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The Early Medical Men of Lewis 1700-1918

Few if any surviving historical records recall the names of the individuals who once administered to the medical needs of Lewis folk prior to the beginning of the 18th century.

It is only from about 1700 onward that names and personalities emerge and the lives of the early medical men of Lewis can be recorded.


The following sketches profile a few of these early doctors.

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Dr. Kenneth MacIver

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Kenneth Maciver of Coll (‘Coinneach Ruadh’; ‘Red-Headed Kenneth’) was the tacksman of Upper Carloway in the early years of the 18th century and is generally accounted as being the first qualified medical man to practice in Lewis. He attended Kings College, Aberdeen graduating with an M.A. in 1697.

Dr. Maciver went on a ‘Grand Tour’ of the continent during the years 1697-1704 and some traditions state that he acquired his medical training whilst there. He later served as surgeon, with the rank of Lieutenant, in the regiment raised by Uilleam Dubh, the 5th Earl of Seaforth, during the 1715 rebellion and was himself present at the Battle of Sheriffmuir. He went into exile with Seaforth, travelling around France before eventually returning home. He was thereafter known as ‘Coinneach Frangach’ or ‘French Kenneth’. Dr. Maciver died sometime before 1740 and was buried at St. Columba’s Church, Aignish.

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Dr. John MacAskil

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Dr. Macaskil is listed amongst the founding members of Lodge Fortrose in 1767. In 1774, Kenneth, Lord Seaforth offered Macaskil the sum of £10 per annum in order to persuade him to remain in Lewis after he threatened to leave, but it is not recorded whether he took up the offer. He is described in separate sources as both a physician and surgeon.

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Dr. John Millar (1760-1813)

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John Millar was the eldest son of George Millar, a prosperous Glasgow merchant based in the Gallowgate. John did not follow his father into the family business and instead trained as a surgeon, gaining employment in the Royal Navy. The cramped and unhygienic conditions he experienced at sea had such a detrimental effect on his health that he eventually had to leave the service. After hearing that Lord Seaforth was looking for a doctor to serve the people of Lewis, he walked all the way to Brahan Castle, in the Black Isle, from his home in Inverkeithing in Fife. Seaforth was so impressed by Dr. Millar’s fortitude that he appointed him on the spot.

John Millar was married to Johanna Mackenzie (1763-1839), the daughter of Rev. Colin Mackenzie of Fodderty. They had a family of three children. There were two daughters, Mary and Una and one son, Roderick who later became a distinguished local doctor himself. The eldest daughter Mary was married to Rev. Simon Fraser, minister of Stornoway Parish Church. He was tragically drowned when the packet ship in which they were travelling in sank in heavy seas in the Minch on 13th November 1824.

There is an intriguing possibility that John Millar may have been at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, as there was an assistant surgeon of that name serving on HMS Mars, one of the ships that participated in the battle.

Millar was obviously a man of means since he came from a well to do family and could indulge in his medical work without needing the income. He had started his own shipping and merchant business after he came to Stornoway. He died in 1813 at the age of fifty-three.

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Dr. Olav Lopson

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Olav Lopson (or Olafur Loptson b. 1783) was a medical student travelling from Iceland to Copenhagen in 1809 when his ship put into Stornoway harbour to shelter during a storm. As Denmark was an ally of Napoleon, albeit a reluctant one, the authorities promptly seized the ship, crew, and passengers. During his forced sojourn in Lewis, Loptson not only joined Lodge Fortrose but he also lent his medical skills to the local populace. He was indeed the first native Icelander to be a freemason.

In 1811, he accompanied Sir George Steuart Mackenzie as a guide on his scientific study of Iceland. Sir George had sponsored the young man and sent him to Edinburgh University  to continue his medical studies. However, Loptson made a nuisance of himself on the trip. He had a low opinion of his countrymen and was not afraid to tell them and his companions so. He had also in his youth fathered numerous children by different mothers.

He did return to Scotland in 1812 and married in Edinburgh. He fathered a daughter but within a short time had abandoned his wife and child. Sir George eventually had enough of this rogue. The last record we have of Dr. Loptson is as a surgeon on board an American naval ship in the year 1815.

