The tale of Andrew Kerr

Andrew leant on the cairn and and stared out at the view. From the top of Law Hill it is possible to see the River Tay where it broadens out by the McInnes Banks; the town of Dundee is just visible to the North-East, beyond the woods and fertile fields of the Carse;  and by looking to the West, the Gallow Hill near Leetown just hides Clashbenny, where Andrew was born. But he was not looking at any of the familiar landmarks: for once, he wasn’t watching or spying on anything, because he was concentrating on making a decision about what he should do.

After a long while, when he had convinced himself that there could only be one solution, he set off down the hill, past the old mansion with its charred and jagged roof timbers; round the carriage drive built by his father and grandfather long before he was born, and now carpeted by grass and other weeds; and along the overgrown avenue that led past his own home and towards the road. At the gardener’s cottage, which was almost hidden by the skirmishing Clematis montana and a ‘Marshall Neil’ – a heavy, old-fashioned rose that his uncle remembered being planted —  he paused, and snapped off a couple of late flowers and sniffed at their browning petals, but their scent was as pale and autumnal as their colour.

He briefly caught another scent, acrid and sharp,and he paused again then stepped softly into the walled garden, looking round for the fox. A blackbird exploded out of the weeds beneath an apple tree, its clattering alarm drawing Andrew’s attention to the remaining windfalls. Small birds chittered in the ivy that had grown up over the wall.

The garden was reverting to wilderness, a wilderness of imported exotic plants where only  those that could tolerate the long northern winters triumphed. It had once been a fine garden, with deep herbaceous beds, and paths lined by rose pergolas and pleached apples and pears. There had been lilies: the day-lilies had survived, but the tall speckled Lanceolatum rubrifolium, were long gone. Even their metal labels had vanished in the tangle.

The vegetable patch that he and Danny had cleared for their own use was thick with yellowing groundsel and chickweed. “Dig for Victory!” What a stupid idea that had been! All those Englishmen on the radio, telling them to do this, do that. What did they know about anything? His irritation flared briefly and he picked up a stone and hurled it at a broken sheet of glass, causing the  blackbird to shout indignantly again. He and Danny had had to dig for themselves and Cathie – there had been no-one here to stop them because the gardener had gone off to fight. Cathie had not been happy with what she called their thieving, but she had soon been pleased enough to have the extra food. Andrew  screwed up his face in sudden anguish and clutched at his beard. If only Cathie were still with them, then he would not have to do this terrible thing.


There was no light in the cottage, but he could hear music when he opened the door. Daniel was sitting in the big armchair, so still that Andrew was momentarily shocked into thinking that he had already died.

“Danny? Danny!  What’s wrong?”

His brother stirred, and opened his eyes, bemused. “Andy – where have you been? It’s almost dark. Light the lamp, Andy.” He slowly pushed himself up out of the chair.

“I picked you some roses.”

“Ah, the good Marshall Neil. And did you dig us some leeks, too?”

Andrew flicked a sideways glance at him, then made himself busy lighting the lamp. “There’s not much paraffin. You will need to get some more tomorrow.”

Daniel sighed. “Aye. And the radio battery is getting low, it needs to be taken for re-charging.”

Andy turned the knob on the radio, but the voices which had replaced the music were now barely audible. He waggled the contacts on the accumulator, but the radio merely whistled and crackled in response. “We could use the one I’ve been mending for Mrs McGillivray. You can take it back to her in the hand-cart tomorrow when you go down to the shop, and she will never know.”

Danny was leaning against the table, gripping its edge, still holding the two roses in his other hand.


“Andy, I want you to listen to me. You must take a note to the farm. I will write a note and ask them to send for the doctor. I think it would be best if he could come here soon.”

Soon? You are not needing a doctor, you are only feeling tired because you are hungry. You will be better after we have had our tea. Here – ” Andrew opened the small cupboard that acted as their larder, “We still have two eggs. Mrs McGillivray will pay us with more eggs tomorrow. And we have potatoes. I will go back right now and pick up some apples to stew …” Not the doctor, not yet, he had only just decided what to do! He needed more time to get used to the idea. “I will go back and fetch some apples,” he said again. “I will dig some leeks too.” Panic welled up inside him, and his hands began to shake.

“No, Andy. You cannot go for apples in the dark, don’t be daft, lad. Tend to the range and put the kettle on to boil.”

Daniel went to their father’s oak bureau that had come with them from the other house, and took out some paper and a pen, but the ink, when he opened it, was dry and hard. “I shall have to write with a pencil and that will not look good,” he muttered.

“You know I cannot go to the farm!”

“It will be all right. It is dark and they will not see you – leave the note under a stone by the door. The dogs will be tied up for the night, so you need not fear.” Daniel spoke kindly, as he wrote. “It is all right, Andrew. The doctor will give me some medicine and I will be better soon.”


Edington drove up the rough track past the cemetery, fearing for the car’s undercarriage. The louring gloom of the trees that pressed in on each side added to his feeling that the journey was timeless, and might never end; fallen branches caused him to swerve and muddy water splashed up from untended pot-holes. When he reached the cottage he remained uneasy. Its door was closed, the place looked shut up and empty – but there was a sweet smell of wood-smoke that was drifting from the chimney. There would be no shortage of wood for the forester’s sons, he thought, even if they had little else.

He shut the car door with a heavy thud, and the front door of the cottage opened at once, suggesting the men had been waiting for him.

On his last visit, with Ian Smillie, the patient – if he could be called that, the “subject”, perhaps would be more accurate – had taken himself to his room, to lie down on his bed, and they had had to climb the narrow stairs to examine him. Daniel had remained downstairs in the living-room; he seemed to know what his younger  brother was proposing, but Edington wondered if he knew the reason for this late-in-life decision: that Andrew was frightened that Daniel – who was now clearly suffering from the gradual onslaught of pernicious anaemia – might die and leave him on his own. And Daniel Kerr had never been allowed to see “the Thing”, as Andrew called it. Not since Andrew was a wee lad.

But now both brothers stood at the open door, Andrew  staring out and apparently anxious to start his journey.

Daniel took his arm: “Andrew, let the doctor by, he’ll be needing a rest and a cup of tea after his journey.”

But Andrew did not even greet Edington, and rudely pushed past him. Edington noted that he smelt less unpleasant than previously, and his black hair and beard, still surprisingly free of grey for a man of fifty, had been washed and combed: perhaps his brother had had some influence there.

“That isn’t a two-seater. The other doctor said we were to drive there in his Allard.”

Edington was taken aback. “I’m very sorry, Mr Kerr. Mr Smillie has had to attend a meeting at the Infirmary today. But my car’s a Riley Kestrel, and I’m sure you’ll find it an exciting ride. I will do my best to make it so,” he added, jokingly. Of course someone as senior as Smillie would have had no intention of collecting Kerr himself, the man must have misunderstood.

Daniel Kerr had come outside too, and Edington observed that he seemed even paler and weaker than on the previous visit. Unlike his brother, he was grey-haired and slightly balding, and his body was thin and stooped. “I am sorry, doctor, he has never been in any sort of motor-car before, and even when he went in the wagon it was not on a main road. Hearing the other doctor talk about his cars made him really excited.” He was clearly very anxious. “It’s what has kept him to his resolve, you see.”

Edington nodded, and said quietly, “Don’t worry yourself, Mr Kerr. I’ll get him to the hospital.” He walked back to the car and opened a rear door. He smiled at Andrew. “See, there is a fine green leather bucket-seat, and it has a pneumatic cushion to ensure you can sit comfortably. And do you see the blind on the back window? You can pull it down with this cord if the sun is too bright.” Andrew remained where he was, not to be coerced, so Edington opened the front passenger door. “Or you would be welcome to sit in the front next to me, if you think you would prefer that. You will have a better view of the road, and you will be able to examine the gears and dials as we drive.”

Andrew looked directly at Edington for the first time, then quickly averted his eyes, before he nodded.

“Aye. I will sit at the front.”

He climbed in, and for a moment his long skirt, which appeared to be made of a length of woollen cloth, of a non-descript colour, caught on the sill, and he moaned and made little panting noises as he pulled it close around his legs.

“I will fetch your clothes, Andy,” Daniel called and he picked up the cloth bag that was resting by the door and brought it across to Edington. ” I have added a few things from his room. And a pair of my own trousers  …. They might not fit too well. But I thought he might need them. After.”

He twitched his neck and rested his head awkwardly against his right shoulder, then he bent down to touch his brother on the shoulder.

“You will be all right, then, Andy? The doctor will fetch you back here soon.”

Andrew looked up at him. “I wish Cathie could have come. I wish you could come,” he said, almost pleadingly.

Daniel patted him, and nodded, and when he stood up Edington was embarrassed to see that the man had tears in his eyes.

“Is there really no-one who could come and visit him?”

Daniel shook his head. “Our elder brother’s a forester over at Blairgowrie, and he would not be able to get away. And both our sisters have – passed on. How long will he be in there, doctor?”

“I cannot say, Mr Kerr. But perhaps a week or two.”

“It will be strange. I have never been on my own — in sixty years. And Andrew has always had us to look out for him.  Always …” He turned away, but then quickly turned back and beckoned for Edington to come close. “He is not at all used to other folk, you know that? He will be very troubled.”

