From Spanish Flu to Covid-19 as documented in Skye school logs

Archivist Catherine MacPhee
Photo: Willie Urquhart WHFP

School log books from Skye have painted a picture of the impact of Spanish Flu and other diseases, and drawn parallels to the current coronavirus crisis.

The Free Press was this week invited to the Skye and Lochalsh Archive Centre by trainee archivist Catherine MacPhee to provide an insight into the day to day record keeping from schools across the island during the worldwide pandemic of 1918-1920.

The centre closed its doors on 17th March, a week before the UK national lockdown came into force.

However, as Catherine explained, some of the research from the past began to chime with what was unfolding.

“When I started seeing the stuff on the news towards the end of January, one of the things that stuck in my mind was a typhoid outbreak during World War II in Kilmaluag.

“A guy who came home from the war was sick and then everyone started getting sick in the village. He was then moved from Garafad to Kilmaluag and everyone there got typhoid.

“That’s what made me think whether it would be similar to this outbreak.”

She added: “You see that in the Skye school logs from the time of the Spanish Flu — some of the schools shut for two weeks and two weeks later they are still not open.”

The logbooks trace everything from weather, tattie picking and peat cutting, as well as disease.

Commenting on the information recorded on the Spanish Flu pandemic, Catherine said: “Early summer in 1918 was the first signs of it, and then the second, which was the biggest wave, was autumn 1918 into winter.

“I have noticed from looking at the school records there’s a trend from January to March 1919, with the schools starting to reopen in the spring, in April.”

Indeed entries from the Broadford School logbook states: “January 17th, 1919: Colds prevalent among children this week, attendance consequently not so good.”

It adds: “January 20th, 1919: Owing to the outbreak of an epidemic of influenza in the district, school closes for three weeks in the first instance on medical authority.

“March 24th, 1919: School did not reopen till this date.”

Meanwhile, the log for the Braes  school shows a similar pattern in early 1919.

“January 13th 1919: No pupils turned out today on account of a serious epidemic of influenza having broken out in the district.” 

A copy of the certificate from the medical officer for health for the closing of the school, signed in Portree on 13th January 1919, details: “On account of the prevalence of influenza in the district I hereby recommend that the Braes School be closed for a period of four weeks from the above date in the interest of public health. Signed WB Hastings, medical officer for health.”

The logbook goes on to read: “10th March 1919: School re-opened today after being closed for a period of eight weeks on account of the influenza pandemic but owing to the wet and stormy morning no pupils turned out.

“27th March 1919: There is still among the children a considerable amount of sickness. Four pupils have had their names removed from the register.”

The National Records of Scotland states that over five months in late 1918 there were 14,742 registered deaths in Scotland, more than the corresponding five months of the previous year. 

The deaths in 1917, by comparison, had been the lowest since 1868.

The report confirmed that at least 17,575 deaths that year were attributable to influenza.

“There is a case where the education board came over and said you need to close for two to three weeks,” said Catherine, “and then you’ll see another letter stating that the school was looking at reopening before going on to stay shut for a few weeks.”

She added: “When I’m in here reading the older records, I relate a lot from the past to what’s happening now — for example how people are eating during Covid.

“The police records for Dunvegan in 1920 show that there was a flour shortage and a policeman was going round and taking note of what everyone had.

“It was then reported to the food committee. 

“That was 100 years earlier, during the Spanish Flu. It might have been for different reasons but you have these weird parallels.”

During the pandemic the archive centre has appealed to communities across Skye and Lochalsh to help document what is happening.

Catherine said: “It’s important to record what the community has been doing — such as when the Free Press was not getting printed. I remember getting the last one before the break and then buying the first one when it came back because someone might ask in 100 years’ time — why was there no paper during those months?

“Some people have sent information through digitally, others have been writing at home, creating, drawing —we’ve got a real mixture of things.

“So it’s had the balance of being a good thing for people’s health and wellbeing and recording information.”