(With thanks to Olafur Grimur Bjornsson for additional biographical details).

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Dr. Donald Macaulay of Linshader

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Known as ‘Dotair Ruadh’ (The red or red-headed doctor), Dr. Macaulay (b.c. 1800) was a son of Donald Macaulay (Domhnull mac Sheorais), the tacksman of Linshader. This family was descendents of the famed Domhnull Cam Macaulay. His mother was Catherine Morison, a daughter of John Morison of Barvas and Stornoway (Iain mac a Mhor a’ Mhinsteir) of the Brieve family. Dr. Macaulay’s sister was Mrs. Lilias Finlayson (1811-1887), the wife of the evangelical minister, Rev. Robert Finlayson of Lochs (1793-1861). The eldest of the family was Rev. Roderick Macaulay (1790-1882) who was a minister in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, where he was latterly Speaker of the state legislature. Another brother was Kenneth Macaulay of Stornoway (b.c. 1806 d. 1849), a well known merchant and ship master.

It is said that the Macaulay siblings were first cousins of the notorious outlaw of Lewis folklore, ‘Mac-an-t-Srònaich’ on their mother’s side.

It is not certain how much if any medical training ‘Dotair Ruadh’ actually had. A Donald Macaulay graduated from Kings College, Aberdeen on 31st March 1815 and it was once assumed that this was our man. However, since we now know he was born in 1800, it seems unlikely that this Dr. Macaulay was he.

The story goes that upon his return from university he believed that he would be appointed to succeed the recently deceased Dr. John Millar However, for some reason he was passed over. Instead he became a farmer. People still came to him for consultations, although ’Dotair Ruadh’ preferred instead to send a manservant known as ‘Iain Gobha’ around to people with pills and bottles of medicine for which he naturally charged a fee.

He was a bit of a land-grabber, buying up tacks or leases and then selling then on for a profit. He would then go to court to get compensation for the loss of those leases and often he won his cases. In the period 1819-28, Dr. Macaulay filed no less than 70 cases at the local Sheriff Court, becoming something of a thorn in the side of the legal authorities. One prominent local legal representative of the time described him as ‘an exceedingly illiterate and ill-tempered man’. It is said that his many run-ins with the Lewis Estate and the courts delayed in part the sale of the island to James Matheson in 1843.

He was something of a womaniser too, on one occasion getting a young lady into ‘trouble’ and refusing to acknowledge the child as his. However, the lady in question was no shrinking violet and defended herself in court against Macaulay’s charge of defamation. But the doctor made a very poor showing on the witness stand and the case was found against him. He was ordered to pay for the upkeep of the child. He also fathered a son with his housekeeper. This son, named George was described by Dr. Roderick Ross of Crobeg, who had met him in Edinburgh, as ‘the biggest man I ever saw’.

Dr. Macaulay died at West Derby, Liverpool on 6th July 1852. It is interesting to note that he died at a small private lunatic asylum for the wealthy. It is perhaps not unfair to describe him as one of our more distinguished rogues.

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Dr. Alexander Maciver (1777-1852)

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Dr. Alexander Maciver (’Alasdair mac Iain mhic Alasdair’) was the third son of John Maciver, merchant and tacksman of Tolsta. He was also a great-nephew of Dr. Kenneth Maciver. Having trained as a surgeon in Edinburgh, Dr. Maciver set up practice in Stornoway around the year 1800 and remained in service for over fifty years. It was said of him: -

“If he was paid, good and well...but…he never rendered an account. His medical practice was therefore not as remunerative as it might have been. To eke out his income…he did something in trading, had a ship or two, and from this source was able to make a little money”. (Source: The Lewis Hospital, Stornoway, Some Aspects of the Development of Medical Care in an Island Community – Crossfil M. L, 1973).

His wife, Mary Macleod died young in 1819 at the age of 35 but Dr. Maciver married again shortly afterwards. His second wife was Jean (Jane) Anderson, a daughter of Alexander Anderson, a school teacher in Stornoway. His son Norman was a well-known bank agent in the town.