“I understand, and I will make sure they understand that at the hospital.” Privately, though, Edington was deeply worried.

He shut the passenger door, and when he had walked round and climbed in behind the steering wheel, he saw that Daniel had already disappeared inside the cottage, and that Andrew was peering at the dials on the dashboard and fidgeting uncomfortably in his seat. Edington was a young man, still in his thirties, and the thought of the long drive to the hospital at Bridge of Earn in the company of this gruff, unmannerly recluse, made him a little apprehensive.

After half an hour, Andrew was so uncomfortable and fearful that he could not remain silent.

“Stop! I want to sit in the back.” He hadn’t meant to shout. “Please.”

The doctor immediately braked and pulled the car over. “Of course,” he said and got out, coming round to help Andrew with the door. “I have no doubt that it is all a little over-whelming,” he murmured.

Andrew, standing on the verge and in the open air, had a sudden urge to run, to run home to safety and familiarity, away from his enforced proximity to this stranger, and the smell of leather and tobacco smoke. But Dr Edington caught hold of his elbow and gently guided him towards the rear seat. “Now, you spread out and make yourself more comfortable,” he said, in a kindly manner. “And the bag that your brother made up for you is right there beside you. You can open the window by turning this handle, if that would help.”

Cold air streamed in noisily but Andrew felt less trapped. The doctor spoke to him sometimes and asked him questions, perhaps about his family – Andrew could see his eyes in the tiny mirror –  but it was difficult to hear and Andrew would not answer.  He stared out at the changing countryside, the gentle hills of the Carse, the fields of stubble, the small wizened apples left on the trees; he stared at the metalled road, the houses, the motor-cars and occasional lorries; the bridges and river crossings. The doctor pointed out a train, trailing staccato puffs of smoke as it climbed an incline, but that was no novelty for Andrew  – he had often watched the trains near Errol. He had never been so far from home and yet he was soon disappointed, with the motor-car, with the villages, the journey. He pulled his jacket tight around him, lifted his bundle of belongings onto his lap, and closed his eyes.

The hospital was the final disappointment, this was not the grand stone building such as he had imagined, but seemed to be a collection of long low sheds. Dr Edington parked the Riley in front of one of them, and said, “We’re here, Mr Kerr — let me take you inside.”

As they walked up the wooden steps, Andrew said, “You will go back and look after my brother, you must promise.” It was an order, of sorts, and Edington knew it was important he should agree.


The day was not going well, Murdoch thought.

Matron had had to be very determined with Kerr, it had been a difficult job to clean him before his examination. He’d become noisy and quite aggressive, indeed he had shouted, that nobody was to come near him, and he would wash himself, but Matron had eventually persuaded him that his skin needed to be cleaned in a special way for the operation and that he must allow her to do it. Murdoch, who had only recently taken up his appointment as Registrar, thought that Matron had, in the end, been surprisingly gentle with the man and had managed to gain his confidence to a small extent. He was also rather impressed that Matron had taken the task of washing and disinfecting the man and his grotesque appendage upon herself.

Her comment, directed at Murdoch, had been a quiet reproof:

“From what Dr Edington has told me, it seems that Mr Kerr has lived like a recluse for all his life – and who, Mr Murdoch, having seen the disability that the poor man has had to bear, can blame him? I will be frank with you. I think the man is very frightened.”

Later, Murdoch had to speak sharply to Nurse Thomas because he overheard her gossiping and giggling with Nurse Stephens, “Did you see the size of it? He keeps it strapped to his right leg in the daytime. He can’t wear pyjamas, we didn’t know what to dress him in!”

The patient, wearing a dressing-gown, had been walked across to the radiology building yesterday to have several X-rays taken, and today when the radiographer had discussed the plates with Murdoch and Smillie he had pointed out a shadow in the mediastinal area that could possibly be a large tumour. This had been an unpleasant surprise for the surgeon and his Registrar, but since Kerr had made no complaints about chest pains and seemed to be suffering no ill effects, the chances were that it was benign. It would have to be ignored for the present, Smillie said, and the patient would not be informed.

It was the man’s third leg that was the focus of their attention. The X-rays of Kerr’s extra limb showed that the femur articulated via a bony ankylosis with a distorted tibia, but the patella and fibula were absent: the toes of the inverted stunted foot had the normal complement of bones plus an additional toe that lacked a nail. It was the proximal end of the leg that concerned them, where there was half of a rudimentary pelvis: but it seemed to be unattached.

“Let’s go and have another look at the man himself,” Smillie said. “Get MacLeod to come too and take some photos – we shall get them today however obstructive our patient tries to be!”

“Perhaps he will find it easier if we keep the female staff away and deal with him ourselves?”

But despite banishing the nurses, Murdoch’s hope was ill-founded and another furious battle of words ensued before Kerr would allow photographs to be taken of the lateral and posterior aspects of his third limb.

Smillie remained as affable and impeccably well-mannered as usual. “I apologise for the trouble to which we have put you, Mr Kerr, and I wonder whether – since you will soon begin a new life with, I hope, a great deal of freedom from its former contraints – you would also wish to have your beard shaved and your hair trimmed? To give you a new appearance as a form of celebration?”

Andrew Kerr ignored him completely, and merely picked up his gown and began to cover himself again.

As he and Smillie walked back to the surgeon’s office, Murdoch said, “Why did he never get anything done about it before? Fifty years, for goodness’ sake!”

“I asked Edington the same question, although of course he’s far too young to have had any personal involvement himself, and he put me in touch with old Liddell in Edinburgh, he was the local chap at Errol, you know, before Edington. Liddell was there at Kerr’s birth, and he told me the father was the forester for the Murie estate, when the Ogilvie Dalgleish family had it. Apparently the father died about 20 years ago, though he’d carried on working until he was seventy-odd. A tree fell on him or something like that, one of the hazards of the job I suppose.” Smillie laughed as he sat down behind his desk. “Of course they had to move from their tied house, but the estate looked after them, still looks after them according to Liddell, even though it’s been fragmented and bits and pieces have been sold off. Kerr’s brother – the one with pernicious anaemia, interesting case incidentally – worked there in some sort of capacity too before he had to give up. The Lady Dalgleish or whoever it is that owns it now probably felt she still had some sort of obligation. Rightly so, of course. Would you mind sticking your head out of the door and asking someone to bring us some tea, Murdoch?”

Murdoch went to find one of the secretaries, wondering as he did so if Mr Smillie had the same paternalistic attitude to the servants on his Sutherland estates.

When he returned to the office, Smillie was holding Kerr’s X-rays to the light again. “But you asked me why this limb -” he tapped the plate, ” –  remained in situ. It’s an absolutely fascinating story. Liddell told me that when he delivered the child he recommended that the appendage be removed at once — it was very small in relation to the rest of the child’s anatomy at that time. But the parents refused! And their reason? The birth of this ‘monster’ – that is the word the father used – was a punishment to them for some unspeakable sins of their forebears. Liddell wasn’t allowed to see the boy again until he reached adolescence — they hid the boy away, wheeled him around in a perambulator. He wore a kilt until the limb was too big, then a dressing-gown – so Liddell heard. Unbelievable, isn’t it? Come in!  Ah, the tea. Yes, just put the tray there will you?”

Murdoch remained silent as he tried to imagine Andrew Kerr’s early years. He shook his head in amazement. “Unbelievable!”

“I hope I’m not being unreasonably optimistic but I cannot see that this operation will afford us too many difficulties, Murdoch. There seems to be nothing needed in the way of separating a bony connection and I suspect the main problem will be in fashioning a suitable skin flap. I am assuming that the tests are accurate and there is no connection to the urethra. It should be considerably less taxing than operating on the knee-joint.”

Murdoch smiled politely, acknowledging that Smillie’s great oeuvre, Injuries of the Knee Joint, had just been published to great acclaim.

“If all goes well, our Mr Kerr should be back home with his brother in a few weeks. I gather from Edington that the elder brother is now fairly poorly, so perhaps they will have a reversal of fortunes – the revitalised younger Kerr caring for the elder.”

Can two men change the habits of their long life-times? Murdoch wondered. Edington had told him privately that he was extremely concerned about Andrew Kerr’s future state of mind. Murdoch wondered, too, if Andrew Kerr had always known his parents considered that he was a monster and a punishment: surely not, for what child or man could live with that knowledge about themselves?

“I also gathered from Liddell that two of the father’s brothers changed their names and emigrated to the USA. Fascinating, don’t you think? One does wonder about the gravity of the so-called ‘sins’. Well, we have an interesting day ahead of us tomorrow.” Smillie picked up his wide-brimmed black fedora and took his overcoat from the hanger. “Good night, Murdoch. See you in the morning, bright and early.”


 There was more food than Andrew was used to. When he first arrived he had been too nervous to eat, but as his wound began to heal and knew he was getting better and would go home, he had begun to eat well. He wondered if he could take some of the food home with him. One day he had been served liver; he hated the taste and texture of it – but Danny needed to eat liver to make himself well again.They had lent him a radio, too, the modern sort without a battery that plugged into a socket in the wall. At first he had had to lie in bed on his side to let the wound drain and heal, and he had listened to the radio all the time, ignoring the staff and their interference and questions. They touched him, too, lifting him, pushing his body around.

