Snowdrifts and power blackouts couldn’t stop 1940s nurse Mary Mathieson or current RCN member Aileen Rodger

The ‘Great Snow’ (1947)

Mary Mathieson was a well-known figure in the Campbeltown area; as renowned for her nursing care as her erratic driving. Those who knew her describe a strong character who loved her life and her job. Her niece Anne Mathieson, now in her late 70s, remembers: “When she visited our house in her uniform she always looked so professional – never a spot on it. She always took her little black bag out of the car, even for a fast cup of tea with my mother.”

Mary worked as a district nurse and midwife, covering a large area of the Kintyre Peninsula. Being close to the Atlantic, heavy snowfalls were unusual to the area, but in 1947 much of the UK experienced snow like it had never seen before. Temperatures plummeted to lows of -21C and across the country the landscape was littered with marooned trains, abandoned buses and in the Highlands, seven metre snow drifts. 

The winter was so extraordinary, Mary recorded her experiences years later in a memoir, which is now part of the RCN archive. For her, the snow’s disruption began in earnest on February 10th when she was called out to the nearby village of Southend.

“When I reached the house in the village, the snow was falling quite heavily and we heard that the road was blocked,” she writes. “I stayed the night in the village, and the following day, accompanied by the Duke of Argyll’s factor, I walked ten miles back to Campbeltown through the fields.”

What a way to go

There were also car troubles to contend with. Before antifreeze, car radiators had to be drained in cold weather to prevent damage. This left Mary carrying water long distances in the cold before she could use her car again. As a notoriously bad driver (Anne recalls her grandmother telling Mary she only passed her test because she was the district nurse), she did take advantage of lifts offered by the local policeman and doctor, but also recalls close encounters with more than one snowdrift. 

In one incident she remembers: “On reversing the car, I went into a snowdrift – not very deep but sufficient to prevent me driving out. The doctor and two men succeeded in pushing me out. This time the doctor thought it wise to turn the car for me. He said I was to drive in front of him and he would be sure there would be no further mishaps.” 

Between cold and seasickness, it was an unpleasant journey

When the roads became impassable for more than a fortnight, more imaginative methods of transport were employed. Here, Mary tells the story of attending a delivery:

“Next came the experience of going in the lifeboat with Doctor Cameron…between cold and seasickness, it was an unpleasant journey, I was glad when I saw Dunaverty slip. We walked from the slip across Machribeg Bay in a blinding snowstorm, holding tightly onto each other. At the end of the bay a jeep from Carskiey was there to take us about three miles further on. When the baby was born at 9.30pm the doctor went back with the lifeboat, but advised me to stay. I got back later with a grocer’s van.”

During the snow lifeboats around the country assisted with transporting doctors and nurses and ferried supplies to villages that had been cut off.  An article in the RNLI’s Lifeboat magazine dated June 1947 reports: “In the seventy-one days from January 4th to March 15th, there were twenty-eight such errands for lifeboats. Most of them were in the north of Scotland.” It goes on to mention that the Campbeltown lifeboat was launched twice – Mary was on it both times.  

No end in sight

By 10 March Mary “couldn’t believe her eyes” that it was still snowing, but one of her most challenging nights was yet to come. Called out at 1.20am to a patient in labour three miles away in Killeonan, she was forced to abandon her car just halfway into her journey and continue on foot. She recalls:

“The family, knowing the terrible conditions, had sent one of the sons to meet me. He saw my light coming, then disappear. I knew the road, but the night was dark and the snow was heavy and the drifts high. I wondered if I would ever reach my destination.

“I passed abandoned cars and tractors, and only the tips of the telegraph poles could be seen. I knew there was a deep ditch near Marchfield that I had to cross … I linked up with my escort, who previously kept calling to me and sometimes I could see the stable lamp he was carrying. 

Path through deep snow

“We reached the house and I was drenched in snow from the waist down. I had a bath and change of clothes and was ready for my job.