Alexander Maciver died in October 1852 at the age of 75.

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Dr. Roderick Millar (1804–1889)

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Roderick Millar was the son of Dr. John Millar. He was married in 1842 to Alice Marion Macdonald (1805-1870) of Courthill in Ross-shire, a great-granddaughter of Flora Dr. Roderick MillerMacdonald, the Jacobite heroine.

Mrs. Millar possessed, as a family heirloom, a locket containing strands of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hair and this she passed on to her daughters who in 1930 sold it at auction in Edinburgh. Janetta and Johanna Millar, remained spinsters all their days and were universally known by S.Y.’s as the ‘Misses Millar’. The family lived at Keith Street and later South Beach. Like his father, Roderick Millar was also something of a man of business running his own shipping concern. For a time he also acted as the local agent for the Hudson Bay Company.

Although he had trained as a surgeon, specialising in obstetrics, Dr. Millar returned home to Lewis in 1829 to work as an assistant to Dr. Alexander Maciver. It is worthy of note that in 1843, his salary, paid by the Lewis estate, was £20 per annum.

He was a familiar sight to people travelling about on his horse or gig, in all weathers. As a young man he often made his calls on foot. The Stornoway street-name, Millar Road, refers to the field where the good doctor grazed his horse. It was not unusual for him to travel from town over to the west side and then on to Ness and back to Stornoway, all on the same day, a distance of some 100 miles or more.

Dr. Millar was a dedicated man and was universally admired and respected by generations of Lewis folk whom he served for almost sixty years. In James Shaw Grant’s book, ‘The Gaelic Vikings’, he describes Dr. Millar as being “almost worshipped” by the people. He was also a humane man; he saw the people’s plight at first hand and rarely charged a fee to those who could not afford it.

The word retirement was clearly not part of Roderick Millar’s vocabulary. He continued working right up until his death in May 1889 at the age of 85.

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Dr. Charles M. Macrae (1818-1909) M.D. L.R.C.S.

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Charles Mackenzie Macrae was born on 17th February 1818 in the manse at Barvas, a son of Rev. William Macrae, one of just two Lewis ministers who remained in the Established Church of Scotland after the Disruption of 1843.

Charles Macrae was educated in the local Barvas parish school and later went on to Edinburgh University with the intention of following his father into the ministry. After a period he decided to concentrate on medicine. As a student he distinguished himself winning gold medals in the class of Sir James Young Simpson, the pioneer of chloroform. But despite his brilliant career prospects and the opportunities offered to him he returned home to Lewis to set up in partnership with Dr. Roderick Millar. This would have been about 1850.

He married Annabella Jane Mackenzie (1837-1916) at Stornoway on 8th November 1855. She was a sister of James Mackenzie, the founder of the former hardware store of the same name on Cromwell Street. They had a family of three sons and three daughters; 1) William Alexander Macrae (1856-1920), branch manager of the Bank of California in Portland, Oregon; 2) Alexander William Macrae (1858-1920) a coffee planter in India; 3) Annabella Mackenzie Macrae (1860-1924), a nurse in Harrogate, Yorkshire; 4) Mary-Anne Macrae (1868-1931), also lived in Harrogate where she was the matron of nursing home; 5) Caroline Mackenzie Macrae (1873-1953), a nurse in London; 6) Daniel Mackinlay Macrae (1878-1951), studied as a medical student but pursued a career in the civil service. Served in the Boer War. None of the daughters were married.

For many years the family home was at 30 Kenneth Street but sometime during the 1890's they moved to a large house on Church Street which was named Barvas Lodge in honour of the good doctor's birthplace.

Rev. Roderick Stephen depicted Charles Macrae, under the pseudonym of Dr. Gillies, as an irascible but humane man in his book, ’Glimpses of Portrona’. He was known to be a highly intelligent and well-read man.

Dr. Macrae seems to have been something of a mentor to his younger colleagues. His vast experience, skills, and knowledge must have been of considerable benefit to them. At the end of his life he had rightfully acquired the respect and admiration of his colleagues and his fellow islanders. They in turn sometimes referred to him in Gladstonian terms as the ‘Grand Old Man of Lewis’. He died on 3rd May 1909 at the age of 91.