When he was allowed to swing his legs off the bed and stand, he was weak and unstable, as though he would at any moment fall forward on his face. Dr Murdoch had held his arm and explained that there was no counterweight behind him. Had it been so heavy? It had always been part of him, so he didn’t know. He frequently slipped his hand into the back of his pyjama trousers, his fingers probing the deep indentation and wrinkled skin on his right buttock. “The Thing” had really gone. Its absence upset and puzzled him.

He knew how to deal with the hospital now. You asked the nurses to get you things, and if you told them to go away, they usually did. He disliked the nurses, they were mostly young women who were always rude and giving him orders or disagreeing with him. The Matron was all right although she was very strict with him, the way mother had been.

He wanted to go home so much that sometimes his heart actually ached. He thought constantly about Murie, and he worried about Danny, he wished he knew what he was doing. He thought he might even show Danny the Thing, now it was not joined on to him; Dr Murdoch said they had put it in a big bottle.

” Will you give it to me now?” he had asked Mr Smillie,  a couple of days after the operation. “I will take it home with me.”

Mr Smillie laughed, “My dear fellow! No, of course you cannot take it with you.”

“Why are you laughing? It’s mine, it belongs to me. What are you going to do with it?” He was speaking too loudly, he knew, although he was weak with rage.

“We shall take care of it for you, do not worry, Mr Kerr.” Mr Smillie smiled coldly and gestured to the two young doctors who were accompanying him that they should all move on.

Andrew continued to ask for the Thing to be returned to him. Two weeks after the operation his skin was healed but now, when he asked, no-one even listened any more. He hated being here, with the noise and smells and so many people, never any peace, everyone talking and poking and pushing things at him. He had to escape, he needed to be outdoors. He climbed out of bed and felt around in the little cupboard for his bag. There were trousers in there, and the rest of his clothes. His fingers searched for and found the small hard object, and he pulled it out and stroked it: the flake of red sandstone that he had found in Clashbenny Quarry, with the embedded fossil fish. Danny had put it in the bag to remind him of his room at home.

He had to go home! But he had no idea how to get there, it must be a long way. His legs felt weak, but he would walk, if he knew in which direction. Then he had an idea. He left his room and walked down the corridor to the Ward Sister’s desk.

“I want to see Dr Edington,” he said.

“He doesn’t work here, Mr Kerr, and I’m afraid I don’t know when he”s next expected. But I’m sure he’ll be coming soon to see how you are getting on. And now, since you are here, I have a letter for you. But before I give it to you Mr MacLeod wants to take another photograph to show how well you have healed.”

“NO!” Andrew bellowed. ” No more photographs. You’ve no business to be looking at me any more. I want to go home, I want Dr Edington to take me home.”

The Sister took his arm and he struggled hard and pushed her away. MacLeod grabbed him too, and all the while he was shouting, shouting that they should leave him alone and give him back ‘the Thing’ and let him go home. It was, finally, too much. His throat was tight, he began to sob.

“I want to go home.”

Great shuddering breaths and howling sounds burst from him.

Matron walked briskly to the desk to see what the racket was about, but she seemed to understand at once and she put an arm round Andrew”s shoulder.

“Now then, Mr Kerr. We’ll send you home very soon. Come along now, we’ll go back into your room and we’ll let Mr MacLeod take his photographs, then Sister will give you the letter that came for you. And perhaps we can get you a cup of tea.” Andrew could not stop shaking and tears poured down his face and into his beard, but he let Matron take him to be undressed and photographed.

“Would you like Sister to send someone to read the letter to you?” she asked afterwards. He stared at her, uncomprehendingly. “In case you find it difficult …”

He looked at Daniel’s round clear writing on the envelope, writing that he knew so well, for had he not copied it hundreds, thousands of times, when Cathie and Daniel taught him to read and write.

“I am not blind, nor am I stupid.” he said. “I will read it myself.”

Danny must have been to the shop to buy some new ink: “Dear Andy, I hope your op has gone well and that you are getting better. I saw Dr E. two days ago in the village and he said he would come and see you next week and bring you home if you were well. The house is strange without you, and I hope you will come home soon. Perhaps we can go down to Port Allen together. I went down there after you left and I saw a kingfisher. Do you remember how we all went with father to see the big windjammer that had come in for potatoes? It was a 200-tonner with two masts …”

I was only ten or twelve, Andrew thought, so Daniel would have been twenty or so, working for our uncle who was a pendicler over at Whiteriggs. Father had come back from Murie, and said he had seen the big ship from the road. Cathie was with us too, but surely she should have been working at the Dowager House in those days? He frowned, trying to remember why she was at Clashbenny; probably she had come over to hear him read, she liked to make him read from the Bible. They were all going to go down to the quay. Not me, I had to stay at home with mother.

Andrew stared unseeingly at the letter. He had gone out, though, up the Gallow Hill, and he had seen the masts in the distance, with its great white sails furled. So he had run away, down to the port. There were herons in the trees. And there were so many people, but he had not cared, he had seen his father with Daniel and Cathie, and he had run to them, and held onto Daniel. People had stared at him, but Cathie had taken his hand, too.

They saw their elder sister Jane, and she came over with her husband and their son James. It was her fault, really. She made a fuss of Andrew and said he and James should go and have a closer look at the ship. Cathie said to stay with her, but Andrew had thought he would go, he would be all right with family.

Then that girl had seen him. “Lookit him! There’s the wee bogeyman, the bairn wi’ a tail. Gie’s a lookit yer tail, laddie!” Everyone, all the villagers, all the crew, had looked at him.

Andrew remembered, even now, how he had run and run, leaving Danny and Cathie behind. He had hidden in the quarry until it was dark and they were out calling for him to come home.

Their father had been furious, but not with him. “How do they know?” was all he kept saying, “How did they find out?”, and their mother had said, “It would have been Jane, she never could keep her mouth shut, she was always making mischief even when she was a lass.”

They had never bothered much with Jane and her family after that.

” … and we watched her from up by the Greystane when they took her out on the tide. Do you remember what a fine sight she was? I thought I would like to join the navy and go to sea.”

But I wouldn’t let you, Andrew thought. And you’ve left out the bad bits, Danny.

He climbed into his bed. There was a rage and sadness deep within him. He had been cheated, all his life. But now he would lie here and wait for Doctor Edington. He will soon come and take me home, he thought, and Danny and I will go down to the port and watch for herons and kingfishers, and in the Spring we will collect duck-eggs. Perhaps we will even walk to the old quarry and look for fossils.

As he lay there with his eyes closed, another idea came to him. When he was back home, he would look in the bureau for Uncle Daniel’s letters to their father, that had been full of news about plants and trees and the farmland he had bought, somewhere ‘out West’. Perhaps he and Danny should take a trip to find their cousins in America; perhaps the cousins could even help them with the fare.

(C) Ann Lingard 2011



The names of the “man with three legs” and his family have been changed. However, the archival research by Anne Carroll (see below), and some details (including letters) generously provided by the great-grandson of one of the “uncles who went to America”, helped me to find out – then fictionalise – some aspects of the ‘Kerr’s’ family life.

Here are some facts:

‘Andrew Kerr’ was in hospital for nearly 4 weeks.

He died at home approximately three months after his discharge from hospital, on April 2nd 1949, aged 50. The cause of death is entered on the certificate as “teratoma of the lung; gastro-enteritis; cardiac failure”. His death was certified by Robert S Edington, and “Daniel Kerr, Brother”, was the registered Informant.

According to the Smillie & Murdoch paper (see below) “he died … from an acute infection of the urinary tract.”

‘Daniel Kerr’, ‘”forester, retired”, died four years after his brother in hospital, in November 1953, of broncho-pneumonia and cardiac failure, aged 64.

I S Smillie presented a paper about his (unnamed) patient and his unusual condition at the Joint Meeting of the Orthopaedic Association in July 1952; he and JS Murdoch published a written paper, with photographs, titled “The man with three legs” in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery in November 1952; the patient was not named.

The amputated extra leg, donated by Smillie,  is preserved as specimen GC13817 in the Collection of the Surgeons’ Hall Museum.

'andrew kerr' leg1

Other resources

Lawrence Melville 1935. Errol: its legends, lands and people. Thos Hunter & Son Ltd. Perth

The Parish of Errol: from the ‘New’ (1834-1845) and Third Statistical Accounts of Scotland (‘Errol’ account written in 1953)

Some information about Drs Edington, Liddell and Murdoch was gleaned from various British Medical Journals for the period; that about Ian Smillie (1907-1992) from Surgeons’ Lives: An anthology of biographies of College Fellows over 500 years, …..

All archival research (censuses, births and deaths registers etc for the Errol area) was carried out by Anne Carroll, Local Studies Assistant, A K Bell Library, York Place, Perth PH2 8EP; Anne also pointed me in the direction of many other useful sources.


Head-to-head: the plaster-casters

All we see are the heads and upper torsos of two men, in profile, facing each other across a table.

George Bailey is in his early 20s, with a slightly fleshy face, bags under his eyes, and red hair. He has traces of white plaster stuck to his hair and in front of his ear; his dark jacket is flecked with white. A white mask with strings protruding – clearly a mould of his own face – is on the table in front of him.

Gilbert Alexander’s age and the details of his features cannot be determined: his face is entirely covered in a coating of stiff Plaster of Paris; his mouth is slightly open showing his teeth, and there are two straws stuck in the plaster by his nose through which he is apparently breathing – just. His shoulders are covered by a white sheet.


