Book Review: The Hospitals of Skye

I was delighted to receive three booklets this week from an ongoing series produced by the History of Highland Hospitals project set up in 2008. The first to be published was The Hospitals of Skye in 2011. Written by Jim Leslie and his son Steve, this slim volume provides a detailed history of the seven hospitals known to have existed on the island: the Skye Poorhouse, Portree and Ross Memorial Hospitals in Portree; Gesto Hospital, Edinbane; Martin Memorial Hospital, Uig; Mackinnon Memorial Hospital, Broadford, and a tiny smallpox hospital at Stein.

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Portree Community Hospital behind the cottages on the water front, photographed in 2010. ©Copyright John Allan and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The buildings have been thoroughly researched, there are plentiful illustrations and the text is fully referenced with end-notes and footnotes. The stories of the hospitals and the poorhouse are written engagingly with an emphasis on their social history. This is mostly concerned with the staff and founders of the hospitals, but there are also details of patient numbers, including the detail that Gesto Hospital, in 1912, was reported as being full, and amongst the patients was a Welsh tramp with a broken leg in the attic.

I have had an enjoyable weekend up-dating the entries on the Highlands page of this website, adding in new information and correcting a few errors that I had made. Portree hospital, pictured above, had been extended since I visited it in the 1980s. It was built in the 1960s, and had a wonderful almost Art Deco-style bowed entrance porch with a port-hole window, but this has been altered and its character lost (I don’t think portholes on the door make up for the loss). Otherwise it is an endearing building and an early example of an entirely new NHS hospital.

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Gesto Hospital, Edinbane. Photographed in 2010. The boarded up building looking more dilapidated by the month. What a pity! © Copyright Carol Walker and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The Gesto Hospital closed in 2007 and has stood empty ever since. As Carol Walker comments on her photograph above – what a pity! I hadn’t realised that the harling was not original – the book contains a photograph of the building from the 1920s (it is also on the front cover of the book) showing the exposed masonry with its neat cherry-caulking. As to the Stein Smallpox Hospital, that was completely new to me – a prefabricated Speirs & Company building that was never actually used and was only in existence between 1905 and about 1919.

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I love this photograph taken in 2009 by Mick Garratt with its Mediterranean colours. Former Gesto Hospital © Copyright Mick Garratt and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

As the Leslies’ book was published five years ago there have been some further developments in the lives of these buildings. I was sorry to see that plans were passed last year by the Highland County Council to demolish the old poorhouse – built in 1859 and designed by William Joass, an architect about whom I should like to learn more. The poorhouse had never been heavily used, and was turned into a hostel for school children in the 1930s (the Margaret Carnegie Hostel).

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The Combination Poorhouse, Portree. Extract from the 1st-edition OS map, surveyed in 1875. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

The John Martin Hospital at Uig was a youth hostel in 2011, but was closed and sold off around 2013, while the Ross Memorial Hospital, which had been turned into an arts centre in the 1980s and had closed in 2007, has since been remodelled and extended to become the new West Highland College, opened in 2013 as part of the University of the Highlands and Islands.

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Photographed in 2012 while under construction. The new Broadford Health Centre. This £1.3 million development nearing completion next to the Dr MacKinnon Memorial Hospital in Broadford will replace the nearby building currently used by Broadford Medical Practice. The new facility will serve people living in Broadford, Strath and north Sleat. © Copyright John Allan and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

There are currently two community hospitals on Skye, at Portree and Broadford (the Mackinnon Memorial). A new health centre was built next to the Mackinnon Memorial Hospital in 2012 by the NHS Highlands Estates Department. I rather like the health centre. It reminds me of a boat-house or perhaps even a smoke-house, though that might not have been what the architects were aiming for. In 2014 plans were announced to build a new community hospital on the island at Broadford with a reduction in services at Portree, sparking a ‘Save Portree Hospital’ campaign (there is to be a protest march on 20 June, if you feel like joining in). It seems likely that the Portree hospital building will be replaced. I hope that it will not share the same fate as the former poorhouse.

J. C. Leslie and S. J. Leslie, History of Highland Hospitals The Hospitals of Skye, 2011, Old Manse Books, Avoch, Scotland ISBN 978-0-9569002-0-3 £5

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About Harriet Richardson

I am an architectural historian, working on the Survey of London at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. I have worked on surveys of hospital architecture in Scotland and England.
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