(With thanks to John Macrae for additional biographical information).

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Dr. Roderick Ross (1841-1912) L.R.C. P&S

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Roderick Ross came from a well-known Lochs family, the Ross’s of Crobeg. His father, Allan Ross was the parish schoolmaster for many years.
He had intended to study divinity at Glasgow University but instead switched to medicine. His first medical post was as a house surgeon in the Glasgow City hospital on Duke Street. In 1875, he returned home to Crobeg where he became the first resident doctor in Lochs.
In 1878, he married Isabella Macdonald (1849-1890) of Croir in Bernera, the daughter of John Macdonald, of Tobson. Mrs. Ross was the model for the character of ‘Sheila Mackenzie’ in William Black’s Victorian romance, ‘A Princess of Thule’, which was set in Lewis. The family moved to 33 Kenneth Street, Stornoway in 1879 but this was only for a short time and in 1881 Dr. Ross moved back to Lochs, this time to live at Valtos Farm. In 1884 or 1885, he took up the post of parish medical officer for Barvas and went to live in Borve.

After retiring in 1908 Dr. Ross went to live in Skipton, Lancashire with his daughter Annabella who was married to Dr. Norman Macleod of Kershader. Their son, Iain Macleod later went on to gain great distinction in the political arena as a Conservative MP and minister, briefly holding the high office of Chancellor of the Exchequer before his untimely death in 1970. Roderick Ross died in 1912 and was buried in Bernera.

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Dr. Murdoch Mackenzie (1858-1922) L.R.C. P&S

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Murdoch Mackenzie was born in Stornoway, the youngest surviving son of Roderick G. Mackenzie (b.c. 1822 d.1885), a local ship broker and commission agent. His two elder Dr Murdoch MacKenzie (c)  brothers, Roderick and Duncan lived and worked in America for many years.

His first job was as a clerk in the local branch of the City of Glasgow Bank. He trained for the medical profession at Edinburgh University and the Royal College of Physicians & Surgeons. He won several gold medals under the tutelage of Sir William Turner, the renowned professor of anatomy who later became Principal of Edinburgh University. During his holiday breaks as a student, Dr. Mackenzie often assisted Dr’s Millar and Macrae.

He first practiced in Bradford where he met his future wife, Sarah Agnes Drake whom he married in 1889. Dr. Mackenzie then spent some time as an army surgeon. He returned to Stornoway a few years later and set up in partnership with Dr. Donald Murray. Their surgery was on Kenneth Street just opposite to the Free Church, where Dr. Macphail later had his practice.

Dr. Mackenzie had three children, two daughters and a son. Of their two daughters, one, Jean, was a Dux of the Nicolson Institute and the other became best known as one of the foremost Scottish historians of the last century under the name, Agnes Mure Mackenzie (1891-1955). The youngest child and only son, Edward (Eddie) was wounded in the First World War and died relatively young. The family lived at 5 Lewis Street in the house known by the name ‘Morvern’.

Murdoch Mackenzie became a strong advocate and campaigner for the establishment of a cottage hospital in Stornoway; a facility badly needed by this time. A committee had been formed in March 1892 to raise funds for the new building and it was due in no small part to Dr. Mackenzie’s tireless efforts that the Lewis Hospital was opened for patients on 1st February 1896, free of debt and at a cost of £2,352.6s.6d. He raised the funds to purchase the surgical instruments for the new hospital on his own. His appointment as the new hospital’s surgeon and medical superintendent was a sensible and wise one. There was no resident surgeon at the Lewis Hospital until Dr. Purvis came in 1925. Over time, Dr. Mackenzie was, through his own considerable skill and effort, able to dispel the people’s notion that operations were invariably fatal. He died suddenly at Bradford in April 1922 at the age of 63.

