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Women Doctors in Orkney… what do we know about them?

This was a question I’d been pondering, after researching the life of a woman doctor who worked on North Ronaldsay, between 1930 and 1946.

Beatrice Garvie was her name.

I knew about her from the North Ronaldsay Archive, which displays many of her superb photographs of island life, and in which I had been delighted to find her pictures of my own family.

Thomson family at South Ness, Jenny Sanderson, nee Thomson, seated left, with baby on lap. This is Ray Sanderson, Fiona's Father.  Reference D156/0239 Orkney Library and Archive.

Over the last few years, I have worked with islanders who still hold her in living memory, to document the people in the more than 500 photographs, and, where possible, to note the events and places that are in them too. These photographs are held by the Orkney Archive.

At the same time, I was looking into other Archives, to see what I could find about Dr Garvie. The more I found, the more I realised what an incredible life she had led. She was one of the earliest women doctors to train in Scotland, and she qualified even before she could be awarded a degree - before 1900, so before women won the vote, before the First World War, at a time when it was unusual for a woman to be seen riding a bicycle!

How, I wondered, did women like Doctor Garvie manage all this? To move against a cultural tide requires support, doesn’t it…. Where was hers coming from? And this was how I came to wonder, could I find out something more about her. Did she stay in touch with the other women she trained with? Did they help each other to find employment? Were they also involved with suffrage and other movements for social change?

In my first researches, I had come across a book, ‘Les Femmes Docteurs’; written in French, and published in 1901, which documented women doctors working around the world. Marvellously, it included lists of names. So I knew from this that in 1900, there were already three women doctors working in Orkney…three!

Mary Baird Hannay, on Flotta, (p.169) and J.A. Craig and K. Hogg listed simply as working ‘à Orkney’ (p.170).

 Were there local records about these women in the Archive? Feeling the need for a support network of my own, I invited people who were interested to come and get involved, just in case we might find any more women’s names alongside Hannay, Craig, Hogg, and Garvie.

So, over the Winter of 2023, a group of us rolled up our sleeves to see what we could find. We began to research individual doctors and island records, alongside broader social themes, and the field of medicine itself.  

This blog covers something of what we found.

And it is astonishing.

Dr Beatrice Garvie (right) with a visitor, Marion Taylor,
on North Ronaldsay. Both are holding cameras!

Blog post written and researched by Fiona Sanderson, project leader.


The photos used in this blog post are held in the Archive of the Orkney Library and Archive, Kirkwall.

‘Les Femmes Docteurs’, 1901, (3rd edition). Alliance Co-operative du Livre. Paris.
Link to ‘In Search of Beatrice Garvie’ 
Link to Beatrice Garvie photograph selection,