Chapter 15 - The Cholera Epidemic

The information on the cholera epidemic of 1832 comes mainly from the 'Inverness Courier' and 'Church Chronicles of Nigg.'

The disease broke out in India in 1826, gradually spreading westwards until by 1832 it had reached France and England. It moved up to the south of Scotland and was brought north. to Helmsdale about July of that year by a boat from Prestonpans during the herring fishing.

It spread very quickly through fishing communities on the east coast and in the Seaboard villages reached its climax in the third week of August, after which it died down equally quickly.

The first case was in Shandwick where a fisherman died by 2nd August. By the 8th several cases had appeared in Hilton and through they were not often fatal at that stage the 'Courier' reported, 'So great is the terror attendant upon the pestilence that the people can hardly be persuaded to bury those who die of it. A number of Chelsea-out-pensioners have been sworn in as constables to guard the inlets to the burgh of Tain with instructions not to admit a single person from the infected districts.' In other words a 'cordon sanitaire' was thrown round the infected areas and people were cooped up in
their respective villages.

On 15th August the 'Courier' said of Hilton, 'The pestilence still rages here but in a comparatively mild manner. During the last week there were a good many cases but the deaths were not numerous. A few cases still remain.' But by the following week the picture had changed completely and the newspaper reported, 'The disease here has assumed a very serious aspect. On the 17th, twenty-one cases occurred and on the 18th, five deaths.' During the few days up to 20th August, twenty-one people died in Hilton and twenty others had little hope of recovery out of a total there of fifty-eight families. On the 22nd, seven were buried and five on the 23rd, by which time a total of twenty-seven had died there.

The pattern was the same in Balintore - seven died there on the 19th with many new cases. It was at its height on Wednesday 22nd when fifteen people died and many others caught it; at this point some of the people took to the fields and put up tents for themselves there to escape the infection. The worst was past however and on the 24th only four died. By the 27th with one death, two new cases and ten patients recovering things were on the mend.

In Shandwick three people died on the 19th and the 'Courier' reported that there had been two cases on the 22nd both of whom were recovering. On 29th August the disease was dying out and the newspaper report was able to say, 'Accounts from here are still favourable.'

Shandwick seems to have got off more lightly than Hilton and Balintore which may be due to the fact that it came under the Nigg Board of Health. Being aware of the gradual progress of cholera through Europe and into Britain, Nigg's Board of Health appointed inspectors at least eight months before the illness arrived. Their first meeting on 10th January 1832 was to hear their inspector's reports on the cleanliness and health of the district. On 3ist March, four months before the outbreak, they decided to buy medicines and instruct the inspectors in their use and they also appointed a medical man.

When the first suspected case died in Shandwick, Nigg Kirk Session acted quickly. They petitioned several J.Ps to prevent his burial in Nigg Churchyard lest carrying an infected body through the countryside might spread the infection. As the mortcloth had been used for this man's coffin it was 'quarantined' for fourteen days as a precaution and its use for cholera victims was forbidden.

Nigg Board of Health met in August and made several sound arrangements. Where a death occurred they decreed that the house had to be fumigated, the furniture washed and the clothing burnt. To save carrying corpses long distances they arranged that cholera victims from the Shandwick end of the parish should be interred at the old burying-ground at Clach Caraidh. Constables were to be sworn in for each end of the parish to watch 'the present seat of the disease where there are two patients who are to be completely isolated,' for which the constables were to be paid 6d. per night for extra duty. In spite of all these precautions cholera is said to have been very severe in Nigg,
especially at Culnald and Nigg Ferry, but there is no record of the total number of deaths. In Shandwick at least it appears that the efforts of the Board of Health met with success.

There must have been some overlapping of medical help in Shandwick and Balintore as the 'Courier' reported on 15th August that Charles Ross, a very intelligent local man, was appointed to attend the sick in both villages. (Could he have been one of Nigg Board's inspectors, trained in the use of medicines?) His treatment was simple but successful and the people were readier to accept his prescriptions than those of a 'regularly bred physician' which was just! as well as it was exceedingly difficult to find doctors willing to attend cholera patients.

A letter to the 'Courier' dated 20th August complained that no medical help was available apart from two visits by Dr. Munro Tain on the 9th and 11th August before the disease really reached its peak. Out of four doctors in Tain only one, Dr. Macandie, would attend cholera cases, and he was so anxious to help that when it broke out in Portmahomack he went and stayed there so as to be on the spot. Mr. Murray, a banker in Tain, made every effort to get a doctor and finally sent for Dr. John Stewart of Inverness. Shortly afterwards, the Government, at the request of Mr. Macleod of Cadboll, sent a Dr. Evans to look after the patients in Portmahomack, Hilton, Balintore and Shandwick, but as this was in late August the disease was abating and he found Dr. Stewart's patients in a fair way.

With this lack of medical care it is little wonder that the letterwriter to the 'Courier' went on to reprimand those responsible: 'The sufferings of the poor people at these villages alluded to are most heart-rending and can only be alleviated by a more efficient discharge of their duty by the Board of Health established at Fearn.'

There is no final total of the cholera victims in the villages but adding up those given in the 'Courier' there were at lest fifty-seven, and probably more. Even so they escaped more lightly than other places - half the population of Inver died and a fifth of those in Portmahomack. According to Hugh Miller the disease took a worse form in Easter Ross than in any other part of Great Britain.

As already said the cholera died down quickly and one reason for this is attributed to the courage of two men who saw it as a cloud, caught it in a sheet and buried it between a hillock and the sea, just west of the Big Yard. The same thing is said to have happened in Nigg, where the cholera was buried in the churchyard and the 'Cholera Stone' covering it may still be seen.

It is thought that the burial place for cholera victims from the Hilton area was at Cadbollmount and that their gravestones could be seen within living memory, but they have now been covered up.

Continue in Chapter 16
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