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Dr. Donald J. Macdonald M.B. C.M. D.Ph. (c.1855-1907)

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Donald James Macdonald (Domnhull Sheorais) was a native of Garrabost in Point. He had started his working life as a joiner in Glasgow but at the age of 20 suffered a bout of rheumatic fever, which left him with a weak heart. This marked a turning point in his life. Determined to get a proper education and with the help of a bursary, he entered Aberdeen Grammar School and later went on to Aberdeen University where he gained his medical qualifications, graduating in 1889.

On 21st October 1884, he married as his first wife, Georgina Simpson in Aberdeen. They had one son, George Roderick Macdonald. Georgina died on 22nd September 1892 at the age of 28. The cause of death was pulmonary phithisis.

It must have been soon afterwards that Dr. Macdonald returned home and set up in practice in Stornoway. His undoubted abilities were recognised over time and he gained the posts of Medical Officer for Stornoway Parish (Landward) and the four Lewis School Boards. He also acted as doctor to the Post Office, Inland Revenue, and local Oddfellows Lodge.

On 18th August 1900, Dr. Macdonald married in Edinburgh, as his second wife, Dr. Amy May Weir, the daughter of James Galloway Weir the M.P. for Ross & Cromarty. Amy met Dr. Macdonald on a visit to the island with her father. She was appalled by the living conditions of the people and this encouraged her to train for the medical profession. It is unclear whether she had her own practice, although she is listed as a physician in the 1904/05 Stornoway telephone directory. She certainly acted as an assistant to her husband. It would not have been easy for her; attitudes were different then, women doctors were rare and as a married woman of good family, people would have treated her with a certain suspicion. They lived in ‘The Cottage’ on Church Street, next door to Dr. Charles Macrae, to whom Dr. Macdonald had once been an assistant.

After the retirement of Dr. Macrae in 1906, Dr. Macdonald became Lewis Medical Officer of Health. He was undoubtedly a very able doctor and a man of keen intellect with forthright views on many subjects. He did, however, have the reputation of being difficult and over-sensitive in nature. Dr. Macdonald’s early death on 3rd May 1907 at the age of 55 nevertheless deprived Lewis of one of its most talented medical men. His wife Amy, who also suffered from poor health, did not survive him long either, dying three years later.

(With thanks to Heather Siggs for additional biographical information).

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Dr. Donald Murray M.P. M.B. C.M. D.Ph. (1862-1923)

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Donald Murray is now best remembered as the first MP to represent the Western Isles at Westminster. His father Allan was a sawyer from Newton (but with roots in Melbost) and his mother Bella was a daughter of Hugh Brown, a former local Procurator Fiscal.

His first job was as an assistant in the shop of Alex Macpherson, ‘the Druggist’. This was on the site where Boots the Chemist is today. It was whilstDr Donald Murray (c) J. MacDonald working here that Donald Murray met his future wife, Janet, his employer’s daughter. They were eventually married in 1898. They had a family of two sons and three daughters (one son and a daughter sadly died young) and later made their home at the ‘The Cottage’ on Church Street where Dr. Macdonald had once lived.

Donald Murray graduated from Glasgow University in 1890 and went to work as an assistant doctor in Brora for five years. It was while in Brora that he was first invited to stand for parliament as the Liberal candidate for Sutherland. But he was persuaded to stand down shortly afterward with the promise that he would be short-listed for another constituency. He had always been keen on politics; his hero was Gladstone and was known to be a passionate debater at university where he had been president of the Liberal Club. He returned to Lewis in the mid 1890’s and set up in partnership with Dr. Murdoch Mackenzie.

Having taken time out to gain a D.Phil. from Aberdeen University in 1910, he decided about the same time to give up private practice. In that same year Dr. Murray was appointed Lewis Medical Officer of Health and Medical Officer for Stornoway Burgh. He was also medical officer for the Infectious Diseases Hospital at Mossend and had been joint medical officer for Coulregrein House with Dr. Mackenzie from 1906-11.

