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A DOCTOR OF THE OLD SCHOOL
by Ian Maclaren
A GENERAL PRACTITIONER
It is with great good will that I write this short preface to the
edition of "A Doctor of the Old School" (which has been illustrated by
Mr. Gordon after an admirable and understanding fashion) because there
are two things that I should like to say to my readers, being also my
One, is to answer a question that has been often and fairly asked. Was
there ever any doctor so self-forgetful and so utterly Christian as
William MacLure? To which I am proud to reply, on my conscience: Not one
man, but many in Scotland and in the South country. I will dare prophecy
also across the sea.
It has been one man's good fortune to know four country doctors, not one
of whom was without his faults--Weelum was not perfect--but who, each
one, might have sat for my hero. Three are now resting from their
labors, and the fourth, if he ever should see these lines, would never
Then I desire to thank my readers, and chiefly the medical profession
for the reception given to the Doctor of Drumtochty.
For many years I have desired to pay some tribute to a class whose
service to the community was known to every countryman, but after the
tale had gone forth my heart failed. For it might have been despised
for the little grace of letters in the style and because of the outward
roughness of the man. But neither his biographer nor his circumstances
have been able to obscure MacLure who has himself won all honest hearts,
and received afresh the recognition of his more distinguished brethren.
From all parts of the English-speaking world letters have come in
commendation of Weelum MacLure, and many were from doctors who had
received new courage. It is surely more honor than a new writer could
ever have deserved to receive the approbation of a profession whose
charity puts us all to shame.
May I take this first opportunity to declare how deeply my heart has
been touched by the favor shown to a simple book by the American people,
and to express my hope that one day it may be given me to see you face
IAN MACLAREN. Liverpool, Oct. 4, 1895.
A GENERAL PRACTITIONER
A GENERAL PRACTITIONER
Drumtochty was accustomed to break every law of health, except wholesome
food and fresh air, and yet had reduced the Psalmist's farthest limit to
an average life-rate. Our men made no difference in their clothes for
summer or winter, Drumsheugh and one or two of the larger farmers
condescending to a topcoat on Sabbath, as a penalty of their position,
and without regard to temperature. They wore their blacks at a funeral,
refusing to cover them with anything, out of respect to the deceased,
and standing longest in the kirkyard when the north wind was blowing
across a hundred miles of snow. If the rain was pouring at the Junction,
then Drumtochty stood two minutes longer through sheer native dourness
till each man had a cascade from the tail of his coat, and hazarded the
suggestion, halfway to Kildrummie, that it had been "a bit scrowie,"
a "scrowie" being as far short of a "shoor" as a "shoor" fell below
[Illustration: SANDY STEWART "NAPPED" STONES]
This sustained defiance of the elements provoked occasional judgments in
the shape of a "hoast" (cough), and the head of the house was then
exhorted by his women folk to "change his feet" if he had happened to
walk through a burn on his way home, and was pestered generally with
sanitary precautions. It is right to add that the gudeman treated such
advice with contempt, regarding it as suitable for the effeminacy of
towns, but not seriously intended for Drumtochty. Sandy Stewart "napped"
stones on the road in his shirt sleeves, wet or fair, summer and winter,
till he was persuaded to retire from active duty at eighty-five, and he
spent ten years more in regretting his hastiness and criticising his
successor. The ordinary course of life, with fine air and contented
minds, was to do a full share of work till seventy, and then to look
after "orra" jobs well into the eighties, and to "slip awa" within sight
of ninety. Persons above ninety were understood to be acquitting
themselves with credit, and assumed airs of authority, brushing aside
the opinions of seventy as immature, and confirming their conclusions
with illustrations drawn from the end of last century.
When Hillocks' brother so far forgot himself as to "slip awa"
at sixty, that worthy man was scandalized, and offered laboured
explanations at the "beerial."
"It's an awfu' business ony wy ye look at it, an' a sair trial tae us
a'. A' never heard tell o' sic a thing in oor family afore, an' it's no
easy accoontin' for't.
