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Every picture tells a history

April 5, 2017

I’ve always thought this is the best photograph of a nurse I’d ever seen.

The sheer joy in the midwife’s face is utterly captivating.

I first came across it as postcard in the Florence Nightingale Museum at St Thomas’s, as part of a collection published to mark the 150th anniversary of district nursing.

It seemed an obvious choice for Catherine Morrison’s book, Hebridean Heroines (which I had the pleasure of editing) about district nurses, mostly highly- trained Queen’s nurses, in the Outer Hebrides. Not only did they help give birth to islanders they also gave life to the island communities.

It is reviewed here in the Scotsman.

The district nurse featured Catriona MacAskill is one of more than 20 Catherine interviewed for her Manchester University PhD on which the book is based.

But it was only last month that I learned that the photographer was Denis Straughan, a great guy and former colleague (Denis on the Scotsman and me a reporter for the Herald).

Denis and reporter Russell Galbraith had gone up to Lochmaddy on North Uist in 1961 to interview Dr Alex MacLeod, the GP who did his rounds on horseback. The opportunity also presented to photograph Catriona. It appeared in the weekly Scotsman (sharp eyed cinema fans will recall this on John Lawrie’s table in Hitchcock’s original 39 Steps).

The World Health Organisation in Geneva was sufficiently gobsmacked to commission Russell and Denis to go to Africa for a month to provide more of the same. Denis was honoured in 1998 for his lifetime achievement.

As well as chronicling women acting impeccably, he also captured men behaving badly as with his celebrated photo of Scottish fans destroying the Wembley goalposts:

46 years on and Denis and Catriona are still going strong. So is the baby.

So are Queen’s Nurses. So are the memories of retired nurses  thanks to Pennie Taylor.

You can get a good flavour of the Hebrides at the start of Catherine’s book by watching the short documentary Highland Doctor, by Hull-born Kay Mander.  Another bright spot is that Kay is now being recognised in Hull’s year as City of Culture, thanks to Roger Watson, professor of nursing at Hull University.


Hebridean Heroines is published by the Islands Book Trust. Buy directly from them and 100% of the profits go back into the charitable trust’s work to promote the history of Scotland’s islands and communities. And the book was printed by  Martins the Printers based in Berwick – Denis’s home town.

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