Mary Breckinridge's journey in 1924 - extracts from her autobiography Wide Neighborhoods (The University Press of Kentucky)



Early on, she met up with two officials also on their travels - James Grigor, inspector of science and art for the Scottish schools and Murdo Morrison, superintendent of schools for the shire of Inverness.

Grigor and Morrison kept an eye out for her and arranged lifts by boat or car. They became good chums on the journey - and later on - lifelong friends.

"Two nurses at Crieff, a prosperous little place, were lodged in one cottage with a nice white-capped maid. They had a complete dispensary. Several nurses were in lodgings where their meals were served them, by their landladies, in their own sitting rooms before a coal fire. "

At Oban she was met by the county's health representatives:

"With their help, a map, the mail coaches, the mail boats and a few motor tours for tourists, for whom the season was only just closing, I got to see many of the district nurses in Argyll. I found that almost everybody was named Campbell - many of the nurses, three out of the four honorary district secretaries of the nursing service, and practically all of the patients! The most moving place of all to me in Argyllshire was the island of Iona, where every stone and every bit of sand a moor, held a prayer.

From there she travelled "with quickened pulse" to Stornoway and her ultimate goal - the Outer Hebrides

"In the Hebrides, the Highlands and Islands Medical and Nursing Service had special administrative problems. Every doctor and nurse had to be Gaelic speaking. Those in the Catholic islands had to be Catholics and those in the Presbyterian islands had to be Presbyterians.

She described Lewis as "like no other part of the planet" where she met with unending kindness by families people in living in the traditional black houses - people sharing the same roof as hens and cows.

"But I will say this for the black houses - they were the only warm ones I found in Great Britain.

"Two of the six days I spent on the island of Lewis I gave to Ness - a village of several scattered hamlets where about four thousand people lived, nearly all in the black houses. To reach the Butt of Lewis and Ness, I took the twenty seven mile drive across the moors in a baker's cart. The two fine nurse-midwives had arranged for me to stay at an inn called Thule House."

Then she engaged a motor to drive her the 36 miles to Tarbert at the tip of North Harris where she found Miss Maclean "an exceptionally fine nurse living in a cottage hospital with a small operating room and accommodations for four or five patients. Miss MacLean did a generalized nursing service, including midwifery, for eighteen scattered villages. She was lucky that the physician for that area, Dr Ross, lived at Tarbert so that she could get in touch with him quickly. Both doctor and nurse thought their chief difficulty lay in getting about. The winds were so terrible that bicycles were almost useless and they had to walk miles over the moors to reach their patients."

"Of all the islands I have every known anywhere, from the Mediterranean to Canada, Barra is the most beautiful. …The whole island had only about twenty two hundred people, who lived along the coast where they fished, caught lobsters, and tilled their bits of crofts. The road, the only one, runs around the thirteen miles of coast. There had never been a motorcar on it. The only doctor on Barra, under the Highlands and Islands scheme, rode a horse.

She met "Nurse MacMillan, the Queen's Nurse at Castle Bay (who) took me for a walk of several miles along the west coast, seeing patients en route and stopping with Father MacIntyre and the schoolmaster for tea. He lived near the church and school in a group of crofts called Craigston. It was a happy afternoon"

The following afternoon she went to see Nurse Gatt. "After tea, I went with Miss Gatt to see a baby she had brought into the world at five o'clock that morning, and its mother…. when we had made the mother and baby Margaret comfortable, and built up their peat fire, we started back across the bay which was a mile wide at that point."

They then got soaked but made it back to the North Bay where the priest Father MacDonald, irritated that a female visitor had been offered the bed at the post office usually kept for commercial travellers, arranged for his housekeeper to prepare his guest room usually kept for bishops.

"Although it was nearly ten o'clock at night, they had a fire ready for Nurse Gatt and me and had cooked a fish four our supper. They dried out our wet things, and were so kind with their simple resources that I shall never forget them. Then the housekeeper, who had lent me her clothes, filled a hot water bottle for me and put me to bed in the ecclesiastical bed chamber. "

Heading the next day for Eriskay she was asked to take two sickly and motherless children, Kitty and John, to the cottage hospital on South Uist.

"(Eriskay) had no doctors but a splendid Queen's Nurse-midwife, Miss Martin, in whose work I was keenly interested. Her nearest physician, on South Uist, could reach her on call when the seas were not too high.

"At Ersikay we were warmly greeted not only by Nurse Martin but by Father MacIsaac, the secretary of the Eriskay District Nursing Association, eighty per cent of whose founds were met out of the Highlands and Islands grant. I left the children with Father MacIsaac while I went with the nurse to see some of her patients.

"The poorest-clad children that I saw anywhere on my travels in the Hebrides were those of Eriskay. Later, when I was back at Edinburgh, I went into a shop, and then went broke - buying warm woollies for them. All of the nurses who had been kind to me needed things for their work and it was a joy to send them but Eriskay was the only district where I found the children markedly underclothed."

On South Uist she did not heed an old woman's warning in Gaelic and went to on climb Ben Kenneth and got caught in mists and got lost. The old woman went to her rescue and brought her in for a tea and a scone and a warm fire. Conversation was limited - the old lady only had Gaelic.

"I doubt if she had ever met an American woman before. She ran right to me and grasped my hand and shook it and beamed. The thought of her and of her poverty haunted me long after I had gone back to the inn, where I wrote down her name. She was so great a lady that I did not dare to send her anything that would like repayment of her hospitality. When I had gone back to cities, I chose two large, colored pictures of animals and children, nicely framed, and sent them to her. I thought she wouldn't mind a gift like that.

The next day she went on to meet the nurse on Benbecula - and discovered the hazard of quicksands.

"The nurses in those parts visited some of their patients on bits of islets, fordable at low tide only. They tried to make their crossings then, in order to save boat hire, and often ran danger form the incoming tides and from the quicksand. Their work was heroic.

On North Uist I caught a mail cart that dropped me off with the Fergusons of Clachan who handled the mails and ran the only store. They kept me to tea, warmed me, and located the district nurse-midwife for me to meet. North Uist had four of these wonderful women and a doctor - all under the Highlands and Islands Grant and with keen local committees.

Words actually failed Mary at the end of her journey:

"The time had come when I must leave the Hebrides. I have tried to tell what they meant to me. To the Frontier Nursing Service, in after years, all that I gathered from these islands was to mean more than I can put into words.

Her final visits on the mainland Ullapool "where I spent a day and night in the study of the nursing thereabouts. This, the northernmost part of Scotland I reached in my travels lay in moors of indescribable beauty."

"At Dingwall, Dr MacLean and his wife overwhelmed me with courtesies, driving me everywhere, feeding me lavishly, and introducing me to their dogs and their friends. From Dingwall I went to Inverness to see Dr MacDonald. He too was all that is kind."


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