"The gudewife was sayin' he wes never the same sin' a weet nicht he lost
himsel on the muir and slept below a bush; but that's neither here nor
there. A'm thinkin' he sappit his constitution thae twa years he wes
grieve aboot England. That wes thirty years syne, but ye're never the
same aifter thae foreign climates."
Drumtochty listened patiently to Hillocks' apology, but was not
"It's clean havers about the muir. Losh keep's, we've a' sleepit oot and
never been a hair the waur.
"A' admit that England micht hae dune the job; it's no cannie stravagin'
yon wy frae place tae place, but Drums never complained tae me if he hed
been nippit in the Sooth."
The parish had, in fact, lost confidence in Drums after his wayward
experiment with a potato-digging machine, which turned out a lamentable
failure, and his premature departure confirmed our vague impression of
"He's awa noo," Drumsheugh summed up, after opinion had time to form;
"an' there were waur fouk than Drums, but there's nae doot he was a wee
When illness had the audacity to attack a Drumtochty man, it was
described as a "whup," and was treated by the men with a fine
negligence. Hillocks was sitting in the post-office one afternoon when
I looked in for my letters, and the right side of his face was blazing
red. His subject of discourse was the prospects of the turnip "breer,"
but he casually explained that he was waiting for medical advice.
"The gudewife is keepin' up a ding-dong frae mornin' till nicht aboot ma
face, and a'm fair deaved (deafened), so a'm watchin' for MacLure tae
get a bottle as he comes wast; yon's him noo."
The doctor made his diagnosis from horseback on sight, and stated the
result with that admirable clearness which endeared him to Drumtochty.
"Confoond ye, Hillocks, what are ye ploiterin' aboot here for in the
weet wi' a face like a boiled beet? Div ye no ken that ye've a titch o'
the rose (erysipelas), and ocht tae be in the hoose? Gae hame wi' ye
afore a' leave the bit, and send a haflin for some medicine. Ye donnerd
idiot, are ye ettlin tae follow Drums afore yir time?" And the medical
attendant of Drumtochty continued his invective till Hillocks started,
and still pursued his retreating figure with medical directions of a
simple and practical character.
[Illustration: "THE GUDEWIFE IS KEEPIN' UP A DING-DONG"]
"A'm watchin', an' peety ye if ye pit aff time. Keep yir bed the
mornin', and dinna show yir face in the fields till a' see ye. A'll gie
ye a cry on Monday--sic an auld fule--but there's no are o' them tae
mind anither in the hale pairish."
Hillocks' wife informed the kirkyaird that the doctor "gied the gudeman
an awfu' clear-in'," and that Hillocks "wes keepin' the hoose," which
meant that the patient had tea breakfast, and at that time was wandering
about the farm buildings in an easy undress with his head in a plaid.
It was impossible for a doctor to earn even the most modest competence
from a people of such scandalous health, and so MacLure had annexed
neighbouring parishes. His house--little more than a cottage--stood on
the roadside among the pines towards the head of our Glen, and from this
base of operations he dominated the wild glen that broke the wall of the
Grampians above Drumtochty--where the snow drifts were twelve feet deep
in winter, and the only way of passage at times was the channel of the
river--and the moorland district westwards till he came to the Dunleith
sphere of influence, where there were four doctors and a hydropathic.
Drumtochty in its length, which was eight miles, and its breadth, which
was four, lay in his hand; besides a glen behind, unknown to the world,
which in the night time he visited at the risk of life, for the way
thereto was across the big moor with its peat holes and treacherous
bogs. And he held the land eastwards towards Muirtown so far as Geordie,
the Drumtochty post, travelled every day, and could carry word that the
doctor was wanted. He did his best for the need of every man, woman and
child in this wild, straggling district, year in, year out, in the snow
and in the heat, in the dark and in the light, without rest, and without
holiday for forty years.
