Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Small Isles Medical Practice

While researching something completely different, I came across in – of all things – the British Medical Journal an obituary which piqued my interest. Here are some extracts from it:-

Dr. Martha Devon, who practised for more than thirty years in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, died on December 31, 1961, aged 64. [...]

Her first post was as a locum for eleven months in Islay, and this led to her appointment in 1928 as the first woman doctor to the Small Isles - Eigg, on which she lived, Muck, Rum, and Canna - the last 20 open sea miles from Eigg. There were some doubts about the wisdom of sending a woman to such an arduous post, but Martha Devon soon dispelled them. There was no transport on the islands, no proper roads, no telephone except at the post office two miles away. Visiting was on foot, and the steamer called only once a week. Should she be required on any other island an open boat was sent to fetch her, often entailing long hours in unsheltered waters and in every kind of weather. On one occasion, to the astonishment of that well-known MacBrayne skipper “Squeaky” Robertson of the Plover - who refused at first to believe that she had been out in such weather - she reached Canna in a gale that had kept the whole MacBrayne fleet in port.

Being a constant sufferer from such poor and primitive communications, Martha Devon’s abiding interest was in improving them; and in 1931, when the Department of Health asked her for suggestions, she proposed flying surgeon and theatre sister to the patient. This idea was laughed at, so she promptly persuaded the editor of the Daily Record - then running stunt flights - to fly her to Eigg in a Blackburn Bluebird, which she did in a hundred minutes, landing on the beach. Thus she pioneered the first medical flight to the islands, now almost commonplace.

Picture credit - Ivy and Martin's Webpage

In 1936, after eight years of this strenuous life, Dr. Devon was appointed to the isolated parish of North Glenelg on the western seaboard of Inverness-shire, and on the rough gravelled roads of Mam Ratigan [sic] and Loch Hourn - hill roads sometimes blocked by snow and ice in winter - she taught herself to drive a car. This practice also included Kylerhea in the south of Skye and isolated places in Loch Hourn, both areas involving boat journeys. The war added to her difficulties, as her practice was in a protected zone and locums were therefore almost impossible to obtain. Petrol had frequently to be collected from over eleven miles away. Isolated in this way from her fellows she acted as M.O. [Medical Officer] (without rank) to the Home Guard [...]

Martha Devon was a very intelligent woman and a fine doctor. She did not suffer fools gladly, and [...] Like her father before her she was a “character” and had a fund of stories, many against her self. Arthritis – aggravated by years of strain and exposure – and a severe gastric haemorrhage caused her to retire about a year ago to the drier climate of the Cromarty Firth. Her many friends must regret that she did not have long to enjoy her new home in Evanton.

Dr. Devon operated under the Highlands and Islands Medical Service (HIMS) set up in 1913 which was a sort of forerunner to the NHS. The H&I were not the only part of Britain where poverty denied people access to private medical care but the problem was particularly acute because of the large distances doctors had to cover to get to some of their patients (72 miles from end to end of one practice in Lewis, for example) and their habit of levying a mileage charge in addition to their consultation fee. Hence the HIMS was born whereby doctors were obliged to visit any patient in their practice and charge only a nominal fee and no mileage charge. In return, the government topped up the doctor’s income to a reasonable living.

Today, under the NHS, there is still a GP practice on Eigg covering Muck Rum and Canna as well and the present incumbent is also a woman (as was Doctor Devon’s immediate successor in 1936). I enjoyed the admonition on the practice's website:-

Please note that the Rigid Inflatable Boat available to the practice is for visiting the islands and is not a rescue vessel. Nor is it to be used for patient transport. Visits to the islands are only possible during the hours of daylight and not in adverse weather conditions.

Photocredit - Marion Gilroy

(By the way, can you guess what I was researching when I came across Dr Devon’s obituary?)


  1. It is hard to comprehend today, less than a lifetime on, the strength of character required to live and work on and off the west coast of Scotland. Very special people indeed. Thank you for an interesting and thought provoking post.

    > ...can you guess what I was researching...

    Kinloch Castle on Rum? It is the only thing I can connect to your 9th October ideas posting :-)

  2. Thanks for the feedback Roy. No, it's not Kinloch Castle. The 9th October list has since mushroomed exponentially and now has 37 items on it. Martha Devon was never one of them!