GILBERT (gesticulating and pointing at his face): Mmm! Mmm-mm-mm

GEORGE: Just a few more minutes, it’s nearly set. (Touches the mask). Are you getting warm in there, Gilbert? A wee bit sweaty? No, don’t say a word – as if you could, heh heh! Don’t want the mask to slip, do we?

He yawns and stretches and looks at his watch.

Right, time’s up, we’ll have it off you now. Gently does it ..

Between them Gilbert and George pull the strings and prise the mask off Gilbert’s face which is red and glistening with oil. We see that Gilbert Alexander is in his 40s, fine-featured with a thin bony nose, prominent cheekbones and sandy hair; he wipes his face and eyebrows fastidiously with a cloth.

 GILBERT: (slightly shocked) I truly thought I was going to die in there, the heat when it’s curing is quite extraordinary. Indeed, for a few moments I had rather that I had been dead and you had been making my death-mask, then at least I wouldn’t have had to worry about where my next breath was coming from. (He discreetly spits into his handkerchief and wipes his mouth)

GEORGE: (Turning the plaster mould this way and that). You really should’ve gone for the botox option.  What colour are your eyes? Open wide, let’s have a keek.

GILBERT: They’re grey, and they are not blood-shot. (He takes the mould and feels the inside). Hmmm. I suggest we go for a wax cast instead of plaster, and try for a better flesh tone with those new pigments that arrived last week. I’m hopeful that they’ll be more miscible with wax than the previous set.

GEORGE: If you could see the colour of your face! Crimson Lake’s the only one we need. Still, better red than dead. And to think we do this to folk who are about to go under the knife! Talk about upping their stress levels. Aye, we’ll give those new colours a go and if they work I’d like to make another wax cast of that Mrs Fraser, the first one I did looks a bit peely-wally. I’ve had an order for another plaster positive of her pre-op mould, by the way. She’s one popular lady.

mrs fraser pre-op
Plaster-cast of Mrs Fraser with facial tumour  (with thanks to Andrew Connell for this photo)

GILBERT: She had a popular tumour, I would say. But you made a good effort with her, George, and her post-op cast is very fine. She’s got a lovely smile, she looks very serene.

GEORGE: Yeah. Despite the whacking great hole that Liston left in her cheek!  But she looks even better now it’s healed.

GILBERT: Mister Liston to you, lad. And how do you know she looks better now, anyway?

mrs fraser post-op1
Plaster-cast of Mrs Fraser post-operation, plus cast of tumour (photo: Ann Lingard)

GEORGE: I’ll update you on that in a minute. But that post-op cast – you’ll have noticed I had to sculpt her face a bit, right? Then I stuck the face onto the pre-op sides of her head, you can see the bonnet’s the same in both. But I had a pretty good look at her during the op and Perry let me see his pre-op drawing too. She was real quiet and dignified, that Mrs Fraser, not a peep out of her though she’d had some teeth pulled out and Liston was sawing away at her palate. I’m proud of the cast of the tumour, though – did you see the size of the thing?

GILBERT: Aye, it must be half the size of her head! When I saw it I could scarcely believe it. It’s not a wonder that her cheek’s so stretched and shiny – you captured the veins sticking out to perfection, lad, like worms crawling over the surface. That was a good mould you made.

GEORGE: Not like your cast of Robert Penman – his face looks like a pig’s bladder, it’s that smooth. That’s not your best work, Gilbert.

GILBERT: No. But … (he pauses, shaking his head) … but .. well, that was the first time I’ve ever thought that I wouldn’t be able to do my job, George. The poor young fellow. That tumour! It was all raw and wet and bursting out of his mouth, I don’t know how he’d been able to eat all those months – and yet he seemed a strong well-made lad. It was just a great wet red mass, it made me want to retch just looking at it, let alone having to touch it. You can imagine what it was like, ladling the plaster over it and hope it wouldn’t slip off.  (He shudders and shakes his head again.) To tell you the truth, it’s more of a sculpture than a mask.

GEORGE: Yeah. Tricky, right? I guessed you’d had to have him tip his head way back, because his eyes are looking upwards.  Mrs Fraser was wet too, she was dribbling all the time because her mouth was so twisted. (He pulls his cheek and mouth down with his hand to show.) She had to hold a hankie against it all the time she was talking to Liston. She’d had the thing for years …

GILBERT: It’s not the same. Penman was raw. (The memory worries him, he keeps shaking his head). But it was not my best, you’re right. I’d have had another go at him if I’d been allowed. But Mr Syme was getting impatient …

He’s not at all bad at casting, by the way. He’s done quite a few anatomical specimens himself. But I reckon no-one can beat William Hunter’s gravid uterus series for beauty, they’re –

GEORGE: So do you want to hear about Mrs Fraser or not, eh?

GILBERT: Well, you’ve seen her again, that’s obvious. Go on then, what’s she like?

GEORGE: (sticks his head forward towards Gilbert:, and points at his own chin) Punch me in the mouth, then – go on! Break my teeth!

GILBERT: (rears back) What? What on earth has that to do with it?

GEORGE: Smash my teeth to bits and then I’ll be rich because I’ll get a gold palate. Custom-made. By my friend Mr Nasmyth.(George smirks and taps his nose)

 GILBERT: Pah. You have lost your mind.

GEORGE: Mr Nasmyth admires my work, dontcher know. I’ll be famous, you’ll see. He’d seen my casts of Mrs Fraser and he said he wanted to make a cast of the inside of her mouth so he could fit her with a palate – and that he’d like my ‘opinion on the feasibility’. That’s what he said.

GILBERT: Well, aren’t you the important one, then?

GEORGE: (smirks) But in the end he didn’t require my expertise. He came by a couple of days ago to show me the wax impressions that he’d made – not bad for a beginner – and said that Mrs Fraser had come down from Banchory to be fitted, and she was in the Infirmary and I should go and see her. She’d been asking after me!

GILBERT: She’d been asking after you?

GEORGE: Aye, Gilbert – me. She’d been asking after ‘Mr Baillie’, so he could visit her to see how much she was improved, Mr Nasmyth said. She remembered me because I’d done two casts of her, and you don’t get forgotten when you’re up close and personal like that. Anyway, older women always fancy me, Gilbert, but you’re too old to understand that.

GILBERT: Cheeky young bugger. So you obviously went to see her.

GEORGE: I did. Her own doctor was there, he’d come down from Banchory way to see how she was doing – Mr Adams, is he?

GILBERT: Adams of Lumphanan, that’s him. Aye,  he’s the Greek scholar. But of course you’re not educated enough to know that. He’s got a good reputation as a surgeon, too – the story goes that he once set a femur with a spirtle!

GEORGE: (dryly) Well now, there’s a thing. Anyway, as I was saying … Mrs Fraser’s face is really good now, you can even understand what she’s on about, because of this new palate. Dr Adams said she was the happiest woman he knew – from the point of view of her appearance, anyway. (whispers) I heard she was having to stay in the Infirmary a bit longer because she’d had a miscarriage – at her age! She’s old, man! She’s at least 40. Guess her old man found he fancied her again after her face-lift, eh?

GILBERT: (sits back, away from George) You’re disgusting, do you know that? There are times when I don’t know why I bother with you.

GEORGE: You don’t, mostly – bother, that is.

They are silent for a bit, each picking up their plaster casts and rubbing at bits, turning them this way and that. Eventually, Gilbert’s curiosity is too much for him.

Bust of Liston

 GILBERT: So, did your Mr Nasmyth say anything about Professor Liston – do you think Professor Liston knows what Nasmyth’s done to his patient?

GEORGE: (holding his mask against his face; his voice is muffled) Bound to, they’re friends aren’t they? But if Liston doesn’t it’s his own fault, the great drama queen. Flouncing off to London in a huff just because Syme was given the Clinical Chair. What a pair of prima donnas!

GILBERT: (laughs) Edinburgh just isn’t large enough for those two big egos to co-exist. You’d never guess they’d been friends and colleagues when they were younger. I can remember when James Syme was Mr Liston’s assistant. Mr Syme’s the better surgeon, mind you, probably the best. Mr Liston – Professor Liston now, of course – he’s all flourish and flashing knives, just as likely to slash the leg of his assistant if he’s standing too close. Can you remember how long Mrs Fraser’s op took?

GEORGE: Blimey, it was a year or so ago, Gilbert, so I’m not too sure now  – but it wasn’t that long. Maybe an hour?

GILBERT: Mr Syme took 24 minutes with Robert Penman!  He called out for us to check our watches. And he hardly spilt any blood, even though there was a great mass of bone and teeth and tissue to come out – he weighed it afterwards, 4 ½ pounds! It was a wonder to watch. He says he operates as fast as possible so the patient hardly has time to feel the pain, but he was very careful of Penman, you know – he stopped several times to give him some respite. I thought he was quite respectful of the young man, even though the room was full of medics – Professor Ballingall was there, and Professor Russell, and Dr Abercrombie … They stuffed the hole with lint, stitched up his cheek and wrapped his face in bandages, and fed him whey and beef tea down a tube — and a few days later, would you believe it, they took off the dressing and Penman was saying he felt better than before the op!