One horse could not do the work of this man, but we liked best to see
him on his old white mare, who died the week after her master, and the
passing of the two did our hearts good. It was not that he rode
beautifully, for he broke every canon of art, flying with his arms,
stooping till he seemed to be speaking into Jess's ears, and rising in
the saddle beyond all necessity. But he could rise faster, stay longer
in the saddle, and had a firmer grip with his knees than any one I ever
met, and it was all for mercy's sake. When the reapers in harvest time
saw a figure whirling past in a cloud of dust, or the family at the foot
of Glen Urtach, gathered round the fire on a winter's night, heard the
rattle of a horse's hoofs on the road, or the shepherds, out after the
sheep, traced a black speck moving across the snow to the upper glen,
they knew it was the doctor, and, without being conscious of it, wished
him God speed.
Before and behind his saddle were strapped the instruments and medicines
the doctor might want, for he never knew what was before him. There were
no specialists in Drumtochty, so this man had to do everything as best
be could, and as quickly. He was chest doctor and doctor for every other
organ as well; he was accoucheur and surgeon; he was oculist and aurist;
he was dentist and chloroformist, besides being chemist and druggist.
It was often told how he was far up Glen Urtach when the feeders of the
threshing mill caught young Burnbrae, and how he only stopped to change
horses at his house, and galloped all the way to Burnbrae, and flung
himself off his horse and amputated the arm, and saved the lad's life.
"You wud hae thocht that every meenut was an hour," said Jamie Soutar,
who had been at the threshing, "an' a'll never forget the puir lad lying
as white as deith on the floor o' the loft, wi' his head on a sheaf, an'
Burnbrae haudin' the bandage ticht an' prayin' a' the while, and the
mither greetin' in the corner.
"'Will he never come?' she cries, an' a' heard the soond o' the horse's
feet on the road a mile awa in the frosty air.
"'The Lord be praised!' said Burnbrae, and a' slippit doon the ladder
as the doctor came skelpin' intae the close, the foam fleein' frae his
"Whar is he?' wes a' that passed his lips, an' in five meenuts he hed
him on the feedin' board, and wes at his wark--sic wark, neeburs--but he
did it weel. An' ae thing a' thocht rael thochtfu' o' him: he first sent
aff the laddie's mither tae get a bed ready.
"Noo that's feenished, and his constitution 'ill dae the rest," and he
carried the lad doon the ladder in his airms like a bairn, and laid him
in his bed, and waits aside him till he wes sleepin', and then says he:
'Burnbrae, yir gey lad never tae say 'Collie, will yelick?' for a' hevna
tasted meat for saxteen hoors.'
"It was michty tae see him come intae the yaird that day, neeburs; the
verra look o' him wes victory."
[Illustration: "THE VERRA LOOK O' HIM WES VICTORY"]
Jamie's cynicism slipped off in the enthusiasm of this reminiscence, and
he expressed the feeling of Drumtochty. No one sent for MacLure save in
great straits, and the sight of him put courage in sinking hearts. But
this was not by the grace of his appearance, or the advantage of a good
bedside manner. A tall, gaunt, loosely made man, without an ounce of
superfluous flesh on his body, his face burned a dark brick color by
constant exposure to the weather, red hair and beard turning grey,
honest blue eyes that look you ever in the face, huge hands with wrist
bones like the shank of a ham, and a voice that hurled his salutations
across two fields, he suggested the moor rather than the drawing-room.
But what a clever hand it was in an operation, as delicate as a woman's,
and what a kindly voice it was in the humble room where the shepherd's
wife was weeping by her man's bedside. He was "ill pitten the gither" to
begin with, but many of his physical defects were the penalties of his
work, and endeared him to the Glen. That ugly scar that cut into his
right eyebrow and gave him such a sinister expression, was got one night
Jess slipped on the ice and laid him insensible eight miles from home.
His limp marked the big snowstorm in the fifties, when his horse missed
the road in Glen Urtach, and they rolled together in a drift. MacLure
escaped with a broken leg and the fracture of three ribs, but he never
walked like other men again. He could not swing himself into the saddle
without making two attempts and holding Jess's mane. Neither can you
"warstle" through the peat bogs and snow drifts for forty winters
without a touch of rheumatism. But they were honorable scars, and for
such risks of life men get the Victoria Cross in other fields.
[Illustration: "FOR SUCH RISKS OF LIFE MEN GET THE VICTORIA CROSS IN
MacLure got nothing but the secret affection of the Glen, which knew
that none had ever done one-tenth as much for it as this ungainly,
twisted, battered figure, and I have seen a Drumtochty face
soften at the sight of MacLure limping to his horse.
Mr. Hopps earned the ill-will of the Glen for ever by criticising
the doctor's dress, but indeed it would have filled any townsman with
amazement. Black he wore once a year, on Sacrament Sunday, and, if
possible, at a funeral; topcoat or waterproof never. His jacket and
waistcoat were rough homespun of Glen Urtach wool, which threw off the
wet like a duck's back, and below he was clad in shepherd's tartan
trousers, which disappeared into unpolished riding boots. His shirt was
grey flannel, and he was uncertain about a collar, but certain as to a
tie which he never had, his beard doing instead, and his hat was soft
felt of four colors and seven different shapes. His point of distinction
in dress was the trousers, and they were the subject of unending
"Some threep that he's worn thae eedentical pair the last twenty year,
an' a' mind masel him gettin' a tear ahint, when he was crossin' oor
palin', and the mend's still veesible.
"Ithers declare 'at he's got a wab o' claith, and hes a new pair made in
Muirtown aince in the twa year maybe, and keeps them in the garden till
the new look wears aff.
"For ma ain pairt," Soutar used to declare, "a' canna mak up my mind,
but there's ae thing sure, the Glen wud not like tae see him withoot
them: it wud be a shock tae confidence. There's no muckle o' the check
left, but ye can aye tell it, and when ye see thae breeks comin' in ye
ken that if human pooer can save yir bairn's life it 'ill be dune."
The confidence of the Glen--and tributary states--was unbounded, and
rested partly on long experience of the doctor's resources, and partly
on his hereditary connection.
"His father was here afore him," Mrs. Macfadyen used to explain; "atween
them they've hed the countyside for weel on tae a century; if MacLure
disna understand oor constitution, wha dis, a' wud like tae ask?"
For Drumtochty had its own constitution and a special throat disease, as
became a parish which was quite self-contained between the woods and the
hills, and not dependent on the lowlands either for its diseases or its
"He's a skilly man, Doctor MacLure," continued my friend Mrs. Macfayden,
whose judgment on sermons or anything else was seldom at fault; "an'
a kind-hearted, though o' coorse he hes his faults like us a', an' he
disna tribble the Kirk often.
"He aye can tell what's wrang wi' a body, an' maistly he can put ye
richt, and there's nae new-fangled wys wi' him: a blister for the
ootside an' Epsom salts for the inside dis his wark, an' they say
there's no an herb on the hills he disna ken.
"If we're tae dee, we're tae dee; an' if we're tae live, we're tae live,"
concluded Elspeth, with sound Calvinistic logic; "but a'll say this
for the doctor, that whether yir tae live or dee, he can aye keep up a
sharp meisture on the skin."
"But he's no veera ceevil gin ye bring him when there's naethin' wrang,"
and Mrs. Macfayden's face reflected another of Mr. Hopps' misadventures
of which Hillocks held the copyright.
"Hopps' laddie ate grosarts (gooseberries) till they hed to sit up a'
nicht wi' him, an' naethin' wud do but they maun hae the doctor, an' he
writes 'immediately' on a slip o' paper.
"Weel, MacLure had been awa a' nicht wi' a shepherd's wife Dunleith wy,
and he comes here withoot drawin' bridle, mud up tae the cen.
"'What's a dae here, Hillocks?" he cries; 'it's no an accident, is't?'
and when he got aff his horse he cud hardly stand wi' stiffness and
"'It's nane o' us, doctor; it's Hopps' laddie; he's been eatin' ower
[Illustration: "HOPPS' LADDIE ATE GROSARTS"]
"If he didna turn on me like a tiger.
"Div ye mean tae say----'
"'Weesht, weesht,' an' I tried tae quiet him, for Hopps wes comin' oot.
