Education is key to good hygiene

Stornoway harbour, dated from 1905, was at danger from 'imported disease'.
Stornoway harbour, dated from 1905, was at danger from 'imported disease'.

I am opposed to W.Cs as a rule. They require much water, constant attention, and when out of order need the expensive and troublesome services of a plumber.

This statement comes from the Medical Officer of Health who travelled around parts of Scotland and examined the conditions in which people lived.

The officers also enforced public health laws and looked at outbreaks of diseases.

The reports, freely available on ScotlandsPlaces, were made following these county inspections and allow us to see what life was like for ordinary people at the end of the 19th century.

In the 1891 report the officer for Ross-shire, who covered part of the Western Isles, underlines the reasons for general good health in the county:

“The first and chief reason for the average good health of our community is undoubtedly the healthiness of the employments of the great majority of the population, viz., farming and fishing, and the absence of the many occupations deleterious to health practiced in other places.

“The second may be set down to the comparatively small amount of overcrowding.

“The third is the fact that there is not the same grinding poverty as a rule as is to be found in the large towns; and fourth, no doubt much is due to the high standard of morality so creditable to the Highlander.”

The Medical Officer of Health for Ross-shire decided to visit schools as he believed that it was important education about hygiene started here.

The officer states that older people cannot be expected to change their ways but the young have “open and plastic” minds. To teach them about these matters it is necessary to lead by example and though many were able to do this some teachers were “careless and indifferent”.

He links cleanliness to morals and manners, even suggesting that good cleanliness aids social mobility. Unfortunately he doesn’t have good findings to report on the state of schools:

“I have taken special pains to visit most of the Schools in the County, and I am very sorry to have to say that the great majority are sanitarily disgraceful.”

He describes schools with urinals that “smell vilely” and have no access to clean water – though as we know, he was not a fan of toilets!

As well as describing the county generally, he also describes specific areas. Stornoway is noted as an international fishing town, though this brings danger of “imported disease”.

It is recommended that its hospital is extended and professional nurses hired. This may also be due to the “alarming” number of deaths related to childbirth in Stornoway which is put down to housing conditions:

“Filth is the great agent in propagating the disease. I have spoken already of the miserable condition of the houses of the crofter fishermen on the West Coast.”

St Kilda is noted as having “absurd notions” in dealing with the umbilical cord. This has been said to have led to the tetanus which killed many infants days after their birth – though it may have also been related to their living conditions. The population dropped over the 19th and early 20th centuries, forcing the islanders to evacuate the island in 1930.

These records are available to view for free on ScotlandsPlaces, as well as many other records about life in the Western Isles.

You can also follow us @ScotlandsPlaces or like our page on Facebook to hear more voices from Scotland’s past.

Many thanks to Kim Beasley, ScotlandsPlaces Project Officer, for this article.

This article features in the July issue of our nostalgia magazine Back in the Day, which will be out next week.

If you would like to submit any material for Back in the Day please contact the team at: