young lad at the time and had just left school. He took one look at the peat stack I had made and decided to take it all apart and rebuild it himself. The young folk were so kind to me in every way.

"When I started in the district I used to pay all my calls on foot, from Aird Dell to the end of Habost. There were no cars to catch a ‘lift’ from. Sometimes I managed to catch the 2 o' clock and 4 o' clock buses. I was so fit at that time that it didn't bother me much. Later, I acquired a bicycle and the young lads started to teach me how to ride it. I remember that it was in March. The manure was being carted to the crofts and Calum Mhurdaig was teaching me to cycle. Sughan was with him. They would stand either end of the croft and try to direct me so that I would collide with, and fall into the manure carts whilst wearing my uniform. They were highly amused by the manure stains on my clothing. Calum's father, Murdaig, would reprimand them for their antics. Oh, those were the happy days!

"I did not get a car until 1948. Iain Thàididh (John Murray, South Dell) was my instructor. When I first began driving on the main road I would get Ailean T, from Cross, to take the car out onto the road for me in the morning and leave it facing towards South Dell. Once I finished my calls in South Dell, I'd get Norman Murray, 17 South Dell, to turn it and I'd manage the rest of the district, providing I did not have to reverse the car. Once I would reach Tàbaidh's house, he would reverse the car for me there and I'd take it back up the main road or the Cross Skigersta road. When I would arrive at my cottage in Cross, Ailean T would finally drive the car into the garage for me. There were so few cars then.

"Ailean T must have been tired of me. Sometimes I'd get a call after finishing my rounds and I'd have to go for him to take the car out of the garage again. I remember one particular night when he had just put the car away for me. Dolaidh Dhòmhnaill Bhig from South Dell, had come for me when Nancy was born. I went over for Ailean. It was a terrible night, pouring rain. Ailean was working on the loom and was very irritable because things were not going well with his tweed. When I appeared in his shed and asked him to take the car out, he did not believe me. He thought I was joking but when I pointed out that I had my bag with me and that it was an emergency he immediately stopped his work and drove me up to South Dell himself. I returned the following morning on George Gillies' lorry.

"Local lorries were often my transport in an emergency before I got the car. I used George's lorry for my Dell visits, Ruaraidh Ròigean’s bus for Habost, and am Mol in Cross. Lòdraig had a lorry and he used to come for me too - my goodness, the racket he made when he knocked at my door! Lòdraig and the Mol were always so apologetic when they came to fetch me. I remember one occasion. I had been on call all night at Catherine Mary a' Bhostaidh's house - when her daughter, Mary, was born (she's now married to my nephew). I had just returned home when the Mol came to my door - his wife was about to give birth to their son, Donald. He was apologetic, as usual, as I explained to him that I'd just managed to get to my bed. "Oh well," he replied, "perhaps she'll wait another wee while and you will not need to come straight away." When I arrived at his house I informed his wife, Maggie, that he had jokingly suggested I could leave her in labour for a while before attending to her! What fun we had in those days.

"When I first started nursing in Ness there was no mains electricity. On many an occasions I would arrive home to find that the fire had gone out. Goodness, the house could be cold then! Peigi a' Bhàrd was the district nurse before me and her uncle Calum Rob lived directly across the road from my cottage. He looked after me as well as he had his niece, Peggy. He never went to his bed until he knew I had returned safely from my day's duties. Sometimes it could be very late at night. He was always looking out for me, and on my return home, I would go straight across to his house and fill two hot water bottles there. After a cup of tea I would go to my cottage with my hot water bottles and head straight to bed. His family always waited for me to return home unless they knew that I had to stay out all night with a patient. They were very kind to me.

"During the notorious snowstorms of 1954 a lot of people in the district were very ill. Anna Mhurdaidh Ròigean was born at that time. I remember the very night when the snowstorm came. Earlier, it had been a beautiful day. Dòmhnall Bhuircean's wife was ill and required some treatment in the late evening. Later, when I left their home, it started to snow heavily. I had to drive on the wrong side of the road - as I was using the telegraph poles at the side of the road as a guide as to where the road itself was. When I reached Swainbost, I met Murdaidh Ròigean who was also driving his car on the right hand side of the road. He was driving home to Habost with his mother in law. It’s just as well that we were both driving on the wrong sides of the road! Once I arrived at my cottage, goodness knows how I managed to turn the car in at the drive - anyway I left it there. Meanwhile, the bus-driver - Am Mol - had driven to collect some relatives from a house they had been visiting. When he arrived there he asked if anyone knew where I was. When he heard that I had gone home with the car he told them that I would never reach my destination. He decided to take the bus all the way up to the cottage to see if I had managed to make my way home. When he saw the car at the house, he apparently said, "It’s only because she is crazy that she has made it home safely!"

"The following morning I could not even get out of the house. The snow had blocked up the doorway. My neighbours had noticed that I was imprisoned in my cottage, so Roddy came over with a spade to clear the back doorway. That was how I managed to get out of the house that day. I had to make a call at Murdaidh Ròigean’s (as a baby had been born there the day before), and also at Aonghas Ruadh's, in Aird Dell, because I had to visit an eight day old baby there. Roddy helped me wade through the snow to Murdaidh Ròigean's to attend to that baby.

"The following day, wherever I went in the district, I received assistance from local people as I made my way between house-calls. The snow was so deep in places - I wore wellingtons, oilskins and carried a walking-stick. Men from the various villages I visited would take my arm and help me along from one house to the next. There were no snowploughs in these days.

"In the evening my phone was ringing non-stop, even although there were no phones in Ness homes at that time. The phone calls were mainly from journalists and others who were enquiring about the local weather conditions, and how the district was coping with the heavy snow. Also, a number of young Niseach men were, at that time, employed by mainland sugar manufacturers - so they were also phoning to find out how their families were. If a family was in need, they would arrive at my door in their wellington boots. Some would even turn up for their allowance of orange juice - which was made available, in certain situations, on the NHS in 1954. One man from Skigersta had walked all the way through deep snow to my cottage for National Dried Milk for his baby.

"Some of the young men who were employed at the mainland sugar factories were on their way home on leave at that time. Charlie Alec's lorry was transporting them from Stornoway when it got stuck in the snow at Laxdale. They telephoned my cottage - from Laxdale or Stornoway - and advised me that they intended to walk home to Ness. They asked me about the local conditions and I told them. I took my opportunity and asked them to call at Dr Henderson's home in Borve, and Dr. MacAskill's in Galson, so that they could collect some penicillin, codeine, coramine, and other medicines for me before my stocks would run out. The boys dutifully called at both doctors’ surgeries on their way home and they brought me a large sack containing everything I required. Dr. MacAskill was the first person to get a vehicle through the snow to Ness from outside the district. This enabled him to proceed to Eoropie on the back of a tractor! I think nurses have it a lot easier nowadays."

With kind thanks to Comunn Eachdraidh Nis(Ness Historical Society) for letting us use this story.