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Down Memory Lane: Raigmore Hospital in Inverness was born out of the strife of World War II

By Neil MacPhail

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Raigmore Hospital.
Raigmore Hospital.

The Inverness name 'Raigmore' is reputed to take its name from the Gaelic for 'large fortified dwelling' – and it was certainly more like a fort than a medical hub when the hospital of that name opened 80 years ago last week.

World War II was raging in 1941 and there were 250,000 troops of various nationalities massed throughout the Highlands, including Polish, French, Belgian and Dutch soldiers who had seen their countries fall to Nazi occupation.

A national plan for EMS (emergency medical service) hospitals was being rolled out and when the Department of Health looked for a local site they actually looked at Lentran. Space at Culduthel Hospital was also examined.

But when the flat ground attached to Raigmore House, owned by the Mackintosh family, was selected and compulsorily requisitioned, Raigmore Hospital was built.

An upset ND Mackintosh wrote to the Inverness Courier in November 1941, to protest: “This institution has a wrong designation. It is not Raigmore at all but Easter Drakies or, more properly, Culcabock. It is causing endless confusion.”

He claimed people kept ringing the bell at Raigmore House looking for the hospital. Nowadays, of course, with its commanding tower, it is hard to miss.

Raigmore House, a three-storey mansion dating from the 1850s, was commandeered as the headquarters for RAF Fighter Command Group 14 from 1941 to 1946 and was later used by the Royal Auxiliary Air Force until 1957 before the house was demolished in 1965.

Local firm Campbell Construction completed the hospital’s series of low brick buildings in only six months and Dr Russell Martin, regional hospital officer for the north of Scotland, signalled that it was ready to accept military patients – although local people were accepted up to May 1944, when the D-Day landings loomed.

There were 40 steam boilers to heat the hospital, with 30 stokers stoking the coke on a round-the-clock basis.

Wards 3, 6 and 7 admitted patients on the first day with wards 1, 5, 8, 2 and 4 following suit in the next days and weeks. Ward 12 opened for business in December, Ward 13 in January and 15, 10, 16 and 9 followed by mid-May.

The long, narrow wards had 38 beds, with ward 16 having a glass veranda to help TB patients gain fresh air. Sarah MacDougall, from Tobermory, became the first matron – and her duties included ordering the food!

When Colonel AES Irvine arrived as medical superintendent, he arranged film shows for each ward and had tennis courts and a football pitch installed. Dr Richard Murray became Raigmore’s orthopaedic surgeon in 1943 and organised the first Highlands and Islands orthopaedic service before retiring in 1968.

In August 1944, the first of six ambulance trains brought wounded soldiers to Inverness, with Raigmore staff boarding them at Aviemore to organise their admission.

Polish patients were irate to find German prisoners of war were being treated in a closely guarded ward. Several attempts by the Poles to gain access to the Germans were foiled which was just as well as they had jagged glass as weapons.

More than 4000 patients were admitted in Raigmore’s first year but the end of the war saw 90 per cent of admissions being civilians by 1947.

The first nurse training school began in 1946 with 12 trainees. Up to 80 trainee nurses were being taught in 1950 in a Combined Nursing School.

Those of a certain vintage will recall the Recreation Hut, a log cabin built by the Canadian Forestry Corps for hospital staff use as a “thank you” in 1945, which was still a dance venue until being pulled down in the 1970s.

The Scottish Ambulance Service replaced the Red Cross service in 1948, and Raigmore became the Inverness area ambulance base. The first RAF helicopter bringing a patient came in the early 1950s.

This year is the 70th anniversary of the opening of the first maternity wing at Raigmore, with Ian Campbell from Spean Bridge the first baby born there, while the first paediatric unit followed in 1955.

In 1956, the Mackintosh family, whose land had been seized in wartime, received £6000 from the government for the 65 acres of hospital grounds. Raigmore, 15 years old, was ready for a bright future, as we shall see next week.

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