"'Well, doctor,' begins he, as brisk as a magpie, 'you're here at last;
there's no hurry with you Scotchmen. My boy has been sick all night, and
I've never had one wink of sleep. You might have come a little quicker,
that's all I've got to say.'
"We've mair tae dae in Drumtochty than attend tae every bairn that hes a
sair stomach,' and a' saw MacLure wes roosed.
"'I'm astonished to hear you speak. Our doctor at home always says to
Mrs. 'Opps "Look on me as a family friend, Mrs. 'Opps, and send for me
though it be only a headache."'
"'He'd be mair sparin' o' his offers if he hed four and twenty mile tae
look aifter. There's naethin' wrang wi' yir laddie but greed. Gie him a
gude dose o' castor oil and stop his meat for a day, an' he 'ill be a'
richt the morn.'
"'He 'ill not take castor oil, doctor. We have given up those barbarous
"'Whatna kind o' medicines hae ye noo in the Sooth?'
"'Well, you see, Dr. MacLure, we're homoeopathists, and I've my little
chest here,' and oot Hopps comes wi' his boxy.
"'Let's see't,' an' MacLure sits doon and taks oot the bit bottles, and
he reads the names wi' a lauch every time.
"'Belladonna; did ye ever hear the like? Aconite; it cowes a'. Nux
Vomica. What next? Weel, ma mannie,' he says tae Hopps, 'it's a fine
ploy, and ye 'ill better gang on wi' the Nux till it's dune, and gie him
ony ither o' the sweeties he fancies.
"'Noo, Hillocks, a' maun be aff tae see Drumsheugh's grieve, for he's
doon wi' the fever, and it's tae be a teuch fecht. A' hinna time tae
wait for dinner; gie me some cheese an' cake in ma haund, and Jess 'ill
tak a pail o' meal an' water.
"'Fee; a'm no wantin' yir fees, man; wi' that boxy ye dinna need a
doctor; na, na, gie yir siller tae some puir body, Maister Hopps,' an'
he was doon the road as hard as he cud lick."
His fees were pretty much what the folk chose to give him, and he
collected them once a year at Kildrummie fair.
"Well, doctor, what am a' awin' ye for the wife and bairn? Ye 'ill need
three notes for that nicht ye stayed in the hoose an' a' the veesits."
"Havers," MacLure would answer, "prices are low, a'm hearing; gie's
"No, a'll no, or the wife 'ill tak ma ears off," and it was settled for
two pounds. Lord Kilspindie gave him a free house and fields, and one
way or other, Drumsheugh told me, the doctor might get in about L150.
a year, out of which he had to pay his old housekeeper's wages and a
boy's, and keep two horses, besides the cost of instruments and books,
which he bought through a friend in Edinburgh with much judgment.
There was only one man who ever complained of the doctor's charges, and
that was the new farmer of Milton, who was so good that he was above
both churches, and held a meeting in his barn. (It was Milton the Glen
supposed at first to be a Mormon, but I can't go into that now.) He
offered MacLure a pound less than he asked, and two tracts, whereupon
MacLure expressed his opinion of Milton, both from a theological and
social standpoint, with such vigor and frankness that an attentive
audience of Drumtochty men could hardly contain themselves. Jamie Soutar
was selling his pig at the time, and missed the meeting, but he hastened
to condole with Milton, who was complaining everywhere of the doctor's
"Ye did richt tae resist him; it 'ill maybe roose the Glen tae mak a
stand; he fair hands them in bondage.
"Thirty shillings for twal veesits, and him no mair than seeven mile
awa, an' a'm telt there werena mair than four at nicht.
"Ye 'ill hae the sympathy o' the Glen, for a' body kens yir as free wi'
yir siller as yir tracts.
"Wes't 'Beware o' gude warks' ye offered him? Man, ye choose it weel,
for he's been colleckin' sae mony thae forty years, a'm feared for him.
"A've often thocht oor doctor's little better than the Gude Samaritan,
an' the Pharisees didna think muckle o' his chance aither in this warld
or that which is tae come."