Tales of life as an island GP

North Ronaldsay Doctor, the life of an island GP by Robin Ditchburn. The Orcadian Kirkwall Press, £13.99.

Although this delightful book of memoirs of an island doctor is about Orkney it will surely strike a chord with Shetland readers, providing as it does a picture of a vanished era.

Robin Ditchburn came from the hectic life of Leeds General Infirmary to be GP in North Ronaldsay in 1967, in order to spend more time with his young family and further his studies. A place without mains electricity and with only two roads must have seemed very alien, but in his book Dr Ditchburn paints an affectionate and unsentimental picture of the island.

The unreliable water supplies, the hoisting of a flag to herald the arrival of the steamer, the clearing of kye from the runway and the lighting of paraffin lamps for the plane to take off in a medical emergency are all remembered in detail and depicted with gentle humour.

The doctor became fond of his 140 patients – often referred to by the place where they lived, such as Maureen Roadside – but soon found island life demanded multi-tasking. In his capacity of doctor he was called upon to perform duties other than strictly medical ones – he had to remove teeth and inject a recently-castrated bullock in the absence of dentist and vet. Even more scarily he was called on to take the role of minister on several occasions.

He also has happy memories of local characters, including his alcoholic GP predecessor and the island’s aeroplane pilot who had been known to tell passengers to take the controls while he smoked a cigarette.

Additionally the book affords some insight into the life of the Ditchburn family, and it makes a refreshing change to read about a happy marriage, healthy children and a generally fulfilling life.

Dr Ditchburn, who later worked in Walls where he now lives, spent nearly three years in North Ronaldsay and his recollections are enhanced by the excellent photos of the island and its characters.

Rosalind Griffiths


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