GEORGE: (His expression is one of exaggerated boredom, and he picks up Gilbert’s mask as well, making the two masks ‘talk’ to each other) Oh dear me, you’re a real Syme groupie, aren’t you? Bet you’ve got the T-shirt.

GILBERT: Here, give that to me! (He grabs George’s mask and jabs his finger at the inside of the mould) See that lump there, on your forehead? That is indicative of a highly-developed sense of arrogance and self-importance. If you don’t watch out, Mr Baillie, you will find yourself as one of the exhibits at the Phrenological Society. (He stops, a thought has struck him) Phrenology. Have you come across Dr Sibbald, by the way? He’s a phrenologist, and if it hadn’t been for him, Penman would surely have died.

GEORGE: Man, it really hit a nerve with you when I mentioned Penman, didn’t I? You can’t stop talking about him.

GILBERT: The point I was going to make, George, if you would stop being so clever and would listen for a minute, is that I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the aggravation between our two Professors doesn’t stem from Penman’s case. Penman’s tumour had been growing for years and he came to Edinburgh and saw Mr Liston, but Mr Liston refused to operate. Can you believe that? And then more than three years after that, when the tumour was apparently three times bigger, Dr Sibbald sees him again, and tells Professor Ballingall about him, and then he tells our Mr Syme – who decides to operate. With great success, as we know. Penman went back to Coldstream and resumed his occupation, as a bootmaker I believe.

penman photo post

Photograph of Robert Penman 27 years after the operation (photo in the Museum Collection)

GEORGE: Ah, so you think Syme’s success rankled with Liston, and so Liston wanted to prove that he’s better? He waited a long time…

GILBERT: Aye, to get one that looked the same, six, seven years maybe. Though Mrs Fraser’s tumour wasn’t bony like Penman’s. Did you see Penman’s? It cleaned up really well after macerating – the bone’s like lace …

 They’re both silent again.

 GEORGE: (looks around, then speaks very softly, confidentially, beckoning Gilbert to come closer) Did you ever hear the stories about Liston when he was a student – that he was one of the resurrectionists? The one about him and his mate dressing up as sailors and taking a boat up the Forth to collect a body from a village graveyard? It seems they stuffed it in a sack and hid it behind a hedge when they went into an inn, then an old drunk went out for a pee and found it and brought the sack in over his shoulder … (he laughs) and they had such a fright that they had to scarper without it, in the dark!

GILBERT: (sits back and looks over his shoulder nervously) Whisht, man! You keep quiet about that, now. That sort of thing makes Mr Syme very agitated, he’s completely against it.  But there’s another side to Professor Liston that people forget, that he could be very charitable. You know he’s even gone to the tenements to operate on poor folks who’ve been discharged as incurables.

GEORGE: Aye well. He’s ‘good in parts’, as the clergyman said. All good practice, it keeps his hand in  – and the spin-off is plenty of specs for the anatomy collections, I’ll bet you. I’m glad that Sibbald or whatever you call him saved your Robert Penman, though, or the poor guy’s head and its tumour might have ended up like that head in the Bell Collection. You know the one?

GILBERT:(his face crumples in disgust). Aye, I know it. You would think Bell or whoever it was in London would have had a cast made instead. (Slyly, he touches George’s arm). It is like a mask, though, isn’t it, the way it’s been prepared? And he’s got red hair!

GEORGE: (lifts Gilbert’s hand off his arm, expressionlessly, then picks up his own plaster mask and turns it towards him, face to face.) I think I’ll paint the teeth gold.

© Ann Lingard January 2011

Further information:

Mrs Fraser

See also drawings in: James Liston, 1836, Some observations on the tumours of the mouth and jaw.

Robert Penman

See also drawings and information in: MH Kaufman and MT Royds, The Penman case, a re-evaluation, J.R.Coll.Surg.Edinb., 45, 2000, 51-5;

Plaster-casts Collection at the Surgeons’ Hall Museum

‘Da Seevent Bairn’, by Christine De Luca

(The ‘exhibit’ that Joyce Gunn Cairns drew was the skeleton of Janet Hyslop, who died after the Caesarean birth of her seventh child: see ‘The stories of Janet and Caesar‘. Christine’s poem is written in the Shetland dialect.)


Christine De Luca

In response to a drawing by Joyce Gunn Cairns of an exhibit

at The Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh


Can you see da wye mi jaa is set, clenched,

dry as da empty wame?  Six grittit teeth:

een for ivery infant riven oot afore mi time.

Dey said I hed da pelvis o a bird, a sporrow,

dat I sudna come greetin der wye again.  Heth!

A craa skoitin for crangs widda taen mair peety.

Dey wir a murnin owre Egypt, I warn, whan

der firstboarn wis laid sindry.  Blöd ran

i da watter, dan a plaque o puddicks, mirds

o keds, flechs, locusts afore dey aa brook oot

in boils, afore da hailsteyns flatshed der coarn.

I widda taen seeven scourges ta save mi bairns.

See mi haand.  Hit micht be croppened, but

eence hit hüld a infant, mi only livin een,

mi seevent.  Dat haand fan mercy, I tell you,

at da last, as I strokit her peerie head,

pat her tae mi briest, nöned tae her.

I widda dön hit aa again for her.  I widda.


jaa: jaw;  wame: womb; sudna: should not;  greetin: crying;  Heth!: mild oath;

craa: crow;  skoitin: purposively looking;  crangs: carcases;  widda: would have;

 murnin: weeping;  warn: warrant;  sindry: asunder;  blöd: blood;  puddicks:

frogs;  mirds: swarms;  keds: ticks;  flechs: fleas;  flatshed: flattened;

croppened: shrunk and twisted;  hüld: held;  peerie: little;  nöned: hummed



Reproduced with Christine De Luca’s kind permission from The Hand that Sees, 2005, ed. Stewart Conn. RCSEd/Scottish Poetry Library

The stories of Janet and Caesar

Drawings by Joyce Gunn Cairns, 2011



I drop the gathered stalks at Mary’s cry and look round. John is staggering across the stubble towards the cart. Mary is sitting in the shade, she’s holding my Willie back by his arm, but she’s nursing a babe of her own and cannae chase after John.

The horses are moving slowly, the men are pitching up the stooks. I’m too far away to stop him, I watch as the wean runs and falls and picks himself up again, running towards his Da, running towards the great hooves of Davey, that wicked gelding who above all else hates wee bairns.

“William!” I scream. “Watch Davey – Johnnie’s there!”

William turns to me to see what I’m screeching about, he’s looking the wrong way – and it’s my brother, Gordon, who catches John and picks him up.

“You’re a wee de’il,” he says, and holds Johnnie above his head, shaking him. “Come away back to your auntie Mary.”

“Gie him here to me, Gordie,” my husband says, “I’ll teach him no’ tae get in the way. Hand him up here.”

But Gordon shakes his head and walks away with my bairn. I can see the rage is on William and he thrashes the reins against the seat so that the horses jerk their heads and drag the cart sideways.

“Whoa there. Leave it, man,” one of the men says, and Agnes, who is working next to me, gives me a look and raises her eyebrows.

I’m wet with sweat, and not just from the heat and work. My belly cramps and I bend over against the pain, fiddling withthe laces on my boot, hoping the wetness between my legs is sweat. Will I lose this bairn too?  “No, oh no, please. No’ again,” I  mutter inside my heid.

There’s no strength in me and my bones ache but I need to stand up tall again. Tall and strong, like my brother Gordie, and like the woman that William married. I wipe my arm across my face.

“Go and sit doon by your bairns,” Agnes says. “Ye’re wabbit. Lizzie and me’ll tak care o’ your work for a while. Go on now, Janet. Looks like ye’ll need all your wits aboot ye the nicht.”

She and Lizzie look at each other, and I hate it that they all know about William and me.


We take the boys to Penicuik for the October hiring fair. William asked to borrow the garron and the small two-wheeled cart to take us all; because although Johnnie is four he’s still a wee laddie with wee legs, and Mary’s daughter is more than a twelve-month and too heavy to carry all the day. My back feels cracked since the potato-picking but I dare not let on. Mr Alexander has let us have the garron because he says William is a good man with the horses, and will do nothing wrong if he has them to look after.

“He tell’t me, I can trust you when you’re with a horse, William Anderson. It’s when you’re without one that everyone needs to watch out!”

William puts his arm round me and laughs, pressing his beard against my face, and then lifts me onto the cart as though I’m a bairn myself. We are wearing our good Sunday clothes, and he has a smell of cotton dried in the wind.

Gordie has filled sacks with oat-straw for us to sit on and Willie fusses that it’s jaggy and he wants to sit by his Da, so that the cart rocks even more and we have to hang on tight. Then we are onto the bridge at Firth and William stops us in the middle.

“Oh, I cannae look!” Mary tucks her head down and pulls the front of her bonnet over her eyes, but William holds out his arm.

“Stand up, lads, softly now. Haud tight, and look doon.”  Willie and John clutch their Da’s arm and stand; Willie pretends he’s fright and makes his knees shake so that the cart wobbles and Mary screams.

There’s a damp green smell, and Betty snorts and stamps her foot, and the river rushes and hisses way down below, and the rock walls are dark with wet and slime.

“I want tae thraw a stane,” Willie says, but Gordie says, “Ye might kill a fish, that wouldnae be fair, would it? There’s troot doon there.”

