District Nurses

We are grateful to Nan Murray Morvich, Rosa MacPherson, Kate Thomson and Kay Murray who shared their recollections of local nursing in John MacDonald’s Rogart: The History of a Sutherland Crofting Parish.

District Nurses have been thought of as the backbone of the local medical system: a nurse who served a district and lived in it.

She (for it was never a ‘he’ back then) knew all the people intimately and catered for their needs. Often she would be the first in line to approach with a medical condition, people would often seek her opinion as to whether they needed to call the doctor and they welcomed her advice and understanding in such situations.

The old style district nurse was prized for her ability to find time to attend regularly the vulnerable and elderly of the parish, very much on her own intuition and initiative.

When Kay Murray (nee MacRae) started nursing it was Nurse Sutherland who had been the district nurse – she was a Caithness woman. It would be about 1950, and a fortnight after Kay started she had to attend her first arrival, it was James M MacKay Pittentrail. After having all her nursing experience at this moment in time in Glasgow, what struck her most was how practical and helpful country people were.

Eliizabeth MacPhee District Nurse, Dornie, Isle of Skye, 1926

Old Nurse Sutherland, for many years, just had a push bike and she went around on that with her bag, and when there was a confinement due and it was in a remote place, she would often stay there with the people.

In due course bicycles gave way to motorbikes and later still to Minis or Morris Minors. However, some of the nurses struggled with the art of driving and Parish gossip often relished in the latest tale of the predicaments they had got themselves into. During the 1941 storm the nurse’s car was buried by snow where she had got stuck and people were walking over it!

This picture shows a District Nurse in North Uist weighing a baby in 1959. They played a very important part in delivering babies. Kate Thomson and her sister, Mrs Angie Murray Rhilochan) acted as a midwife – the main requirements seeming to be common sense and the ability to keep a cool head.

It was not unknown for a woman to have been working out in the field, excuse herself, go home, have the child and a few hours later return to the field.

After 1948, and the introduction of the NHS district nursing became a fully state-funded national scheme free to all at point of use. Previously the better off had been asked to pay towards their care and there was great reliance on charitable donations.

Rosa MacPherson came into the parish around 1965 as District Nurse and moved into the position of Health Visitor in 1972 which probably coloured her detailed observations on public health matters – from the importance of education, housing, hygiene and school health service.

For more information see The District Nurse by Susan Cohen, published by Shire Books