The Highlands Lead the Way

This spring Historylinks Museum has been hosting a fascinating exhibition to mark the centenary of the Dewar Report.  Sue Higgins, curator of the museum, explains the significance of the report for the Highlands and beyond.  The exhibition closes on 1st June so if you haven’t already been, then get along!

In 1912 a committee was set up to look into the medical services provided in the Highlands and Islands.  Although the National Insurance Act of 1911 created the first contributory system of insurance against illness and unemployment, many people, including most crofters were too poor to be able to access this system.

Sir John Dewar, M.P. for Inverness-shire, chaired the committee which toured around the Highlands and Islands.  They reviewed papers, reports and questionnaires; gathered information first hand by visiting local people; and saw for themselves the difficulties encountered.  Seventeen public sessions were conducted and 178 witnesses questioned including Medical Officers, local G.P.s, chemists, clergymen and crofters.  The evidence amounted to 23,558 paragraphs.


This information gave them a unique insight into life in the Highlands and Islands in the early twentieth century and the appalling conditions many people lived under.  With a scattered population and a district of 15 or 20 miles to cover, visiting the sick was very difficult for the local doctor.  What roads existed were in poor repair and many doctors had to travel on horseback or even make lengthy and treacherous walks to visit their patients. In Oban, one doctor told of being called out one winter night to visit a shepherd 12 miles away.  He became lost in a snow storm and had to be guided back to his own home by another shepherd.  Nurses were appointed only where funds became available and, with as little as three months general training, many instances of death were directly attributed to lack of skilled nursing, particularly in the case of midwives.

The majority of people were crofters and fishermen on very low incomes living in rudimentary buildings with earthen floors.  Their homes were damp, smoky and unsanitary.  Livestock were often housed under the same roof.  Such conditions were perfect for the spread of disease.  The Inverness-shire Ministry of Health Report of 1900 stated ‘Other signs of poverty are present besides the miserable houses they dwell in.  The food they live on is very indifferent.  Many of the people are indifferently clothed.  Poorly clad, bare-footed children have to trudge for miles over wet and boggy moor to attend the school.’  As medical attendance had to be paid for many people could not afford to call out the doctor and the use of ‘quack’ medicines such as the one bottle cure-all and ‘traditional cures’ were used.  On the Isle of Rona a witness explained that the cure for epilepsy was to bury a black cockerel alive on the site of the first seizure.

The report produced by the Committee gave detailed proposals for healthcare reform, particularly the establishment of a properly administered grant to develop all medical services.  These proposals were speedily put into practice.  In 1913 the revolutionary Highlands and Islands Medical Service (H.I.M.S.) was created.  This was the first state-provided health service in the world and gave the people of the Highlands and Islands a better health care service than anywhere in the rest of the United Kingdom.  The H.I.M.S. is considered the forerunner to the National Health Service we enjoy today.  With the creation of the National Health Service in 1948, the rest of the United Kingdom finally attained the same quality of health care enjoyed by the Highlands and Islands since 1913.

The exhibition has been created with the support of the Wellcome Trust and assistance of several organisations and individuals including Highlife Highlands, Scottish Screen Archive and NHS Highland among others.  A free complimentary booklet is available and will be stocked in the Museum after the exhibition has left.

Booklet: Dewar Report Centenary 100 years of Healthcare in the Highlands and Islands, 1912-2012

Highland Archive Centre, Inverness, GB0232/C1/3/30/7/61

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s