“A fine troot for our tea, aye. Janet and me wouldnae mind a troot or two, would we, Jan?”

William winks at me and I’m remembering the fish that he’d sometimes catch in the night up the Esk and how we’d hide the bones in the midden. “I’d like a fish, right enough, I can feel the taste o’ it in my mouth,” I say, and I can feel the spit welling up at the thought.

William grins some more at me and then he makes the boys sit tight and clicks his tongue at Betty, who’s glad enough to get to solid ground.

Mary giggles. “Look at you, you’re blushing! What’s the story with you and William and the fishies, then?”

I just shrug my shoulder at her and hold my face to the damp wind, but when Gordie and I climb down to lessen the weight up the pull, William’s grin makes me blush again.

In the town there’s a yard set aside for the horses and carts. William unharnesses Betty and Gordon fetches water, and Mary and me try to keep the bairns away from hooves and wheels. Such a crowd! Last year I couldnae come, my legs were like water I was that weak. And now there’s our friends, and Lizzie calling to us across the street, and there’s Thomas and his brother, and Gordie shows me Mr Thomas from Whitehouselee riding down the middle on a brown mare as though he owns it.

There’s a sudden bang across the way and Johnnie and me jump and cry out, but it’s a man with a big drum, banging and calling for all he’s worth for everyone to come and see. “Ye’ll no’ see a grander show onyweer in the world!” He’s frae Glesga, or maybe Irish, I think, so he’s no doubt lying.

“Da, can we go and see?” Willie’s pulling at his Da’s sleeve, and William’s that big and braw that he has no trouble pushing to the front, and then I hear him call out for Johnnie, and the wee lad wriggles between the legs to get to him. There’s too many bodies for me, too many elbows, so I step back across the way.

“It’ll be one o’ they freak shows.” Agnes and her guidman Robbie are passing and they stop with me. And right enough, when the tall man with the black hat stops shouting for us to come and look and pulls back the curtains, there’s a great fat woman with hair all over her chin and arms like she’s a bear, and everyone shouts and calls out to her and she laughs and shouts back and does a wee jig. Next up is a man with his brother growing out of his front, but you cannae see the brother’s head, it’s buried in the man’s chest. All you can see is his back, and he kicks his wee arms and legs – but it must be a cheat and there’s groaning and yelling from the crowd, and someone throws something, I think it’s a turnip but Robbie says more likely horse-shit. I can see Johnnie up on his Da’s shoulders, and I wish William would bring the lads away.

Aggie digs me with her elbow and jerks her head. “See they folks? The one with the green coat? That one’s the doctor, Dr Robert Renton he is, lives in that grit big house that Sir James Clerk built for the old doctor.”

We stare at the three gentry who have stopped to watch the show. Folks are looking at their fine coats and hats instead of the freaks.

Robbie says, ” ‘Tis said he was a surgeon with the navy, and after he settled here he got himself some rich patients and made a pile o’ money and bought out the old doctor. Sent him packing.”

“Aye, but I’ve heard he’s no’ above helpin’ oot us common folk.”

“Depends what’s ailing ye,” Robbie mutters.

The man who had the drum is going through the crowd with a tin, and he’s using his drum-stick if folks are slow to pay up. We see Dr Renton and his friends stop him and talk, and then they go up to the man with the black hat who runs the show and talk to him, too. I’d like to see what they’re after doing, but Willie comes running towards me and he grabs my hand, something he usually thinks he’s too old to do.

“Mam, Mam! I didnae like that,” he whispers, “they scared me. But don’t tell Da.”

And I hold him against me, then we all go to look at the sweets and the toffee-apples and the pigs’-feet. There’s a woman selling a cure for thin blood and megrims and for the back-pains, and I think that I might slip away from William and buy a bottle, but Mary sees me hanging back and looking. She knows my bones still ache.

‘You can save your pennies and go and drink from that spring,” she tells me. “The one they call chally-something, below the Spittal-hill. Ma Jackson swears by it, she says it makes you strong after birthing an’ a’.”

“Aye. I might at that.” I sigh, and then I’m angry with mysel’ because I’m feeling low and should be having a good time at the fair. ‘Let’s get a bite to eat,” I say, “and we can sit on the wall at the back o’ the well.”

William and Robbie have been waiting for us and now they say they’re off to see who’s put theirsels up for hire, so Mary and me and the bairns buy some bridies and small beer, and we sit close up tight together to keep oursels warm because there’s a smirr of damp in the air.


The garron’s frisky, because she’s been with too much company of her own kind William says, and the track by the river is slippy with fallen leaves, but William gets us home safe. After the bairns are in their bed by the fire – Willie’s still holding the wooden horse his Da has bought him – he pulls out a half-mutchkin that he’s been keeping in his jacket, though I’d smelled already he’d had a drap or two when he was off with Robbie.

“‘Twas a good day, Jan, was it no’? And now ye’ll tak a wee dram with me,” he says, “for likely you’ll be needing some cheer.” I can see he wants me to do it, so I swallow a mouthful or two though I know where it’s from and it’ll burn my throat. But it will dull the pain, the terrible forcing pain. I know  he’ll be at me soon. When he pushes me into our room, and I cannae help myse’ screaming with the splitting of it, I can still think that tomorrow he’ll be pleased with me even if his heid is sore.


 Back in January Willie said he’d be going to the March hiring fair because he’d be 12 years old and he wants to be out working on the farms like his Da.

But William has already decided that the lad shall be prenticed to Weightman in Glencorse to learn the blacksmithing trade, because like his Da Willie has a way with horses. Weightman will take him on with free board and victuals – so we’ll have one less mouth to feed. Willie will find it hard at first but then he’ll be glad to be away. Mollie Weightman’s a decent woman.

I’m carrying again and this time I can scarce drag mysel’ about the place and young Willie keeps away from me, he hates to see his Mam like this. I hate to see mysel’! I cannae do my ane work let alone work in the fields. Not that there’s much work this time o’ year for the women, onie road.

Johnnie is a sickly lad, he helps when he can, but I wish he’d got more of his brother’s spirit. He came back from school with a book his teacher had lent him with pictures of animals and said he was going to catch taddies to watch them grow into puddocks. What use is that? He’s ten, he’ll need to be out helping on the farm this spring.

I can scarce walk and I can scarce sit. The bairn is kicking inside me and I know it’s not growing right, it’s not sitting right, I cannae get comfortable, my insides are not right and the pain in my back hurts that bad that …

William says it must be a heavy bairn and weighing me down because I’m getting shorter, he says. And now it’s March and he’s out with the new plough all the hours of daylight – and when he comes in I can see it angers him that I’m too tired and I can’t hide from him how I hurt. He gave me a skelp on the cheek when I couldnae lift the pan. I’m frightened that this time the bairn will be the death o’ me.


Johnnie left the puddocks’ jar in the sun and they got boiled and stank. He’s chucked them away and we cannae tell Da, he says. He’s skeered of his Da, and I dare not tell him I’m skeered too. We’re outside, listening because the cuckoos have come back, and I’m holding the doorframe because the pains are getting worse.

I cannae keep quiet, and Johnnie says he’ll fetch me some primroses because they’re bonny now and will make me happy, but I tell him to run and fetch Agnes instead because she’s closer and will be more use. I’m holding up my belly with both hands and I go to lie on the bed.

When Agnes comes I say to her, “Tell Robbie to go to Penicuik and ask for Dr Renton to come. But he must tell him I cannae pay …”

“Ye cannae ask him that! He’s far too grand.” Aggie’s eyes are round and she grabs my hand. “I’ll go for Ma Jackson.”

No! Not after what she did last time. I’ve thought it all out, Aggie -,” I stop to catch my breath, ” – I heard that the doctor has a special interest in women’s problems. Robbie can tell him …” But no, Robbie cannae tell him.

And Dr Renton comes. I cannae ask him why because I can scarce speak even to thank him. I hear him shout at William to look after his horse, and he gets Aggie to bring cloths and hot water. He shouts at the others, but he is quiet with me, and I think he has a sharp face but his voice is soft …

I think I died. They said later they’d looked out my death-clothes. Dr Renton looked half-dead hissel’ they said, they said he was on for hours. “There was that much blood,” Aggie whispered and she looked right shocked.

William said he’d offered him a dram but the doctor had given him a dram from his own wee flask which was more to his liking. William said he’d look after his horses anytime if he needed help, or Willie would when he was trained. But the doctor told him (Aggie said, because she was washing the cloths and could hear what was being said) that I was never to have another bairn and William should make sure I didn’t. “He tell’t William three times,” Aggie said. “He wasnae skeered at all.”

I came back to life, and oftentimes after I wished I hadn’t.

 * * *

 The years go by, the lads grow tall. William has a new Clydesdale mare to help with the ploughing. “She’s quieting Davey down, the old de’il.”

Johnnie’s started helping with the cows; Mr Alexander’s getting some of the new Ayrshires, he says, they make more milk than the black Galloways. He’s proud that he can show off what he’s learnt (he forgets my own Da was a farmer).

 * * *

 I have never seen William in such a state.

“Davey! Davey has -” He cannae speak, he looks wild, and I cannae understand at first what he’s saying. “It was one of Alexander’s bairns – his grandson. I was walking them back to the yard with the harrow and the bairn came running out and Davey – he jist reared up and his feet were flying. He knocked the bairn down, Jan. His heid was cracked open.’