During the general election campaign of 1918, Donald Murray stood as an Asquithian Liberal under the slogan of ‘An Islesman for the Isles’. He campaigned on the issues of crofting and unemployment and on the hustings was not afraid to criticise the development plans of the new proprietor of Lewis, Lord Leverhulme. His chief rival was Sir William Dingwall Mitchell Cotts, a Glasgow shipowner who was standing as a coalition Liberal candidate with Leverhulme’s personal support. In the end, Dr. Murray won by 3765 votes to 3375, a majority of 390. He soon established for himself a fine reputation as a speaker and debater in the House of Commons.

His undoubted abilities allied to his personal popularity might have marked Donald Murray out for a long political career but at the General Election of 1922 he was surprisingly defeated by Cotts who won by 6177 votes to 5238, a majority of 939. Many people have wondered how this came about. Perhaps it was the necessity of spending so much time in London coupled with the difficulties of travelling to and from the islands at that time which meant that Dr. Murray was rarely home and was possibly out of touch with events there. That he was an opponent of Leverhulme’s schemes when the majority of the people of Lewis generally welcomed them may have also worked against him.

Donald Murray died in London in July 1923 and was buried in Sandwick Cemetery. The funeral was one of the largest seen in Lewis and was a fitting display of the admiration and respect in which his fellow islanders held him.

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Dr. Allan Cameron M.B. C.M. (1865-1922)

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Allan Cameron was born in Tobermory, the son of a former Chief Constable of Argyllshire. He was a graduate of Glasgow University and first worked as an assistant doctor at Invergordon.

Prior to his appointment as parish doctor for Lochs in 1902, Dr. Cameron had held various posts. He spent four years in Orkney as parish M.O. for Lady Cross and Burness and then a brief six-month stint in Dumfriesshire. He also had a private practice in Cambuslang, which included a colliery. There was also a two-year spell as parish doctor for South Uist. Dr. Cameron died of pneumonia in 1922. Cameron Terrace in Leurbost is named in his memory. (Source: Gleanings – Kinloch Historical Society).

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Dr. Victor Ross

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Victor Ross was a native of Sutherland and had previously worked in Darlington. He was the parish doctor of Uig at the time of the Dewar Inquiry (which led to the passing of the Highlands and Islands Medical Services Act in 1913) and lived at Miavig Farm House. He later became the doctor in North Harris, where he spent many years.

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Dr. John Ross (b.1882)

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John Macdonald Ross was the son of Dr. Roderick Ross of Lochs and Barvas. He was a graduate of Glasgow University and was an assistant doctor in Lancashire for three years. He returned home in 1905 to work as assistant to his father and in 1908 succeeded him as Parish Medical Officer for Barvas. In 1911 he married Mary Mackay of Nairn. They had three children, two girls and a boy.

John Ross was perhaps typical of the younger generation of doctors who sought long overdue improvements in medical care. This is clear in his evidence to the Dewar Committee in 1912. He told the inquiry that he had no surgery and as a result had to consult with his patients in a closet. His house also lacked proper sanitation and drainage. Patients used the kitchen as a waiting room where the cook would often provide them with food as they waited.

One of the more interesting extracts from Dr. Ross’s evidence to the inquiry was his description of the disinfection procedure used to stop the spread of cholera during a three-month outbreak, which occurred in the village of Shader in 1911 and affected some 21 people: -

All the woodwork in the infected houses was washed with Jeyes Fluid or/and carbolic acid. Any woollen clothing was destroyed and the bedstraw burnt. All other clothing was scrubbed clean. The floors were then fumigated and lime applied to the walls.

In 1918, Dr. Ross resigned his post in Barvas over the appointment of Dr. Peter Aulay Macleod to Carloway, which was within his own parish. He left the island and started up his own practice in Darlington.

The early medical men of Lewis were a remarkable group of people and in some ways they were pioneers. They all, or nearly all possessed great skill and a strong sense of duty; they were hard working and humane and many if not the majority of them spent long years in the service of their fellow islanders who in turn held them in the highest respect.

In Stornoway today we can still recall their memory along with many of their equally distinguished successors in the street-names of Millar Road, Murray Place, Jamieson Drive, and Doig Crescent.

William R. Foulger

Stornoway Today

Sail Loft view of Harbour
The view, from the refurbished Sail Loft.

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