A Death from Phthisis

On the 30th of September 1876, having suffered the debilitating effects of Tuberculosis for some twelve months, Mrs Catherine Macaskill died at the age of 26.
The Old Parish Record for September 1850 shows the Birth of Catherine Carr, the first child of Malcolm Kerr and Mary Macdonald, and the first of the four who survived into adulthood (two perished as infants) to die. (I have mentioned previously the then Registrar’s preferred usage of the English ‘Carr’ to the name ‘Kerr’, which I think is actually truer to the Gaelic when spelled as ‘Cearr’.)

Sadly I cannot find Catherine’s Marriage Certificate so the last record that I have prior to her death is of the 20 year-old daughter living with her mother and three younger siblings at 46 Bayhead Street in Stornoway. Her father, Malcolm, is absent from the census, the 50 year-old seaman presumably at sea in the coastal trading that was his profession. (He ought to have completed a census return at his next port, which may well have been Belfast, but alas I cannot find him!) With Catherine at this time were her sister Annie, 17, and her brothers Alexander John, 15, and Malcolm, 11. Alexander John lists his occupation as being that of a Labourer, neglecting to mention that the previous year he had embarked on his first voyage as a sailor and travelled to Archangel aboard the ‘Alliance’ under Captain Macpherson.

Catherine’s death was registered by her widower, the General Labourer Donald Macaskill, as having taken place at 11 Bayhead Street, the same address at which my grandfather had been born to her unmarried sister Annie the previous year. The buildings have long-since been demolished and a car lot now sits in their place, so I would welcome any information regarding them.

Phthisis has been blamed upon Blackhouses yet there are interesting references to the disease such as this that indicate that it was not the traditional dwellings that were responsible for the onset and development of the disease. Whatever the buildings at Number 11 were, they were certainly NOT ‘blackhouses’:

The predecessor of Dr. Millar (in Stornoway), when filling up schedules of life insurance, to the question relating to the death of the proposer’s relatives by phthisis, is said to have invariably answered,—” No such disease is known in the island.”

That quote comes from an address made in 1865-6 and appears in a volume called Memoirs read before the Anthropological Society of London, Volume 2 1865-6 p435-8 in a piece called Phthisis in the Hebrides. This short article  is well worth reading in its entirety for it suggests that the islands (and the North-West Coast of Scotland) in the 1860s were relatively free of several significant diseases. They would not remain so forever. It is beyond the scope of this piece to examine the complexity of the subject but I do think that Catherine’s death a decade after that address was given to its London audience serves to remind us that not all that may appear ‘backward’ or ‘primitive’ is intrinsically so. Had Catherine been living in either of the rural vernacular houses that her parents had been born in, rather than in urban overcrowding, then she, like so many others, might have been spared an early death.

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