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Smallpox in Croir
Smallpox in Croir
In the eighteen-sixties a widower and his three children moved from Sutherland to Croir in Bernera - his paternal home. He, Angus Macleod, and his children, John, Joanna and George, moved in with their grandfather. In the census returns for Croir in 1871, Angus is not mentioned and neither is John, but John was there in 1872.
On a normal Monday morning in April of 1872 Marion, the aunt, turned to her sister Chirsty and remarked that John was not his usual bright self. John, a strapping lad of eighteen and a rope-maker, was sitting dejectedly by the fire with his plate of porridge untouched in his hands.
"What is wrong?" Chirsty asked her nephew
John lifted his head slowly, as if it pained him to do so, and croaked that he ached all over. Marion walked to his side and placing her hand on his forehead exclaimed, "You're burning up. You must rest today, and stay indoors until you feel better"
John didn't argue, it was a trial for him just to move nearer the fire. By Wednesday his appetite hadn't improved but he had a raging thirst and it was whilst giving him a sip of cool well-water that his young sister Joanna called her aunt and asked her why there were red spots all over John's tongue and round his lips. A frisson of fear went through Marion when she saw spots but she didn't say anything to alarm anyone. On Friday though the rash had appeared on his face and was spreading to his arms and legs and by Saturday he was covered all over. But as the rash appeared, his fever abated and John felt better than he had for many days. The family breathed a sigh of relief as they thought the worst was over. On Sunday however the rash had developed into raised bumps, which by the next day had filled with a thick opaque fluid and had a depression in the centre of them.
John started to burn up again and stayed this way whilst his spots turned into hard pustules as if there were pellets embedded under his skin. His fever raged so much that he was unaware of the moans of fear and dismay when his sister, who had nursed him at the beginning of his illness, started to display the same symptoms.
The neighbours by this time were well aware that a dreadful, if not fatal, disease was in their midst, they had all heard of "a' bhàn-ghucach!". Much as they sympathised they could not gamble with their own and their children's lives by extending any help.
On April the 25th John finally succumbed to the illness and died. On May the 17th his sister Joanna's little body was also destroyed by the pestilence and she joined her brother at peace.
The aunts were distraught, not only did they have the other nephew, George, to worry about but none of the neighbours would help them. There was no one to bury the dead but themselves. The bodies were duly prepared, wrapped and laid on boards. Marion and Chirsty bound the remains to the boards with rope, in all probability ropes that had been made by John himself, and dragged the bodies behind them up the hill to a place on what is now No 8 and buried them there.
After the burial, the aunts burnt the roof of the cottage they'd lived in and moved with their little nephew to Gassun. As was common in those days this was not to be their last move, from Gassun they went to Barraglom (No 4 today) and then to Breaclete (No8). George was known locally as "Surdie"
In Scotland, between 1855-1875, over 9,000 children under 5 died of smallpox despite Scotland being, at that time, one of the most vaccinated countries in the world.