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Marie Sutherland, Rogart


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Dedicated children’s nurse Marie Sutherland spent her career outwith Sutherland but returned home to Rogart in retirement.
Dedicated children’s nurse Marie Sutherland spent her career outwith Sutherland but returned home to Rogart in retirement.

MARIE Sutherland, of Inchcape, Rogart, died in Dornoch on 7th November, 2012. Marie was the fourth in a family of five, one son, Neil, and four daughters, Margaret, Euphemia, (Jessie) Marie, and Elsie, the children of the late Donald and Jessie Sutherland. Marie’s siblings, all of whom lived well into their 80s (and in one case to the age of 95), predeceased her.

Marie’s passing, then, at the age of 94, is not only the end of a life, it is the end of a generation. And because of Marie’s longevity, coupled with the family’s centuries-long links with Inchcape, it has also been suggested that her death marks, too, the end of an era.

It is a life that may be seen to fall into three parts. The first of these, the formative years on the croft, at Blarich School, and at Golspie High, took place in the difficult years of the 1920s and 1930s, when crofters in Rogart and the wider Highlands led a pinched and hand-to-mouth existence in the midst of country-wide depression.

Years later, Marie’s brother, Neil, recalled these times of hardship: "We had some very bad losses in stock – one or two very bad lambings, a young stot drowned in the Blar Gorm, two horses died in the same year, and so on… As a family at that time we were in very poor circumstances. I can recall one rock-bottom evening when we had no food in the house…" Later in the same text, Neil adds: "In spite of these darker days, life on the croft was generally happy."

The picture he goes on to paint is one of frequent hard work, lightened by the hope and the pride and the joy of work well done, of a crop successfully harvested; of respect for and loyalty and gratitude to parents; of religious faith that must have engendered acceptance or fortitude in the face of economic hardship.

In that Marie Sutherland was one of the last people in Rogart to have known and been formed by the experience of the inter-War depression, her passing is the end of an era. Given this background, it is not surprising that Donald and Jessie Sutherland’s children – their schooling completed – should be expected to make their own way in the world. Further education was not an option.

But Marie had an ambition, to be a nurse; and a vocation, to nurse children. The surprising thing is that Marie did get the opportunity, and the professional training, to fulfil her ambition. Somehow her parents scraped together her fares, and money for books and other expenses; and Marie left home in 1936 to train at Yorkhill in Glasgow… the beginning of the second period in her life.

These are the years of her professional training and career. It was a period spent outside the Highlands, during which she qualified as a Registered Sick Children’s Nurse, then as a RGN.

She moved from Yorkhill to the Victoria Infirmary, then back again. "Quiet and unassuming… maintains discipline… capable of taking responsibilities", was the opinion of one consulting surgeon in the 1940s; and Marie was duly promoted to staff nurse, then ward sister at Yorkhill.

In the late 1950s she moved to Seafield Sick Children’s Hospital in Ayr, where she would end her career, not in 1978, when she should have retired at the age of 60; but in 1979, because they didn’t want to let her go, and she agreed to stay on for one more year.

On visits to the Seafield, I was always struck by the air of serene authority and competence Marie exuded. To colleagues she gave quiet advice and instruction in the lilting Rogart accent she never lost; and it was clear that she had their respect.

She inspired confidence. Even more memorable was her attitude towards her patients; how her face would light up when she talked of children in her charge; the obvious care and compassion in her voice. Had she so wished, I’m sure she could have gone to the top of her profession.

She ended her career as a nursing officer, but she was reluctant to give up the hands-on nursing role of a ward sister, a position that gave her profound satisfaction and happiness.

While we may regret that the care and expertise that Marie exercised in her professional career were lost to Sutherland and the Highlands, there was never any question that she would not eventually return to the north. Inchcape and Rogart, and the folk at home on the croft, were too close to her heart, and in a way they defined the course of her life. Armed from 1967 with a hard-won driving-licence and a Morris Minor, she would come home for the lambing, for two weeks in the summer, and again in the back end.

For 11 years, from the death of their mother in 1968, these thrice-yearly visits provided her sister Elsie with support and companionship in her solitude. For one as much as for the other, they were a holiday. Marie and her Morris provided liberation for Elsie, whose outings had hitherto been as far as Pittentrail, occasionally Golspie. The bright lights of Lairg and Dornoch and Brora were now within their compass.

1979, and retirement, usher in the third period in the life of Marie Sutherland. The stress of the thrice-yearly drive between Ayr and Rogart was behind her; and for the next 30-plus years she tootled contentedly in a series of cars in and around Rogart, with the occasional expedition to Inverness or Caithness. (Marie’s reputation as an octogenarian and then a nonagenarian girl-racer was almost certainly exaggerated.)

It should not be thought that retirement was one long holiday. There was the croft to run. Well into their eighties, Elsie and Marie saw to the lambing; on days of high wind and driving rain, they would go out to deal with difficult births, working as a team, sharing in the achievement of a successful lambing and the disappointment of lambs lost; and always making light of their own discomforts and difficulties.

It was always a joy to visit Elsie and Marie, largely because they were so obviously happy to see you. Occasionally, if you pressed them, they would let slip snatches of old traditions and beliefs from another era. They were avid for news about grand-nieces and grand-nephews. After a career devoted to the service of children, Marie’s interest in children and their welfare and progress never left her.

This is the fourth century that the MacUisdean Sutherlands have been in Inchcape, ever since the day that Hugh (or Uisdean) came over the hills from Strathbrora in the early – or mid-eighteenth – century. And wherever they may be, in this country or overseas, the MacUisdeans, or children of Hugh, have known that there has been a continuous and unbroken MacUisdean presence on the old croft for hundreds of years, in spite of the turmoils and trauma of clearance and depression and depopulation.

That continuity seemed under threat when Marie’s mother died, and Elsie stayed on her own for 11 years. But Elsie died three years ago, and now Marie has gone; and their house has not been occupied for a year now. The MacUisdean light that burned for hundreds of years is no longer a reassuring and welcoming presence in Inchcape. It is the end of an era.

Inchcape was the place where Marie and Elsie grew up together in difficult but not unhappy circumstances, and where they grew old together in close companionship and contentment. It was always a pleasure to observe the ways they interacted: the shared interests and values and amusements, the total devotion to one another in advancing frailty and infirmity. The illness and death of Elsie was a hard blow to Marie, who for a number of years experienced the loneliness that her sister had had to cope with in the 1960s and 1970s.

That Marie bore her solitude as well as she did was due largely to the generous support of neighbours and friends. Last year, at the age of 93, she eventually recognised that it had become impossible for her to go on living in the old home. She was worn out and weary, and in need of the care and comfort and security that the Oversteps Home in Dornoch has provided her with over the past 14 months.

After a memorial service in Pitfure Kirk on 14th November, Marie Sutherland was laid to rest, appropriately, in the Rogart she loved, at the side of Elsie with whom she shared so much. The end of a generation, the end of an era, and the end of a life of service and devotion.

NS


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