Slate Islands Heritage Trust


Public Health

The general health of the islanders appears to have been exceptionally good for most of the period for which records exist. A 1791 survey describes a population healthy, in good spirits of above average intelligence. Smallpox had been eradicated by a system of inoculation introduced many years before Jenner claimed responsibility for the introduction of mallpox vaccination in 1796.

The local doctor, who was engaged by the Slate Quarrying Company, was principally responsible for the health of the workmen, attending to their injuries whether in the quarries or at sea. Towards the end of the 19th century we find that the men paid a small sum annually for which they obtained medical care for themselves and their families. Confinements were extra, a charge of 10/6 (53p) being levied. This meant that many births were supervised only by the village midwife, an untrained female who also provided traditional remedies for all ailments.

The most prevalent diseases were arthritis and rheumatism brought on by working usually up to the ankles in water and often in the rain and chilling winds. When in the 1880s the slate industry began to fail, poverty, poor sanitation and overcrowding resulted in many cases of tuberculosis. At this time cities in Scotland were visited by another virulent disease, cholera. The only instance of the disease in Easdale occurred when a visitor from Glasgow, here to recuperate, suffered a relapse.

Infant mortality rates were high throughout the nineteenth century. A family bible on display in the museum indicates the large number of children of one family who did not reach their first birthday. Often the same name was applied to more than one child to ensure continuity.

The most valuable records of public health in the district are the annual reports of Dr Patrick H Gillies compiled from 1890 until 1910 when he was the Medical Officer for the Easdale Slate Quarrying Company. These records provide a fascinating account of life in the Parish of Kilbrandon and Kilchattan at that time.

Dr Gillies took an active part in all aspects of Parish life. He was fluent in the Gaelic tongue and compiled a history of the district, Netherlorn And Its Neighbourhood, much of his information taken from ancient Gaelic writings. He was Honorary Surgeon to the 1st Argyll Artillery Volunteer Company and served for a short time in the army in South Africa during the Boer War. In his role as Medical Officer for the Easdale quarries, Patrick negotiated the prepayment scheme for medical treatment, a forerunner of the Liberal Party's Panel scheme which was introduced at a much later date.

Patrick Gillies practised preventative medicine before the discipline had acquired a name. Believing that the health of the community should begin with the health of the children, he made periodic inspections at all the schools in the Parish and drew up regulations for the isolation of infectious children.

His work in the schools, including a plethora of correspondence with officers of the Argyll Council, brought him to the notice of others concerned with the preventative aspects of child health. In 1912 he was appointed Medical Officer for Schools in Scotland.

His final post was that of Medical Officer of Health for Argyll. Patrick Gillies died at Connel in 1931, aged 62 years.

The Gillies family provided medical care for the district for several generations, most of the male members becoming doctors.

Patrick's father, Hugh Gillies, was the Easdale doctor in the 1870s. His obelisk is to be found in the old cemetery at Balvicar, standing alongside the graves of his sons Hunter, John and Patrick.

A fourth son, Hugh, was a noted Gaelic scholar who distinguished himself in his medical studies at both Edinburgh University and Glasgow Infirmary and founded a second Gillies dynasty of doctors.

Alexander Gillies, Patrick's son, practised medicine in Macclesfield for very many years. He distinguished himself in sport playing Full Back for Scotland in the Rugby Football teams of the late 1920s and early 30s, and was a noted figure in golfing circles. Alexander's daughter, Fiona, a frequent visitor to the island became a State Registered Nurse and her brother Hugh was medical officer for a Gold Mining Company in South Africa until his retirement a few years ago. His son, Hunter, has recently qualified as a doctor.

Other branches of the family have also produced a succession of medical men, one of whom, Malcolm Gillies founded the town of Bowen in Queensland, Australia.

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