Portree Hospital

View of Portree Hospital from across the bay, photographed by John Allan in March 2010

In the early 1960s the NHS built a new hospital at Portree and substantially enlarged and extended the Mackinnon Memorial Hospital at Broadford. There was considerable controversy surrounding these projects at the time. From a cost and efficiency point of view, the Northern Regional Hospital Board wanted just one central hospital and Broadford was their preferred location being nearer to the mainland and therefore easier for visiting consultant specialists. But Skye is a large island community, with its population fairly evenly spread between north a south, making travel on narrow roads in bad weather less than ideal, especially for maternity cases. Even today, the journey by car from the far north of the island to the bridge that links Skye to the mainland in the south can take around two hours, in good weather during the summer. Until the mid-1990s you would have to add in the time for a ferry crossing to the mainland, as the bridge was only opened in 1995.

View of the garden front of Portree Hospital, photographed October 2020, ©  H. Richardson

The two new hospital buildings still resulted in a reduced and rationalised service, as four hospitals had been transferred to the National Health Service in 1948, whereas today just two are in operation. The new hospital at Portree replaced the old fever hospital there and prompted the closure of the John Martin Hospital at Uig (also in the north of the island). The small Gesto Hospital, at Edinbane continued in use until 2007, having staved off successive attempts at closure from the 1990s.

Former Gesto Hospital, Edinbane, Skye, photographed in 2010, © Carol Walker

Replacing the hospitals on Skye with a single new one had been proposed during the Second World War when the existing hospitals had been surveyed in 1942 as part of the groundwork leading up to establishing a national health service after the war. This national survey of hospital buildings was undertaken by pairs of medical professionals who were assigned one of five regions. Questionnaires were sent out to all the hospitals providing basic information about the number of beds available, the type of patients catered for, etc. The Survey was published in 1946, and fairly recently the Wellcome Library has digitised the reports which can be accessed online either via the Wellcome or on the Internet Archive

View of Portree Harbour. The hospital is further round to the right, out of shot. Photographed October 2020, ©  H. Richardson,

The Report for the Northern Region suggested that Portree might be the most suitable location for this single new hospital for the island. But no further progress was made either immediately after the war or in the early years following the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948. When the Northern Regional Hospital Board decided to build a new hospital it favoured Broadford over Portree, as not only was it more convenient for consultants from the mainland, but a hospital located there could also serve parts of the adjacent mainland. The local Board of Management and the local general practitioners were brought on side, and the proposal was supported by the Department of Health. However, when it was announced to the public in 1951 there was a local outcry. The Secretary of State for Scotland, James Stuart, promised the local Inverness MP, Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton, that in view of the strong feeling in Skye, he would see that no final decision on the location of the new hospital would be made without ‘direct consultation with local people’. 

Large-scale OS map surveyed 1965, reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland (CC-BY) NLS

Matters stalled following the economic restrictions imposed after 1951, with the outbreak of the Korean War and Britain’s support of the U.S.A. leading to funds being redirected from welfare to re-armament. The question of a new hospital for Skye was not revived until 1954 when fresh proposals for an addition of 12 beds to the Broadford hospital was put forward to the Department of Health by the Chairman of the Northern Regional Hospital Board. Although the Department was supportive, there remained the issue of the Secretary of State’s promise about local consultation. 

View of the north side of the hospital, with the original out-patients’ wing on the right, photographed October 2020, ©  H. Richardson,

How that consultation might be done was discussed between the Regional Board and the Department’s officers in the Spring of 1956. The limited funding and a general lack of clear understanding between the Department in Edinburgh and the Regional Board in Inverness meant that no further progress was made. In 1958 an internal inquiry was held, the Department being reconciled to the need to go to exceptional lengths to placate local feeling. The compromise reached was to run two hospitals, with a new one at Portree and an extension to the one in Broadford, much to the irritation of the Regional Board who only gave up on their wish for a single, larger hospital, with considerable reluctance. 

Detailed view of the former out-patients’ wing, with its curved end, photographed October 2020, ©  H. Richardson,

The Regional Architect, David Polson Hall, was put in charge of the design and planning of the new buildings.  Polson Hall was originally from Stonehaven and had studied architecture in Aberdeen in the 1920s before becoming chief assistant to the architect R. Leslie Rollo in 1931. In 1954, Polson Hall and colleagues at the Regional Board visited the RIBA Exhibition on the Design of Health Buildings. The two projects on Skye proceeded in tandem. Estimates for the Portree hospital were received in 1961, but were higher than the amount available so revisions to the plans had to be made. Final working drawings were not completed until May 1962, and work finally got under way in March 1963. 

View from the north-west, photographed October 2020, ©  H. Richardson

It is difficult not to see Portree hospital as old-fashioned, in architectural style if not in plan. It is a small L-shaped, single-storey and attic building set into the hillside. A contemporary photograph (see below) taken when the hospital was opened makes it appear over-scaled compared with the neighbouring houses, despite its smallness as a hospital. The construction was traditional, in synthetic stone and brickwork, roughcast with pitched roof finished in green slates. The long, west side of the hospital contained the in-patient accommodation, with wards and a day room on the west side of the long axial corridor commanding a fine view over the bay (see plan below). The east side of the corridor had ancillary rooms: WCs, bath, sterilising room, labour room, stores and Matron’s office. The main entrance was on this side, leading to a waiting area and staff office. There were twelve beds in all, half of which were for maternity cases. The largest ward had four beds, the others were three twin rooms and two singles. 

View of Portree Hospital from across the estuary just after it opened. From The Hospital, September 1965

The shorter wing to the north housed a small out-patients’ clinic, with a separate entrance and waiting area. The hospital was to be attended by visiting consultants but would be run by two local practitioners, the first in post were Dr John Morrison of Portree and Dr Calum Og MacRae from Uig. 

Photograph taken in about 1989-90 before the curved end of the out-patients’ wing was filled in and raised a storey. ©  H. Richardson,

At the entrance to the out-patients’ clinic, the chief architectural feature was the semi-circular porch – a faint echo of a pre-war era of an ocean liner moderne aesthetic. Its original perky seaside charm was marred by infilling and the addition of a second storey in 2005-6. Prosaically enough, the porch was intended as a pram shelter. The attic floor had accommodation for ten resident staff. There were fireplaces in the sitting rooms in addition to central heating, the decoration was described in The Hospital as ‘contemporary in light tone colours with wallpaper used in the sitting rooms, main hall, etc. The furnishings are all of contemporary design in vivid bright colours to show up against the light-coloured walls.’

Ground plan of the hospital as originally built, from The Hospital, September 1965

Portree hospital was officially opened on 31 March 1965 by A. A. Hughes, Under-Secretary at the Scottish home and Health Department. I am not quite sure what its future is. A new hospital has been built next to the MacKinnon Memorial at Broadford, so the fate of the older hospital there is perhaps also in doubt.

Further Information and references: J. C. Leslie and S. J. Leslie, History of Highland Hospitals The Hospitals of Skye, 2011, Old Manse Books, Avoch, Scotland. Department of Health files at the National Records of Scotland, Minutes of the Northern Regional Hospital Board are at Highlands Archives in Inverness.