First Impressions of Orkney in 1974

By Dr Phillip Gaskell, who will be Stronsay’s locum GP until 13 December.

Republished here with many thanks to The Stronsay Limpet

Aboard my faithful Honda 90, I arrived on Orkney mainland from Scrabster in early August, 1974, the day of the Orkney County Show.

Harray lost in the football final.

My 6 week student elective attachment at the Balfour was to be a turning point. I discovered wine, women and cooked crab claws! Perhaps watching Bill Groundwater operating came second. The discovered women were house doctor and two English nurses who with my male student companion formed a marauding troop in the most civilised way.

I remember overnighting in a cottage in Dounby, an “It’s a Knockout” competition in the main street and a short spell on Hoy, Rackwick the highlight.

I took my bike over to Rousay where the Rev Tom Johnston was minister at the time. I had encountered Tom at an SU camp on Arran in my youth.

The professor of archaeology from Southampton University came through our hands in the A/E department with acute low back pain. Generously as a reward for sympathetic treatment, he provided a personal guided tour of the tomb he and his students were excavating, skeleton in sitting position.

Of course, Skara Brae, Maeshowe and the Italian Chapel were impressive to visit.

So were my 4 tries in the first Orkney XV rugby fixture of the season against Moray – right place at the right time, playing at No8. The club have gone up and up since then.

At the time, GPs provided the anaesthetics and maternity care as well as covering the medical wards. Derek Johnson of Stromness was a hugely amusing character – as was Sidney Peace in another way. A bold band of single-handed GPs provided care on the islands, Tony Trickett on Hoy being a member of the lifeboat crew too.

The team collegiate approach adopted over the last few years for primary care provision on the Orkney Islands makes sense, attracts good GPs and ensures clinical skills are kept up to date. Islay (population 3,200) has a similar system – previously three solo practices, now one and with small hospital, A/E and after hours care all part of contracted work. I believe Mull has had less success with that approach, again, what were three separate practices combined – but longer travel times and more remote than Islay.

My only time on Stronsay was over New Year 2017/18 – a quiet time professionally for me and with the Hogmanay hooley not in the island calendar, opportunities to engage with locals were few. Attending the Church of Scotland was a highlight and on the café walls, the black and white photos of the herring fishing, salting and storage were an eye-opener to me.

Spending the Thursday at work on Eday was a fine break in the week as was exploring the beaches, walking into a biting wind.

I was able to take advantage of the large kitchen at Geramount to make some items which, when photographed, formed part of an online application to the Great British Bake Off. I have made wedding and celebration cakes for fun for a few years – after giving up rugby at aged 50. Once through the telephone interview I was asked to attend along with many others from Scotland, Northern Ireland and the North of England for viva and tasting of two bakes, at a hotel in York. That was the end of my GBBO journey but I reckoned I had reached the round of the last 300, maybe?

Happily, I was free to form part of a 30 strong group of amateur singers recruited to sing chorus in a Scottish Opera production of Pagliacci in July that year. The show was translated into English and a promenade production in a massive tent pitched on Seedhill sports ground in Paisley. We practised assiduously from late March with a few of the professional chorus, the soloists and full orchestra added later. A once-in-a-lifetime privilege.

Before the pandemic moved most primary care consultations onto phone and video, practice teams had been expanded to ease the burden on a shrinking doctor workforce. Advanced nurse practitioners, pharmacists, mental health workers and physiotherapists have been made directly available to patients, receptionists requiring to make careful enquiry about the problem of the moment.

General practice in populous areas, especially serving communities living in poverty, may have Community Link Workers in the team. They practise social prescribing, signposting patients to projects and activities which tackle loneliness, learning need and promote good health. Such settings are demanding of all staff and doctors too need to be resilient, especially if they are to remain in the same post year after year.

Dr David Player was my patient in Edinburgh before I shifted to Stirling in 2004:


David Player, Scottish physician and public health pioneer | The Scotsman He graduated with my father in 1948 and was is one of my heroes. A long, full life, made his mark. We need more of his like, He would be delighted that smoking in England has fallen to just 13% of the population – Scotland a little behind that.

I won’t be surprised if I am asked to get involved in the mass immunisation required when Covid vaccines are available. A gradual return to normal will be welcome, especially by those living without garden and in limited indoor living space. The scope to travel will be the icing on the cake.

Lets all enjoy some tea and cake. I think that is allowed in the Orkney Isles but will need to check!

And if anyone is available as a buddy for some wild swimming till 13 December, I have brought my wetsuit – give me a shout.

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2 replies »

  1. Smashing article.
    Remember to buy one of the Rugby Club books which was written to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Orkney RFC and you are mentioned on page 24
    Contact the Club’s Book Seller – Ian Carse(878339 or 07415 680706)

  2. Smashing article
    Remember to buy a copy of the Rugby Club’s book celebrating their 50th Anniversary – you are mentioned on page 24
    ORFC Book Seller – Ian Carse (Tel 878339, Mobile 07415 680706)

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