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Tired of the pace and noise of life near London and longing for a better place to raise their young children, Mary J. MacLeod and her husband encountered their dream while vacationing on a remote island in the Scottish Hebrides. Enthralled by its windswept beauty, they soon were the proud owners of a near-derelict croft house—a farmer’s stone cottage—on “a small acre” of land. Mary assumed duties as the island’s district nurse. Call the Nurse is her account of the enchanted years she and her family spent there, ...
Tired of the pace and noise of life near London and longing for a better place to raise their young children, Mary J. MacLeod and her husband encountered their dream while vacationing on a remote island in the Scottish Hebrides. Enthralled by its windswept beauty, they soon were the proud owners of a near-derelict croft house—a farmer’s stone cottage—on “a small acre” of land. Mary assumed duties as the island’s district nurse. Call the Nurse is her account of the enchanted years she and her family spent there, coming to know its folk as both patients and friends.
In anecdotes that are by turns funny, sad, moving, and tragic, she recalls them all, the crofters and their laird, the boatmen and tradesmen, young lovers and forbidding churchmen. Against the old-fashioned island culture and the grandeur of mountain and sea unfold indelible stories: a young woman carried through snow for airlift to the hospital; a rescue by boat; the marriage of a gentle giant and the island beauty; a ghostly encounter; the shocking discovery of a woman in chains; the flames of a heather fire at night; an unexploded bomb from World War II; and the joyful, tipsy celebration of a ceilidh. Gaelic fortitude meets a nurse’s compassion in these wonderful true stories from rural Scotland.
The book feels like a letter from a friend who has an eye for travel writing. . . . With a nurse’s no-nonsense manner, MacLeod relays tales of adventure, finding humor and humanity in her experiences. . . . For James Herriot fans, without the animals.
It was a dreary December afternoon in 1970 as I struggled up the slippery path to the croft house on the hill above. My blue uniform and the silly hat that I had anchored with a very non-uniform scarf were no protection against the rain that was being hurled in from the sea by the blustery wind. I was cold and wet, but I knew that a cheery welcome and a warm fire awaited me, and after I had attended to my elderly patient her sister would bustle about to give me a 'wee cuppie'.
I paused on the steep slope to get my breath, pretending, as I always did, that I was just admiring the view. And what a view! Even in this weather, the island was beautiful in its wild, rugged way.
Papavray is a remote Hebridean island about 20 miles long. Numerous lochs take great bites out of the coastline so that you are never out of sight of the sea. Today, that sea was turbulent with white-topped waves crashing noisily on the rocks, sending spumes of spray far into the air. The mountains on the neighbouring islands were softly clothed in floating tendrils of mist.
Above the noise of the wind, I could hear the excited voices of young children. Wiping the rain from my eyelashes, I glanced at my watch. The little school on a nearby promontory was breaking up for Christmas and, as arranged, my youngest son, Andrew, would soon be meeting me at my patient's house. A year ago, when we moved here, he had joined the 14 other pupils of the island's only primary school and had already begun to acquire the sibilance and lilt of the gentle island tongue. He was making friends but had one big disadvantage—he did not 'have the Gaelic'. One does not speak Gaelic—one 'has the Gaelic'. Or not, in our case! It was 1970, but the more remote Scottish islands still retained this as their first language. Most of my older patients spoke a rather quaint form of English as their second language, while some spoke only their native tongue.
I climbed on up to the croft house above and knocked on the door. Of course I had been observed from the moment my car drew up on the narrow track far below, but I still found it difficult to just walk into people 's houses in the manner of the locals. Calling a greeting, I stepped inside and removed my sodden coat, hat, and gloves. I even took my shoes off, as they both contained a small lake of rainwater. I had not yet completed a year as the district nurse on Papavray, and I still had some notion of looking 'smart' when on my rounds. Later, I would learn that welly boots were better than shoes and that umbrellas were useless in the wind but good as walking sticks on slippery slopes and for fending off territorially minded dogs.
'Come away in, Nurse, and warm yourself by the fire. Indeed, it's terrible weather we 're having the day.' This was Mary-Ann's delightful greeting as I dripped my way inside.
Minnie, my dear old patient, was in the downstairs bedroom. 'Ach, Nurse. You'll be gie wet. And so busy you are, and me here needin' a bath.' I usually got her up in the mornings to sit by the fire, but today was bed-bath day.
'I'm sorry to be so late, Minnie.'
'Ach, I'm no mindin'. I have my wireless.'