“I never would have safely reached the house without my escort and without doubt would have lost my way.

I wondered if I would ever reach my destination

“The patient’s mother was anxious all night in case we would need the doctor – how could he get there? It was absolutely impossible! Just then came the answer – they would send a horse.

“Well, only two nights ago the doctor had been in the lifeboat and I did not think he would relish putting the clock back and coming out with the horse. However, things went well for me and at about 7.30am the baby was born. This was her first baby and not even a stitch. I was very happy."

Absolute dedication

Mary’s risk taking is not something that would be recommended today, but her niece Anne remembers her dedication as one of her defining characteristics: “She had a reputation that you could call her any hour of the day or night, regardless of the weather. I remember being very young and her leaving a New Year’s Day dinner to go on a case, saying ‘I may be back, and I may not’.”

In her own words, Mary shows she was single-minded. After returning to the surgery to get some tablets for a patient, she says: “The doctor said he was unhappy about me going back, and advised me not to go as there had been a warning that more snow was on the way. I did go!”

I thought that I would never see the fields green again

After struggling through the snow for two months, the thaw finally came at the end of March. As the weeks spent under a blanket of white came to an end, Mary said: “I thought that I would never see the fields green again. Snow lay on the roadside for a long time, but the sun came out and the snow melted, and everything came back to normal.” 

Mary continued to practise until 1955, when she married local farmer Hugh Smith (pictured). But in Campbeltown she’ll always be remembered as a dedicated nurse and midwife.  “She loved it, she really did – it was one of her great passions,” says her niece Anne.

A new era

Seventy-one years later, district nursing is as important to the residents of the peninsula as ever. RCN member Aileen Rodger is one of three senior community nurses working in a team based out of Campbeltown Hospital, and her connection with Mary isn’t just through her job.

“My partner remembers that Mary used to help out his mum. They lived in Machrihanish [the village where Mary lived] and people used to give her eggs and other things to thank her, which she would redistribute to people in need,” says Aileen.

I came across a black cow in the dark

The times may be different, but caring for vulnerable people in rural areas still faces some of the same challenges Mary encountered. From animals on the road – “I once came across a black cow in the dark. But usually you know whose the cow is, so you can just phone the farmer. The advantage of local links!”, says Aileen – to the extremes of weather.

Aileen Rodger
Aileen Rodger

Marooned on the island

Aileen had her own encounter with winter weather when another freak snowstorm cut off the peninsula in 2013.

“I was on the Isle of Gigha just off the west coast of Kintyre,” she remembers. “There is a senior community nurse based there, and our team would provide relief for her days off and holidays. I was due to leave on the Friday morning, but severe weather had cut off the power and the ferry to the mainland was cancelled.

“There’s a nurse’s house on the island, which I’d stocked with tins and dry food, but my fresh supplies, including milk, were finished. When I checked the ferry service on Saturday morning, I was told while the ferry was running, the roads on the mainland were completely blocked and I wouldn’t be able to get home anyway. It was best to stay on Gigha.


Image: Gigha in better weather

“Gigha is a small island of around 160 permanent residents. It’s also an un-doctored island. The nurse there is the first emergency service. When you dial 999 for an ambulance it’s the nurse who responds. She will take the details from the operator and then visit to clinically assess the patient, calling for advice or co-ordinating the emergency retrieval team as necessary. The voluntary fire and coastguard services are first aid trained and help to set out the airstrip lights in a farmer’s field – which may include clearing livestock. Volunteers also transport the patient to the landing site in the community’s old ambulance (which has no medical supplies).

I got many kind offers of a bed for the night

“With the power still cut off, I joined the local community trust chairman Joe to fill flasks with hot water from the hotel (which had a generator) and deliver them to vulnerable people. In fact most of the islands' residents were better off than me, as the fully electric nurse’s home was now cold and without cooking facilities. Their homes have wood-burning stoves, so they were able to keep warm. I got many kind offers of a bed for the night!”

