Highland Doctor: The Highlands and Islands Medical Service
The Highlands and Islands Medical Service was established in 1913 by the Liberal government, following recommendations by the Dewar Commission’s report on healthcare in Scotland’s isolated crofting and fishing communities. World War One delayed full implementation of the plan but by the 1930s affordable medical treatment was available to many remote areas of the country with funding extended to build hospitals and create an air ambulance service. Highland Doctor describes how important the service is while promoting the idea of a nationalised health service for the whole of Britain, predating the establishment of the NHS by five years. It was seen by a wide audience of people, particularly in rural areas, where it was screened in community halls, schools and factories by government mobile film units.
The Dewar Committee hears from an island GP ....
Kay Mander was offered the film by Paul Rotha on the condition that she join his production company to direct it. This gave her the opportunity to diversify both her filmmaking skills by working with actors on location and in the studio and to direct and write films with a clear social(ist) agenda.
Highland Doctor uses both fiction and documentary film techniques to illustrate improvements to community healthcare after the introduction of a government subsidised medical service. The film uses actors, with the speaking parts played by professionals and other roles by amateurs, found via word-of-mouth in North Uist and the surrounding areas where the film was shot. The GP is played by Alex Mackenzie, later to appear as a puffer skipper in the 1954 Ealing film The Maggie and Rockets Galore in 1958. The plot is structured around a conversation between the local doctor and a specialist as they wait for an air ambulance to fly a crofter’s wife to the mainland for an operation. Their dialogue scenes move the story forward but the film mainly uses commentary over beautifully shot flashback sequences of doctors, nurses and midwives travelling between islands to treat patients. The local doctor tells the specialist that poor communications, lack of transportation, hostile terrain and very few hospitals had meant prohibitively high prices for medical care but the government grant has helped solve many of the problems thus improving the quality of life in out-of-the-way areas.
The film attempts to engage the viewer with sophisticated feature film techniques such as the book ending convention of the doctors’ conversation and the use of flashbacks. One reviewer deemed Mander’s use of these devices a failure, although he admitted the film was visually lovely and well made with a lucid script and precise direction. His main complaint, of being left with just a fleeting impression of distance and a plane on a shore, is hardly an outright condemnation. It was Mander’s first screenplay so the structure and dialogue may seem awkward but the film still clearly conveys the message that medical care should be provided by the State.
Kay Mander died on December 29th, 2013, aged 98. My wife and I attended her funeral. Sadly only 11 people were there to remember her.
Russell Cowe, Panamint Cinema