The history of the Highlands of Scotland in the 20th century is not one that has received too much attention from historians. In particular the West Highlands have been largely ignored.
This biography of Dr Lachlan Grant of Ballachulish serves to fill some of these gaps. Not only does it describe the life and times of a GP in the West Highlands, but it also offers significant new insights into the social and economic history of the Highlands in the first half of the last century.
Lachlan Grant was appointed the GP in Ballachulish in 1900 and remained there faithfully for 45 years.
His successors, Dr William Mackenzie (32 years) and Dr Roderick Macleod (26 years) were just as loyal to the area; Ballachulish was served by only three GPs throughout the 20th Century. Quite remarkable.
One of these three, Roderick Macleod, a native of Skye, has written this biography and in doing so he has opened up a new world for those of us who are interested in the history of the Highlands.
On one level this book is a labour of love. Roderick Macleod writes with great clarity about the life of a clever boy born in Johnstone who moved to Ballachulish when he was nine years of age and was educated at Ballachulish Public School.
He then distinguished himself in the medical school at Edinburgh University but, unlike so many “lads o’pairts” who left the Highlands never to return, Lachlan Grant did the opposite. After a brief spell in Oban he went as medical officer to Gesto Hospital in Edinbane in Skye from where he returned home to the large rural practice at Ballachulish. There he stayed.
For readers who want to learn about the medical practice, the geographical area surrounding it, the development of the slate quarries in Ballachulish, the pace of life and the challenges facing a doctor in a rural practice this is a delightful book.
The author so obviously understands this world and has such a feel for it that the general reader will find the book a treasure trove of information and knowledge.
There is, however, another level to the book and it is this that makes it an important publication. Lachlan Grant was no ordinary GP. His early life had been disrupted when the City of Glasgow Bank collapsed in 1878 and left the family’s business bankrupt.
The other formative influence on his thinking came in Edinbane in Skye when he witnessed the fight for crofters’ rights in the parish of Glendale. These were the events that coloured his politics and his vision for social reform.
Throughout his public life he was heavily involved in changing the Highlands and in anticipating some of the developments that would inevitably come.
He was, for example, at the forefront of the campaign to improve Health Care in the Highlands. It is this lifelong effort that marked Dr Grant above his peers.
His experience in Skye convinced him that there was a need for a national medical service. He was the first to articulate such a fundamental social reform, he wrote about his vision and he campaigned for it. He was, in effect, anticipating the coming of the National Health Service in the 1940s. In Dr Macleod’s view this was his greatest achievement and his great legacy.
But there were other interests. He fought for the rights of the workers in the Ballachulish quarry.
Together with the Rev Thomas Murchison he joined forces with Compton Mackenzie and John Lorne Campbell of Canna in 1933 to form the Sea League in order to defend the West Coast fishing industry.
In 1936, again with the Rev Thomas Murchison, he founded the Highland Development League which in its philosophy and concept looks astonishingly similar to the Highlands and Islands Development Board that appeared in 1964.
He was involved with land reform, with the survival of Gaelic, with Highland culture in general.
Lachlan Grant was not simply a man who cared deeply for the Highlands and worked hard to transform this special part of Scotland but a man of substance and a visionary.
Dr Roderick Macleod and the House of Lochar are to be congratulated for bringing Lachlan Grant to public attention. His contribution to the development of the Highlands in the 20th Century is hugely significant.
I suspect strongly that this welcome book will alert historians not only to Lachlan Grant himself but to a closer look at the history of the West Highlands in the last century. This fascinating book has opened many important doors.
‘Dr Lachlan Grant of Ballachulish. His Life and Times’ by Dr Roderick Macleod.
Published by House of Lochar. RRP. £14.95.