Today's guest post is from Morag who is from Unst, Shetland, and doing a one-place study of the island.

Halligarth, Unst - home to Dr. Laurence Edmondston
Halligarth, Unst - home to Dr. Laurence Edmondston

In my childhood, my walk from where the school bus dropped me off, to my grandparents' house in Baltasound, where we would go each day after school, took me past a house called Halligarth, which was occupied by two old siblings, Lorna and Stephen Saxby. My mum tells a story of me as an inquisitive toddler in that old house:

I remember taking Morag along (pre school age). Morag went round Lorna's kitchen asking "what's this?" She looked at the wooden barrel type washing machine and laughed disbelievingly when Lorna told her what it was. Wooden paddles in the bottom a bit like the twin tub washers used to have. That kitchen was amazing, could have become a museum just as it stood.

The house was on its last legs by then, but it had once been home to the island's doctor, Dr. Laurence Edmondston, Stephen Saxby's Great-grandfather. He was in fact not the only doctor on the island of Unst. At one stage there were several, quite belying the small size of the island. It was remarked upon at the time in the Shetland Times (26 Jan 1874) with an amusing column.


WE are of late pleased to see that, notwithstanding the instability of things generally in Shetland, the Agricultual Society of Unst stands secure. We admire our Unst neighbours for their enterprise in many things, ... not the less for their sagacity and foresight, and are desirous to borrow a lesson from them; and with this view, may we ask what is the reason for their very large importation of medical doctors of late? Three worthy and respected gentlemen of that profession were resident in the island, and we now hear of two further added to the number, thus making five M.Ds. to a population equal to Lerwick, while we content ourselves, in the meantime, with two of the profession. Under the circumstance we do, however feel somewhat uneasy, as from the sagacity and foresight of those northerns, there is surely some impending outbreak expected, and may be on its way from some remote region, and we shall consider it a boon conferred on the obscure portion of Shetland if any one or more of those high-spirited and patriotic men will inform us if we also should take precautions and be on our guard with a powerful staff of those skilled in the healing art.

From what I know about Unst in my One Place Study of the island, the doctors in question were as follows. This information can be gleaned from the occupations listed in census returns, occupations shown on birth records (including Old Parish Baptism Records where Doctors appear to get treated unusually and are listed as 'Doctor' which is very handy!), and by looking at statutory death records from 1855 onwards, where many of the deaths are certified by a Medical Attendant, allowing you to see the names of the doctors who are practicing on the island.

  • Laurence Edmonston M.D.
    • born 9 Feb 1795, Lerwick; died 7 Mar 1879, Unst
    • Stephen Saxby's Great-grandFather
    • Qualification: M.D. Univ. Edin. 1830
    • Practicing in Unst from around 1832 onward. Seen certifying death records until 1877, although had officially retired before then.
  • Henry Linckmeyer Saxby M.D.
    • born 19 Apr 1836, London; died 4 Aug 1873 Inverary
    • Stephen Saxby's GrandFather
    • Qualification: M.D. Univ. St. And. 1862
    • Practicing in Unst from 1863 until 1871, left Unst thereafter due to ill health.
  • James Smith M.D.
    • born 10 Dec 1806, Fetlar; died 17 Oct 1890, Unst
    • Qualification: M.D. Univ. Edin. 1831; Lic. R. Coll. Surg. Edin. 1829
    • Practicing in Unst from around 1835 onward. Seen certifying death records until 1889.
  • David John Rutherford M.D.
    • born about 1838
    • Qualification: L.M. Qu. Univ. Irel. 1857; M.D. Univ. Edin. 1859; Lic. R. Coll. Surg. Edin. 1860
    • Came to Unst after practicing in Ireland. Practicing in Unst from 1871 onwards. Seen certifying death records from 1871 - 1886. Emmigrated to Canada by 1891.
  • Daniel Ferguson M.D.
    • Don't know anything about this gent.
    • Practicing in Unst for a short period in the 1870s. Seen certifying death records from 1874 - 1877

This glut of doctors in the island was clearly a temporary blip, a changing of the guard if you like. Dr. Laurence Edmonston was getting old, he was 79 in 1874 and still practicing. Dr. Henry L. Saxby had actually died not long before the article was written, but I suspect, as a long term Unst M.D. he was included in the count of five. Dr. James Smith was 68 in 1874, but continued practicing for at least another decade after the article was written. Dr. David John Rutherford and Dr. Daniel Ferguson were more recent additions to the medical practitioners on the island, the latter of which wasn't seen on Unst for very long in fact.

While interesting in the context of an amusing newspaper column, there is another good reason with being familiar with the main well known figures in your one-place study. It was very often the case that children were named after the doctor or minister in the area. I've written about children named after a minister before. If you have an unusual middle name for a child, your first thought may be to look for the branch of the family tree that this name was plucked from, but when you can't find it, it is also worth considering the alternatives.

If I look through my Unst data, there are around three dozen children with the middle name Edmondston, from the long-standing Dr. Laurence Edmondston who served the island for so many years, and possibly from a few other well-known members of his family too I suspect; a few named after Dr. David John Rutherford - not a common surname anywhere in Shetland!; and two named after Dr. Henry L. Saxby. Dr. Daniel Ferguson didn't appear to stay around long enough to ingratiate himself into the naming conventions of the island it would seem, and it's hard to know how many were named after Dr. James Smith, it being such a common surname!

As someone doing a one-place study, you can make information such as this more available for others searching their branches of their own family history. I have already passed on the knowledge of Edmondston as a middle name for a child likely being named after the doctor to one person who contacted me. They were unaware of the name belonging to the doctor.

Morag Hughson

Read more about Morag's progress on her Unst one-place study on her blog, and follow her on Twitter.


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