BOOK REVIEW: Nurse Recalls Scottish Isles in Fragile 1970s

NURSE, COME YOU HERE! MORE TRUE STORIES OF A COUNTRY NURSE ON A SCOTTISH ISLE

Mary J. MacLeod

Arcade Publishing, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-62872-536-0 (PB)

ISBN: 978-1-62872-543-8 (Ebook)

To read a book is like opening a gate into another room, another country, another time, another person's dream.

To read a book is like opening a gate into another room, another country, another time, another person’s dream.

There are many layers to the enjoyment of reading this book and its predecessor (CALL THE NURSE, 2008). First, you learn about district nursing, an enviable aspect of the National Health Service in Britain. In this case, it provides care in a remote part of the kingdom, those dozens of raggedy-looking islands off the northwest coast of Scotland, known as The Hebrides. Nurse MacLeod, relocated from southern England with her husband and two younger children, seeking a more peaceful life, is drafted as what we in the United States call a Rural Health nurse. However, it is in the 1970s we see her on her calls, and if you were to look into her profession today you would find it much changed. In the last 15 years, the number of district nurses has dropped by half, and it is feared to be a nearly extinct profession. All the more reason for this now-80-year-old nurse to write about those days when health visitors cared for people in their homes, especially the elderly.

Secondly, the misty island in the prehistoric archipelago where for six years she lived and worked, was 20 miles long and split by mountains, and a long way from civilization. Today you can fly in for wildlife tours, but in the 1970s just getting supplies required two ferry boat rides and 100 miles by sometimes impassable roads. It is no surprise, then, that the islands and islets were being deserted as agricultural lands. There were sheep, but fishing was not sustainable and tourism too narrow a window for opportunity. The energy industries had yet to take off. Children were leaving to survive, and the only people remaining were old.

Still, its culture was alive and kicking at many a ceilidh (spontaneous party) in crofters’ kitchens and in everyday coping with the winds and wilds of the barren landscape, dangerous crashing of waves carrying boats upon boulders, night arrivals of strangers, and closely guarded family secrets. The inhabitants themselves cast a safety net by relaying urgent news and cheerful gossip. Their white cottages scattered over the terrain were still kept warm by peat fires that streamed dark ribbons from their chimneys. And up in the hills there was blessed — or cursed — emptiness.

MacLeod’s prose is mesmerizing in describing the beauty of this otherwise timeless place: “The sea moved sluggishly, restlessly eddying into caves, slushing among the pebbles, the waves continuously folding and unfolding in their timeless dance.” She writes of wildlife: “Our peace was shattered, momentarily, by the singing wings of a pair of swans flying in perfect harmony, their long necks undulating as they wheeled towards the small lochan where they had been repairing last year’s nest.”

For all its ethereal beauty, this was not an easy life. Though it was George’s family heritage that had brought them here, he had to leave periodically for assignments in places as far as South Africa. And though nursing was not in her plans, Mary J. realized her skills were badly needed. Helping people out of cars tipped into the boggy ditches seems dramatic from here but became as common to her as cleaning wounds and giving baths. She had to be ready to take on almost any medical challenge because the only doctor was miles and hours away. She adapted, though it took her a while to realize wellies were better than shoes when calling upon her neighbors, and that an umbrella was useful only as a walking stick. Storms came up suddenly, and it was cold and wet most of the time, leaving the roads a mess. The old men especially were undaunted by the hazards, especially after a drink or more. Old ladies bravely became isolated. Sometimes childbirth took girls and their mothers by surprise. Occasionally an emergency involved one of her sons. Wherever there was trouble, whoever was aware of it arrived to help.

A special treat in reading these stories is local language. “Ach! The bodach! He’s that cantankerous.” The older patients spoke a “quaint” form of English while others spoke only Gaelic. There’s a glossary in back, but I enjoyed the Kindle’s ability to find the meaning of obscure and ancient usages, and thus more history.

Before the end of this second set of stories, the company George worked for went bankrupt and after six years at home in The Hebrides, the MacLeods left for California and Nevada. Here Nurse MacLeod had time to reflect on the contrasts. Now she lives in Cornwall.

 


 

Find this and other reviews by Karen Dahood at www.bookpleasures.com.

 

 

 

 

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