"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.
“At Christmas 1912 I went on holiday from London to the Highlands. My father had a house in Tain, a town which lies between red moors and blue inland sea.
He also had shooting rights over a small estate three miles away. I travelled by night and reached home at noon on the following day. My mother had lunch waiting for me, but my father had gone.
“He’s oiled your gun, and left cartridges. He wouldn’t wait, because the days are short, and he thought you might like to send some game to your friends in London. He said he would meet you at the far corner of the moors between half-past one and two o’clock.”
During lunch a cart rumbled you to our gate, and I looked through the window to see what it was. The horse and cart were standing in the road, and a man was running up the footpath to our door. Without knowing why, I rushed to the door and opened it before the man had time to ring the bell.
“It’s all right,” he said. “It’s not an accident. Your father was taken ill – a stroke, I’m thinking – and he’s in the cart.”
My father was lying there on his back, with a couple of empty folded sacks for a pillow. His two dogs, a spaniel and a Scotch terrier, were licking his face. The terrier had some blood on its neck. My father recognised me, but could not speak. It was apoplexy, with paralysis of speech and of the right arm and leg. With the aid of two neighbours we carried him to bed, and the shepherd who had driven him home told me all he knew. “I was minding the sheep when I saw him; he’s be two hundred yards away. The wee dog put a rabbit out of the whin. Your father fired, killed the rabbit, and wounded the dog. The dog started skirling; your father ran to it. Then he stopped, and fell back. When I got to him, all he said was: “I’m finished.” Not another word until he was in the cart. I went for help and to get a cart. We took the cart into the field and lifted him in. When we were about to start, he held up his left hand, the only one he can use, and said: “Stop! Not without my dogs.” So of course I put the dogs in too.”
Both the doctors who practised in the town were out, and I was faced alone with the question: to bleed or not to bleed. Although unable to speak, my father understood all I said, and showed signs of irritation when I mentioned bleeding. I went to the post office and telephoned to my father’s friend, “old George,” in Edinburgh. He also was out, on a consultation in the north of England. He would be home at seven, and could catch the north train at eight o’clock. That meant his arrival at eleven-thirty the next morning if the train was up to time. We improved on that. A fast car met the train eight miles down the line at seven in the morning, and although the snow had fallen in the night, “old George” arrived two hours ahead of the train.
He was the leading consultant in Scotland – a tall, burly man, clean shaven, with keen, humorous features, quizzical eyes, and the grand manner. Some said it paid practitioners to send for “old George,” because his mere presence added lustre to his surroundings, but he also had common sense, kindness, and a great knowledge of medicine. He looked serious as he strode up the footpath, and I thought he looked very old as I helped him to remove his coat. At the foot of the stair he stopped me. “I’d rather see your father alone. We were fellow-students. He consulted me a year ago. I’ll find his room.”
I sat in an arm-chair in the dining-room and watched the clock. The spaniel sat in a cold corner of the room sharing the misery. He was an affectionate animal, and a year previously had done a remarkable act of kindness. A farmer, who lived a mile away, had been removed to the asylum. For two nights his dog – a collie – howled outside tis kennel. On the third night, there was no howling, and hat night both our dogs had left the house after their dinner. The next day people on the farm sent word that our dogs had sat by the collie’s kennel all night. For four nights in succession these two dogs did this act of kindness – and kindness it was, because the collie was not a female.
The wounded terrier was staying with the hotel-keeper, who was treating his wounds. At the end of twenty minutes I heard “old George” coming downstairs. He entered the room, crossed to the window, and looked out across the fields. I said nothing. I was waiting for him to speak. He was considering his verdict, and in a moment I would know what he thought of my father’s illness. At last he spoke, but without turning his face from the window.
“Sutherland, did I ever tell you that damned funny story about the parson on his honeymoon?”
In astonishment, I rose, walked to the window, and looked at him. There were tears in his eyes. “Thank you for telling me that way,” I said.
He nodded. “You see, there’s nothing else to say.”
Six months later “old George” himself was dead. He died of the disease in which he had specialised – heart block. Many great physicians have died of the diseases in which they made their name – too many for the thing to be a coincidence.
The next day my father was worse. He was no longer conscious and his breathing was stertorous. All the extra muscles of respiration were working, even the nostrils dilating as he drew breath. The vital centres in the brain were making a fight for life, but the strain on the body could not last very long.
That night after midnight I was wakened by my mother entering my room, holding a lighted candlestick. “Have you heard It?” she asked.
I listened and heard the howling of dogs around the countryside. They are howling at the moon,” I said.
“There is no moon tonight, and your father will pass to-day.”
She was right. There was no moon, but a dark, snow-laden sky. On entering the warm room, where a night nurse sat by a shaded lamp, I saw that the character of the breathing had changed. It was now sighing breathing. Very short breaths, becoming deeper and deeper, and then gradually dying away. For a second or two the breathing would stop as if for ever, and then slowly begin again. The change from the laboured breathing was like a ship entering harbour out of the storm. At seven in the morning he died, and the nurse, without a word, opened one of the windows. It was an old Highland custom—to allow the spirit to depart.
Post-script: “Old George” mentioned above was Dr J.A. Gibson. The source for this information is The British Medical Journal, August 13, 1933 p.333 – the obituary of “Young George”, Dr George Gibson, written by Halliday Sutherland.
Dr Sutherland described “Old George” as “the leading and most popular consultant of his time in Edinburgh.”
Sutherland also spoke highly about “Young George”, who had migrated to Canada and served in the Canadian Corps in France in 1915. The obituary concluded with the words:
“When George Gibson died, the trumpets were not sounding, but by his life he had made the world a very much happier place for many of us than it would have otherwise been. When we come to ultimate and eternal values, that is perhaps a better memorial than monuments of brass.”
Post post-script: For Dr. J.F. Sutherland’s obituary in the British Medical Journal, click here.