When the roads finally opened, Aileen was picked up by a colleague on the mainland and driven home via some still treacherous roads. During the snow the team on the mainland had been checking on vulnerable people in the villages where they lived. Under the co-ordination of the integrated health and social work team, the service had been adapted to ensure people still got the care they needed. 

New challenges

Modern community nursing has one challenge that Mary didn’t have to face. For all the benefits of new technology, life in a rural area can often mean you just can’t get a phone signal. And with Aileen driving up to 100 miles per day, popping back to the office is not always an option.  

Covering such distances means that caseloads have to be carefully prioritised and while Aileen says that hers may seem small to district nurses in more populated areas, the number of visits that can fit into a day is limited by time spent on the road. Additionally, a car is essential for getting around the rural location, but not all residents have access to one. With bus routes operating just a couple of times a day, health care professionals often have to go to the patient rather than the other way around. 

Popping back to the office isn't always an option

One of the biggest differences between Mary’s experience and Aileen’s is the size of the area covered and the teamwork that goes in to providing care. Today Aileen’s team has a practice population of nearly 8,000 people and covers almost the whole Kintyre peninsula. It’s not just community nurses who are involved with the care either. Social workers, GPs, carers, OTs, physios, nurse specialists, admin support, drivers and porters all contribute. Volunteers also provide services such as shopping for the vulnerable and delivering equipment and samples. There are also strong links between the community hospital, nursing team and the district team to ensure continuity of care.

Community nursing teamThe community nursing team (left to right): Anne Crossan, Gayle Sougall, Patricia Johnstone, Aileen Rodger, Hilary Lawrie, Donna Graham, Raymond Harvey and Fiona Brodie

Personal touch

But a big team and a big area doesn’t mean the personal touch has been lost, and just as was the case for Mary, Aileen is often on her own as she makes her visits.

“The part I love most is visiting the patients, but lone working is also one of the biggest challenges,” says Aileen. “I enjoy being part of a larger team, bouncing ideas off colleagues and having the support that Mary wouldn’t have had. But it’s good to be able to practise autonomously. As a specialist nurse practitioner in district nursing and an independent prescriber, I get to use my clinical skills judgement and I can make decisions during the visit.”

Charlie McArthur

Image: Aileen with patient Charlie McArthur

The small community also has advantages for lone working. “We don’t have the substance abuse that you might find in larger cities,” says Aileen. “And it’s perhaps easier to risk assess through local knowledge and plan where you require extra support.” 

We knock on their door, shout hello and walk in

“I had a student come with me on some visits, and she was so taken with the area. She loved that there were sheep in the field next to the GP surgery she was visiting. And while we do encourage patients to have key safes fitted and to lock their doors, she was amazed that often we just knock on their door, shout hello and walk in. They often ask us to do that after our first visit as it can be physically difficult for them to come to the door.”

Worth it

Whether it’s district nursing in 1947 or 2018, you can’t get away from the fact that the role requires a lot of dedication and hard work. But for Aileen it also has its rewards: “When you go the extra mile, patients and families appreciate it. And it’s a privilege to be allowed into people’s homes. It is often an elderly person who is socially isolated and frail or I’ll be helping a patient or family through a life-changing event such as major surgery or end of life care. 

“Every day I know I have to do my job because there are people relying on me. I’m part of the community and there’s reward in that.”

Thanks to Marlyn Moffat from the Campbeltown Heritage Centre for her help in putting this article together.

Words by Sarah Abley / Pictures of Aileen by Mark Davey/Campbeltown Courier

Find out more

If you’re interested in the history of nursing, the RCN History of Nursing Society works to record, discover, preserve and share the history of the profession. Join here.

If you’re a district or community nurse and would like to develop your practice and skills, and influence the future of your specialty, join the RCN District Nursing Forum.

Read next...