He comes near to the bed and I try to sit up.

“Sit here. Tell me,” I say. I want to hold him though he keeps away from me now.

But this time he sits, and he’s so much bigger than me that I have to look up at his face and there’s such a horror there at what he’s seen.

“Will the boy live?”

“They’ve called for Dr Renton on account of he knows how to mend sailors’ cracked heids. But Mr Alexander is going to have Davey shot.”

He starts to cry, and though he stinks of spirits and I know it is the whisky talkin’, I hold his arm and then he lies down. Soon he is on top of me. Later I am certain sure I have been cracked open, too.

 * * *

 It was John’s 12th birthday yesterday, January 27th. It seems this new bairn inside of me wishes for a January birthday too, the pains have begun again. After our Johnnie was born, William was gone away for several days, and I was that angry I took the bairn to the church myself and had them write “Hyslop” as his name.

William cannae bear to be near me now, he sleeps by the fire. I cannae move, I lie here on the bed. I stink, and I know that this time I will die. If they would shoot me like they did Davey…

William goes for Dr Renton, and when the doctor comes he sends William out and he jist stares and stares. He is quiet with me, and then he tells me it might be possible to save the child, but that he cannot do it himself, he will need to send to Edinburgh for help. For a Mr John Bell, he says.

“He’s the most skilful surgeon in Edinburgh,” he says, “He will be interested in your case and will do his very best to save you, Mrs Anderson, and your child. I will send for him at once and I can assure you and Anderson there will be no fee.”

I don’t believe him, and as he leaves I hear him speak angrily, it must be to William, because he says, “How could you do this to her after what I said last time? You’re a bloody fool, you deserve to be gelded. You should be locked away for what you’ve done.”

And so the surgeons, there are two, they are brothers, come down from Edinburgh in their fine clothes and they talk about me and do things, and the room is full of men. Men who are interested in birthings. The older one has a case of knives, they are going to cut my baby out. I wish they would shoot me first.

Mr Renton comes round to look at my face and he says, “It should not hurt too much, not nearly as much as giving birth, not nearly as bad as last time. But there is a grave risk to you …”

“Jist get the bairn oot. I want an end to it.”

I think it didnae take long but I think I died again.

Then there is a time when I hear a wee bairn, a live wee bairn, and a man says his name is “Caesar”. The men are holding my belly tight.  I think Mary is there too, it’s her that’s crying, and I try to say “Caesar Hyslop”, but my mouth is choked, so likely she cannae hear.

(See also Christine De Luca’s poem ‘Da Seevent Bairn’)


charles bell
Charles Bell

“Marion, the ambition of your young brother knows no bounds, we must send him back to Ayr for a dose of cold seawater!”

“Dearest, he has been working with you since he was fifteen so he has had an able mentor.”

My wife loves and humours her brother, as do I, for not only is he a dear companion but he works assiduously to improve our School’s collection. He has just informed us over dinner that he intends to become not only the greatest expert on diseases that affect the spine, but also on how to cure them.

Marion is familiar with the ease with which we medical men can so readily forget ourselves as to discuss matters concerning the body when in genteel company, but John has already made me aware that he wishes to discuss the parts of the collection that exemplify Mollities Osseum; and there is one specimen in particular whose history is not for feminine ears.

“It is one of the female skeletons you brought from Edinburgh,” he tells me before dinner, ” ‘A skeleton of great value’, is written in the catalogue in your own hand. I sense there is a story there.”

Instead, we discuss our forthcoming trip to France, and the plans for the new Medical School at the Middlesex Hospital, and the news from Edinburgh, and other matters of more frivolous nature.ospital

When John and I retire to my study after dinner, I take down the volume of the Medical Chirurgical Transactions for 1813, and find the page.

“You shall read this in a few minutes,” I tell him, “but first I will remind myself of the details before I tell you about the skeleton. You can entertain yourself by sitting quietly until I am done, and puzzling why a paper on the muscularity of the uterus – which Mr William Hunter himself would have been interested to read, were he still alive – could possibly be of any relevance to the story.”

It is fifteen years since I acquired the skeleton, but when I wrote this paper two years ago so many of preceding details came back to mind.


“As midwifery makes no part of my occupations, I intend, in this paper, to confine my attention to the anatomical structure of the womb … I have dissected the gravid uterus in all conditions – in women who, in consequence of fever, have died undelivered; in women who had died from flooding; and in women who had died in consequence of distortion of the bones: I have had two opportunities of examining the uterus ruptured by its spontaneous activity; and one in which the uterus had been ruptured by violence; and I have examined the state of the uterus after death in consequence of the Caesarian section.”

I turn the pages to the next section of relevance, noting in passing mentions of Hunter and of Ruysch. I covet the position of Professor of Anatomy that Hunter held at the Royal Academy, for I am more of an artist than he; although he was the more accomplished midwife and accoucheur.

I skim quickly over the pages to find the relevant section.

Muscular Action of the Uterus considered in the Case of Caesarean Section.

While in partnership with my brother, Mr John Bell, an occasion occurred which made the performing of this operation an absolute duty. As the description of what occurred during the operation, and the appearances which were presented on dissection, may not be without interest to some here; and as they have a direct connection with my subject; I shall take the liberty of stating them.

In proceeding to examine this woman as she lay with her back towards me, I was surprised to find a large smooth tumour betwixt the thighs, which I could not readily recognize as the abdominal walls, thus strangely distended and pendulous. In this position of the pregnant uterus, with its fundus hanging down, we discover one consequence of great distortion in the pelvis, and an insuperable difficulty in the way of the operation of embryulcia, since the child’s head does not present to the opening of the pelvis and cannot be felt per vaginam.

My assigned station in this operation was to raise the tumour of the belly … Mr John Bell, with his characteristic neatness, made the incision. When the integuments and muscles were cut through, I moved my hands, which were spread upon the belly of the woman, so as to make the walls of the abdomen glide on the smooth surface of the uterus. …. I was convinced that the incision must be through the larger blood-vessels, and I already despaired of the woman’s recovery.

Mr Renton, Surgeon of Penicuik, (who had, in a manner deserving the highest praise, delivered the woman on former occasions with the crotchet, in very difficult circumstances) was prepared to break the membranes; to pass his naked arm into the uterus; to seize the child by the feet; and deliver it.

This was done rapidly and dextrously: the child was delivered safely and is now alive.

The instant the operation was performed, the mother was seized with violent vomiting; and now it required all my strength to compress the abdomen, and retain the parts against the operation of the diaphragm and abdominal muscles. For twenty minutes I continued pressing the belly, and compressing the uterus betwixt my hands. The wound of the integument was was dressed; stitches were introduced, and the intervals strengthened by adhesive straps; compresses were put on the abdomen, and the belly swathed.

But that happened which I foresaw would be the consequence of ceasing to compress the uterus: the woman became more faint, and at last insensible; she lived only to the gratification of her wish, to become, at all hazards, the mother of a living child.”

Ah yes, Renton, at Penicuik. That was it. I pass the article to John and show him the pages of relevance.

He reads slowly, but when he stops he puts down the journal.

“Is it really so, that her child still survives?”

“Aye. A boy, John. ‘Caesar’,  “pluck’d from his mother’s womb”  in the first month of the century. My brother John wrote to enquire of Renton some time back, who told him the boy is yet alive and does well, which does not surprise me because Renton, and now, it seems, one of his sons who followed him into the profession, keeps a keen eye on the boy’s progress.”

“A boy of great value.”


“And his mother continues to be valuable too, poor woman. Although the family will never, I hope, know that?”

He raises an eyebrow questioningly, and there it is, the same expression that I see so often on my wife Marion’s face when she is in the mood to challenge me, and I laugh aloud. But he frowns, for his question was serious, as is he, and I respond by pointing to the journal.

“The description of the postmortem examination of her uterus is written there too. The husband, and her brother’s family, knew we would examine her further before she was given up for burial. They knew it because it was, let us say – understood – that we did not require a fee. Consider, John – we were summoned from Edinburgh at a half-day’s notice, my brother was acknowledged as the best surgeon in Edinburgh, even, I have to admit to myself, throughout Scotland. Her’s was a unique case.”

“But it was not her womb that was of greatest interest to you. We both know that.”

“Renton sent a note to Edinburgh with her history, he had become interested in obstetrics – ask not why a former navy man should choose this subject for his expertise –  and he’d attempted to deliver her on previous occasions. But he wrote that delivery, in any form, through the pelvis was no longer an option and that my brother was the only surgeon who had any hope of delivering the child. As for the woman’s history, you only need to look at her skeleton to see she had puerperal softening of the bones. When I dissected her afterwards the knife slipped into the bones as though into butter. Think of it, John – for years, she must have had incessant pain in the bones, phosphate of lime in the urine.”

“She must once have been a tall woman judging by the length of the femur. But then her spine is increasingly compressed upon itself, her pelvis collapsing, her sacrum curled inwards. Her husband made her pregnant seven times and she spent the last couple of years of her life lying in bed.” I realise that my voice is too loud and speak more quietly. “Have you seen the narrowness of the pelvis? I can tell you that a ball of an inch diameter cannot pass through it.”