Minnie was almost completely paralysed as the result of a stroke some years previously, but she never complained. Over time, we became much more than nurse and patient, and when she died I felt that I had lost a friend. On this December day, we laughed and chatted as I worked, and after a while I heard Andrew's arrival. The timid knock and shy 'Hello' were followed by much motherly tutting over his wet things. MaryAnn loved children and, like so many island women, was never happier than when fussing over them with cocoa and clootie dumpling, so Andrew was only too happy to accompany me on my rounds when necessary. The patients and their relatives plied him with all manner of goodies. I believe they thought that I didn't feed him very well. I was English, and the islanders had little regard for 'fancy English food'. Good old-fashioned stodge was what had kept them full for generations.
Nicholas, my 12 year old, a much sturdier boy, had been about to start at the senior school a year ago, just as we left the bustle of life in the south for the peace and tranquillity of Papavray. So, instead, he now attended the grammar school that served several islands and the area of mainland where it was situated. Sixty miles by road and as many more by ferry meant that he and two others from our remote village had to stay in the school hostel or in 'digs' from Monday to Friday of each week. At first he hated this but settled eventually, never becoming a good scholar but using his personality to get him by. He was very popular with old and young alike, and as a tall lad with a cheerful grin he did not want for girlfriends—even at the tender age of 12! Nicholas and Andrew were five years apart but were great friends: every weekend would see them fishing or boating or roaming far and wide. They helped the shepherds with the shearing, watched calves being born or just sat at various firesides listening to crofters' tales. It was a very different childhood from that which they would have known in the south. Our two older children were not with us on the island, having left home before we moved. Elizabeth was in college in London while John had left another college after a term, having decided that the academic life was not for him. He had a job of sorts and lived with a group of friends in the capital.
My husband, George, had been completing an overseas contract, but when he finally came to live in Dhubaig, our village, he became a sort of Jack-of-all-things-electrical for the island. We were afforded much amusement by the crofters' plaintive requests for George to breathe new life into various dying devices. Electricity had only come to the islands in 1950 and many remote glens still had none, so most of the crofters' electrical possessions had been purchased in the first excitement, and 20 years later they still expected them all to work perfectly. How often were we told 'This was a good, good kettle '? Interestingly, many of the croft houses had electric irons, kettles, and so on but still no indoor toilet. I knew of two that had no toilet at all! During one summer, I gained intimate knowledge of this deficiency as a result of too many cups of tea.
As Andrew and I stood in the little hall, pulling on our still-wet coats, we could see that the rain had stopped. A huge silver moon was on the horizon, casting its own eerie glow to join the fading light of the gloomy winter day. There was a freshness in the air that spoke of calmer, drier weather to come.
'It's going to be fine for Dad coming,' Andrew said, echoing my thoughts.
George was coming home for Christmas and would be with us some time the next day—weather permitting, of course. He had flown in from South Africa and was driving up from Heathrow in time for our second Christmas on Papavray and our first in our house: we had lived in a caravan while the rebuilding took place.
'And Nick and Elizabeth and John,' continued Andrew excitedly, as we hurried to the car. The family invasion this year would include Elizabeth's latest boyfriend, Jeff ... or was it Jim? Or Paul?
'And Nurse Robertson is coming to do your work over Christmas, isn't she?' Andrew was jumping down the hill in leaps and bounds. 'And you won't be called out or anything, will you?' he added anxiously.
I shook my head. No night calls for five days. What bliss!
We drove the eight or nine miles over the hills to the wilder side of the island, to our home in its acre or so of land facing the sea and the distant mountains. The sky had cleared and the winding road was bright in the moonlight, while the dark waters of small lochs sparkled among the reeds. Twinkling lights showed from the other islands and the moon was painting a silver path across the sea.
Later that evening, when both boys had gone to bed, I sat alone by a huge peat fire. I was sleepy but determined to catch up on my photo albums. I have kept a chronological record of our lives before and since our arrival on Papavray, but I am not good at putting the results into albums. In fact, I had not inserted any at all since our first sight of Papavray. There had been several packets of photos on the sideboard for some time now, and I had to get down to the task before the family arrived. They definitely did not share my enthusiasm for photos!
I sorted them into order and began to arrange them onto the pages of an album, but inevitably I began to study them, remembering the incidents and the people that they portrayed. It's like spreading newspaper over the carpet before decorating: one always crawls around reading long-outdated news. So it was with the photos.
There was the beach, the caravan and Alistair's boat. And the sunshine! What a contrast in the weather at that time, two summers ago, from the bitter cold of the night outside as I sat so cosily by my fire. Each photo evoked memories and the amazement that we had felt as events had worked steadily towards our present life.CHAPTER 2
For a long time, we had been disillusioned with the way of life in the south of England where we lived, and George 's work was pressurised and unrewarding. We had begun to cherish a dream of something better, gentler, a different environment altogether. Scotland, where George 's father was from, came to the forefront of our minds. For years it was just a dream, but then, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, it came true. And it all began the very first time that we set foot on this Hebridean island.
