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The Heroines Of Harris

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Another multi-tasking mother of the Outer Hebrides.

Tomorrow brings Mothers Day to us here in the UK and it's fair to say the mothers of Harris have always been hard-working and hardy.

From raising large families while their men were away at sea to carrying creels of peats home while knitting baby socks, multi-tasking and making the best of it has always been a way of life.

So, after a few weeks of sharing the magic of machair flowers in celebration, we thought we’d tell you three stories of super mothering endurance...

A Story From Scarp

It was the 14th of January 1934, and on the Isle of Scarp, a small island just off the west coast of Harris, Christina Maclennan was about to give birth to twins assisted by an 85-year-old midwife.

The first child, Mary, was born without problem, but complications developed with the arrival of the second child and the midwife decided a doctor was needed.

There was no telephone on Scarp at that time, so a friend was sent swiftly by boat across the narrow strip of sea to the village of Hushinish on Harris to try and make a call.

When he found the telephone there out of order, he had to send the postman’s son by bus to Tarbert, 17 miles away, with the urgent message for the local doctor.

The doctor decided that Mrs Maclennan had to go to Stornoway hospital in the Isle of Lewis, over 40 miles away. So she was ferried to an awaiting bus where she  laid down on a makeshift stretcher.

One more long and bumpy journey later, she finally gave birth to Jessie two days later, and on a different island. The two girls were thereafter long referred to here as Miss Harris and Miss Lewis…

A Story From St Kilda

The islands of St Kilda lie over 60 miles off the western shores of Harris, far out into the wild Atlantic ocean. Here a small, self-sufficient community survived until the early part of the 20th century.

Life on the main island of Hirta was hard, and cut-off from any form of modern-day medical facilities and professional health workers, infant mortality was often high.

In the late 1800s, Infantile Tetanus was a particular source of trouble and the sickness regularly afflicted newly born babies on the island.

People had noticed that women who had to travel to the village of An-t-Ob (now called Leverburgh) in Harris to give birth with the assistance of a midwife somehow managed to avoid the disease.

Experts were never clear why this was the case, but from then on, every effort was made to row the expectant mothers on a perilous sea journey to Harris, where they could be stuck for months until good weather allowed their return.

In 1928, a Dr George Gibson finally discovered the islanders’ practice of swabbing the freshly cut umbilical cord with Fulmer oil, a type of seabird, stored in a pouch made from a gannet’s stomach.

Such a container, rarely cleaned, would have been an ideal breeding ground for the deadly Tetanus Bacillus bacteria.

But by then, it was too late, and the population had begun to dwindle as the islanders chose to leave their island home for the safety and security of mainland living…

A Story From Scalpay

Nora was a nurse on the small island of Scalpay, just off the east coast of Harris. As the only medically trained person in the tiny community, she would be called upon for any emergency.

There was a family living in the remote Eilean Glas lighthouse there, and the wife was expecting a baby but just three months pregnant.

One foggy, misty morning, Nora got a call from the lighthouse keeper to come out immediately. But, unfortunately, the road to the lighthouse can only take a car so far, and the rest of the journey must be taken by foot.

Being so misty, she soon discovered that she wasn’t on the right track but had the good sense to follow a line of hard-to-see telegraph poles which eventually led to the lighthouse.

On arrival, she found the mum-to-be in great distress and in need of specialist help. But, the only way to get her to a hospital was by helicopter, and seven hours later, one was able to land nearby.

Not willing to leave her side, Nora accompanied the lady on the noisy chopper flight to Stornoway before finally handing her over to the doctors there.

Her car, of course, had been left at the end of the old lighthouse road, and so with her emergency over, at last, she had to find her way back home to Harris…

We hope you enjoyed these three small stories from our island and if you'd like to read more from some of the source material, we recommend St Kilda And The Wider World by Andrew Fleming, and the excellent Hebridean Heroines: Twentieth Century Queen’s Nurses (1940s – 1970s) by Catherine M. Morrison.

Wishing all the mothers we love and have loved a very happy Mothers Day 2022, heroines one and all.