Another young man might have made a lewd remark, but my brother-in-law has a different type of imagination; he is quite still, staring out at the tops of the trees in Soho Square. There is a clatter of wheels and horses’ hooves on the cobbles below. He sighs and frowns and taps the book on his lap.

“There comes a moment, Charles, does there not? We are endeavouring with our utmost energy and desire to preserve the patient’s life, to grant them more time upon this earth … it is our greatest commitment and surely the reason why we enter the medical profession?”

He starts to his feet and paces round the room, clutching the bound volume to his chest. His young man’s anxiety, and his accent, come out in his agitation.

“Oh, I know we have talked about this before, but I still cannae understand how – in that very moment – we switch from being intent on healing a life, to being men who .. who look at a corpse with acquisitiveness and, yes, even excitement at the prospect of acquisition. How can we reconcile these two opposites within ourselves?”

He leans his head against the window and looks down into the square.

“We must, John, or we cannot make progress in our understanding of the way the body works. And if we cannot understand, how can we hope to prevent or cure? These are such old arguments, John. And in the end, we must each find our own means of keeping one foot on each of the bifurcating paths.”

He turns away from the window but cannot look me in the eye.

“And so you took the path that led to her grave? Did you pay for her mort-cloth and her stone too?”


 “Ssssh! Tom, watch those sticks!”

I’m on tippy-toe, bending my knees. Isobel said to keep down and my heid is tucked intae ma chin like a urchin.

Izzie’s giggling and she clams a hand ower her mouth.

“What if they see us?” Tom whispers and I can tell he’s skeered, so I jist say, “Izzie and me’ll run and leave you for their dogs an’ they’ll rip ye to pieces while we get awa’.”

There’s brambles and stingers and there’s sudden noise like “tchtchtchtch’   that makes me jump but it’s ony a squirrel.

Then we see it, the Big Tree. Auntie Mary says its name’s a Silver Fir and it’s famous everywhere – I asked if everyone in the world knew about it but she said mebbe not –  ‘cos it’s so big.

We spy around for the ghillie and the dogs but there’s naebody there and we creep up and stand underneath the tree, and there’s wee brown needles that make the ground soft.

“Caesar, you hold my hand and Tom you hold Caesar’s,” Izzie says and she pulls me so that we go round the bottom of the tree. “Tom, see if you can reach round to me.”

We press oursels against the tree and Izzy has her arm out trying to reach Tom and he’s reaching for her too. Or so I think ‘cos I can’t see because he’s the other side and my face is against the bark and it’s all rough an’ sticky.

“Come on Tom, stretch!” Izzy’s saying, and then Tom shouts out that he can feel her fingers, but she says he cannae, it’s likely a slug.

“Let me go on the end where Tom is,” I tell her. “I’ll reach ye.”

And she lets go of my hand that quick that I yell out, and then I cannae reach her at all ‘cos she’s run round to Tom’s side.

Tom says he can hear a dog and so we run, and Tom falls over and I grab him, and we climb over the wall and then go down to the river to throw sticks on the ice.

I tell Izzy that we’ll ask Miss Davies for a rule and measure our arms and that’ll tell us how big the Big Tree is round the bottom but she jist says I want to sook up to the teacher ‘cos I love her, so I thump her.

Then we see John, he’s my big brother but he doesn’t stay at my Auntie Mary’s, he stays ower near Kirkhill but he works for Mr Alexander here all the same. He’s eighteen and he’s the cowman and he’s got a black-and-white dog, Meg who comes up to have her heid petted though she’s got cow-shit on her fur.

“Hello, wee scallion,” he says to me and he rubs my heid as though I’m a dog too and I hit his hand. “You take care on the ice, now, it’s no’ thick enough yet. I jist saw the young doctor back the way and he was talkin’ about the season’s curlin’ and hopin’ for a big freeze. He was askin’ after you, Caesar, and I tell’t him ye was jist as daft as ivver.”

“Ye didnae!”

“Nae, I didnae,” John laughs, “or he’d be ower here wantin’ to look intae yer heid. But ye’ll be glad to know that you’re an uncle now. Uncle Caesar, eh! How do you fancy that? Willie and Jean have got a wee daughter.”

“I’m an uncle!” I pull a face at Izzie and Tom and I waggle my shoulders a bit and stand up tall. “I’m important! Like Uncle Gordie.”

John’s still laughing. “Come on then, ye big chiel. I’m going to drop in on Auntie Mary to tell her the news and then ye can all help me feed the coos if ye’ve a mind.”

Izzy doesnae like coos, she says, and she’s away off hame, so Tom goes too.


 John tells Auntie Mary and Uncle Gordie that Willie and Jean are going to call the baby Janet after Mam, and they say that’s guid but I can see Auntie Mary is sad too.

“It’s a shame that neither your Da nor your Mam are still here to know they have a grand-chiel,” she says.

“Aye well,” John says and he sort of shrugs.

I didnae see my Da, I’ve always stayed with my Auntie Mary. And I never knew my Mam, they said she died when I was born. My Da died aboot then too, he was found deid in the snow, I think he kill’t hissel’, but  I’m no’ supposed to know and naebody’ll tell me if I ask. They havenae tell’t me where he’s buried, but Auntie Mary took me to the churchyard where my Mam is, near Willie’s. Willie has a new house, he works in the paper-mill He used to work with horses but he gave that up, the money was nae good he said.. We went in the summer, and we went in big gates and past a big house. We went in the church looking for a book because Auntie Mary wanted to show me my name, but it was cold, and then we looked for Mam’s stone and I left some flowers Auntie Mary’d made me pick. It didnae have Mam’s name on it, but Auntie Mary said it was her stone, any road, that’s where she was buried.

Margaret, she’s like my sister but she’s Auntie Mary’s daughter and she works in the wash-house up at the farm, she says she wants to go to Glencorse and see wee Janet. John says that Willie tell’t him there was smallpox no’ far away at Loanheid, but Uncle Gordie says it’s of no account ‘cos the old doctor vaccinated us and we’re all safe.

“Am I safe too?” I ask, and I don’t know why they all laugh.

“Aye, Caesar, you were one o’ the first to get the jag, you were no’ much more than a year old,” Uncle Gordie says. “Doctor Robert and young Doctor John, they’ll look out for ye. But don’t let it go to your heid!”

 March 2011



Janet (Jean) Hyslope was recorded as being buried on February 10th 1800 at Penicuik

‘Janet Hyslop’: exists only as a “skeleton showing mellites osseum (puerperal osteomalacia), in the Charles Bell Collection at the Surgeons’ Hall Museum, specimen BC.I.3.M.25

 Her name, (Jean or Janet Hyslop) and that of her son (Caesar) were discovered and other important details recorded in the excellent paper by Kaufmann & Jaffe (see Bibliography)

Additional archival research from Old Parish Records was carried out for me by the wonderful archival detective, Anne Carroll, from the Perth Library, thus:

1786, Penicuik: ‘Anderson William, son of William Anderson and Janet Hyslop his spouse, born 28th March  bap‘d 9th April wits James Kemp J Lowrie’

1788 Glencorse: ‘John Hyslop (‘Anderson’ has been added by a different, less ‘educated’ hand). William Anderson & Janet Hyslop his spouse, residens in Old Woodhouselee had a son born 27th January and baptised February 10th called John’

1800 Glencorse: ‘Hislop Caesar Anderson. Hislop Caesar, son of William Anderson and Janet Hislop his spouse was born Wednesday 29 January and baptised on Sunday 2nd February 1800′

My thanks again to Anne Carroll who also found the account of Mr Renton (probably Robert) vaccinating residents of Penicuik against smallpox: Caesar Hislop Anderson (“who was brought to the world by the Caesarian operation”) is one of those who were inoculated with the cowpox. (Edinburgh Magazine, 1801, vol 18)


MH Kaufman & SM Jaffe 1994, An early Caesarean operation (1800) performed by John and Charles Bell. J R Coll Surg Edin 39, 70-75

Charles Bell, 1813. On the muscularity of the uterus. Med Chirurg. Trans 4, 338-360

G Gordon-Taylor, 1954. The life and times of Charles Bell.  Annals of the RCSE

John Wilson, 1891. The annals of Penicuik, being a history of the parish and village.

Some information about the Penicuik and Woodhouselee areas during that period was also gleaned from the relevant chapters of the First Statistical Account of Scotland (1791-1798),  and the ‘New’ Statistical Account (1834-45)

Additional notes:

Sir Charles Bell (1774-1842) Moved from Edinburgh to London in 1804, and with his brother John took over the Great Windmill Street Anatomy School (started by William Hunter) from 1812-1825. Married Marion Shaw.

The major part of his anatomical collection was sold to RCS Edinburgh in 1825, the sale overseen by Dr Robert Knox; Janet Hislop’s skeleton thus returned to the country of her birth.

Dr John Renton, keen curler, and ‘active in all matters relating to the good of the village and the welfare of its people’: the ‘Good Doctor’ retired in 1839 and moved to Edinburgh where he died in 1865. (Various pieces of information gleaned from eg British Medical Journals for that period)

John Shaw (1792–1827), surgeon and anatomist. At the Great Windmill Street Anatomy School he acted as superintendent of the dissecting-room, The greater part of the experiments which led to Bell’s discoveries on the nervous system were performed by Shaw, and he also took a large share in the work of forming Bell’s anatomical museum.