It had been in the July of 1969 when we came to Papavray on holiday with Nicholas, Andrew, and Duchess the retriever. We had parked our caravan on the grass beside a little beach with the sea shushing and lapping at the pebbles nearby.
George was a Glaswegian. His father had left Papavray to find work while still a young man and, like so many, had gone to Glasgow, where he lived, worked, and died without ever returning to the place of his birth. Somehow, George had never had the urge to visit the isle of his antecedents. Until now!
Elizabeth and John had already started college by then and thought we were mad to travel so far just to 'sit on an island', as they put it. Nick and Andy had very different ideas. We had only arrived the night before but they were already pronouncing this as 'the best place in the world'.
So here we were on this quiet little beach enjoying the clear northern air. There was quite a large house in a garden nearby and two cottages appeared to be growing out of the rocks of a promontory across the bay. Apart from these buildings, we were alone, looking across the sea loch to a couple of islets and away to distant mountains. The setting sun was sending slanting bronze light across the water, burnishing the tops of the waves as they broke against the far shores. I could smell the peat smoke that was rising in blue snakes from the white chimneys of the two cottages.
We had wondered, with our southern conditioning, if we would be allowed to park on the beach, but as we were self-sufficient for two days, carrying twenty gallons of water and had the all-important loo, we were cautiously hopeful. However, the flimsy and all-too-obvious loo tent fell victim to the wind after only one day's use.
We had become aware, during the night, of an odd slapping noise on the side of the caravan in the blustery wind. On peering out of the window, I was just in time to see the loo tent heave itself upward, break its guy ropes and leap into the air. Like a kite in the hands of an amateur, it touched down twice before disappearing skywards. We thought of attempting a rescue but on opening the door to the gale quickly decided otherwise.
When morning came, we awoke to chuckles and some rather rude remarks from the boys, who were looking out of the window. The chemical toilet was sitting in lonely splendour on the beach like some unsophisticated throne of a minor potentate, while some of the toilet roll was attempting to wrap itself around it as though trying to clothe its nakedness. The rest of it was in small pieces that were fluttering damply over the pebbles and out to sea like so many demented seagulls. Later, on a boating trip to the islets, we found the tent draped like a pall over a large rock. It was beyond repair. Luckily, we were invited to put the loo in a nearby shed!
On a leisurely walk later that day, I stood and watched a large yacht sailing up the sea loch. Little did I know then how much this boat, or rather its occupant, would change our lives.
It was a rather luxurious boat, and I watched as it glided into the bay. It anchored and, after some delay, a dinghy was lowered, packages appeared and were stowed and then a none-too-nimble figure got in and the craft began chugging towards the shore. He made landfall at a little jetty and started to unpack the dinghy. George and the boys joined me and we ran along the path to offer assistance. Or were we just being nosy? In any case, our offer was accepted with alacrity.
The boat owner lived in the house with the garden, and it proved to be up about 30 steps. We puffed and groaned our way up with boxes and packages to find ourselves in a beautiful garden. Real gardens are rare in the islands, as the harsh weather, poor soil, ravages of deer, rabbits, cows, foxes, and every other living thing makes the growing of anything other than potatoes almost impossible. But this was a gardener's garden. We collapsed onto a stone bench, hot and breathless. We all introduced ourselves.
Alistair Macphee had the typical short, stocky shape of the Highland hill-dweller, his appearance belying a precise English accent. Clad in a navy-blue jersey and seaman's cap and sporting a large moustache, his teeth were firmly clamped round an empty pipe.
'Come in, come in! We all need a dram after that,' he announced, without removing the pipe. Having spent several days alone on his boat, Alistair was ready to chat, so, packages forgotten, we settled down to hear his life story.
He had been born on the island during the First World War and lived among the local children until the age of eight, when his father decided to leave Papavray to start a business in the south of England. Alistair grew up there, and when he reached adulthood he took over his father's business and became quite wealthy. However, he never lost touch with Papavray, and when he was nearing 50 he decided to retire to his native island and put managers in to run the business.
So he built this lovely home and travelled to London occasionally to keep an eye on the business but always returned with a sense of relief. He said that Papavray was civilised and London was barbaric. Alice, his wife, whom we met later, was the gardener.
That day, as we sat in this lovely house and gazed across the sunlit bay to the hills and mountains beyond, our dream was still just that ... a dream. Of living somewhere like this, of becoming a part of a slower way of life, of waking to the sound of the wind or the birds instead of listening to ten-ton trucks rumbling past.
Of course, there were enormous difficulties. Work, somewhere to live, education for the boys. But now we were talking to Alistair. And that made all the difference. He entered into the spirit of our aspirations with enthusiasm.
As far as work was concerned, we knew that you could tend sheep, fish, grow potatoes, and so on, but these were not options for us. Whilst we were prepared to do without luxuries, we did not want poverty. George was used to designing and installing computerised control gear for large industrial concerns all over the globe. Had we been talking with a crofter, he would have felt that the sheep-tending or fishing was all that we should require. Someone from the south with a conventional background, on the other hand, might not understand why we wanted to relocate to the far north at all. But here was Alistair, who understood both points of view. An islander by birth and inclination, he knew well the pull of that way of life, but, being an erstwhile businessman, he also appreciated our expectations of that life: a decent standard for the boys, a comfortable home and enough for some of the finer things of life, not just a pound left over when the bills were paid.
If George was prepared to do basic electrical work, said Alistair, like house wiring and installing radar and sonar equipment on fishing boats, with a possible departure into the erection of TV aerials ... We looked surprised at this, but it seemed that the first television signals were only just reaching the island.
He puffed ruminatively on a pipe that had several dead matches sprouting from its bowl. We were to learn that he very rarely smoked tobacco, only dead matches, so inexpert was he at lighting his pipe.
Looking doubtfully at me, he said, 'Do you do anything?'
Did I do anything? Apart from having four children, George 's invalid mother to look after, a husband who was rarely at home, a dog, two cats, a caravan, and a large house and garden, I also had a job as a nurse/health visitor! Did I do anything???
Excerpted from Call the Nurse by Mary J. MacLeod. Copyright © 2012 Mary J. MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of Arcade Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted June 12, 2013
The Hebrides, which are two groups of islands lying just off the west coast of mainland Scotland, provide the setting for this charming collection of anecdotal experiences of a country nurse during the 1970s. Throughout the book, MacLeod is so intent on preserving the privacy of the islanders that she refers to the “wild, exposed” island which she and her family made their home by the name “Papavray,” so don’t try looking it up on any map—you definitely won’t find it. Despite her use of such a pseudonym, however, her experiences are made not one whit less real to us, her readers, who readily come to feel part of her innermost circle of friends, so welcome and beguiling is her approach.
The delicacy and vibrancy of MacLeod’s text resonates with the warmth and passion of the Hebridean islanders among whom she worked. Anyone who has ever lived close to the sea, and who has savored its salt tang on their lips, cannot help but become enthralled by the sensuous wonders of the landscape that she describes in such vivid and glowing terms. Almost at once, one feels close to her, and becomes intimately concerned with her own concerns, as she cycles her way around the island from one patient to another. Her description of the surrounding environs is close to mythical in the poetic cadence of her speech, fringing in its mysteriousness on much loved passages of Daphne du Maurier: “The sky had cleared and the winding road was bright in the moonlight, while the dark waters of small lochs sparkled among the reeds.”
The appeal of the islands and island life permeates the text, from where MacLeod explains how she, her husband and sundry children decided to abandon the hectic pace in the south of England, together with all its stresses and daily pressures, to become “middle-aged dropouts,” living on Papavray, to where they become so enmeshed with island life that they themselves start to seem an integral part of the rural landscape. Despite having to, at first, conduct negotiations for land ”through a fog of half-understood cultural differences,” they soon warm to the generous hospitality of the island folk, with the latter finding MacLeod’s husband’s electrical skills and her own nursing ones ever more indispensable. Somewhat akin to James Herriot’s experiences in the Yorkshire Dales, the author recounts her experiences with the locals in tones of mixed a/bemusement and respect for their endurance and adaptability to the relatively harsh environment in which they live.
The series of adventures upon which the MacLeod family embarks are recounted lovingly and with consummate ease, much of it being in direct speech, so that one feels as though one were there, experiencing the scenes unfolding before one. The pace of Call the Nurse flows smoothly and eloquently through the pages, with the reader becoming ever more engrossed with the ebb and flow of island life. No matter how jaundiced a view of people you might usually, you will not fail to be drawn into admiring the close-knit functioning of human interrelationships in the relative backwater of Papavray and to come to view others around you in a kinder light, aware, but at least a smidgeon more tolerant, of their foibles and failings—such a humanizing effect does this book have on one. Thoroughly recommended for both old and young, next time you have a break and wish to escape the rat race for just a short while, do try reading Call the Nurse—you won’t be disappointed.
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