Two Doctors-One Town

The small market town of Peebles in the Scottish Borders was home to two extraordinary medical doctors, born a century apart and whose experiences of the Royal Burgh vastly differed. Both men studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, were unflinchingly devoted to their individual career paths and both remembered for their legacies, but there the similarities end. Mungo Park, born in 1771 only practised in Peebles for 2 years before pursuing his passion, that of exploration of West Africa; in contrast, Dr Clement Bryce Gunn served the town for almost 50 years from 1885.

Their stories not only demonstrate dedication to their chosen callings but reflect the social history and attitudes of the two eras.

Home of Mungo Park. (Peebles History Tour, Amberley Publishing)

Mungo Park was the seventh of 13 children born at Foulshiels near Selkirk where his parents were tenant farmers. His father believed in good education and Mungo was a studious child, tending to keep his own counsel, and particularly keen on walking in the local hills to study flowers. When he was 14, he was apprenticed to the surgery of Dr Anderson in Selkirk where he gained experience of making medicines and the way of life of a country doctor, the latter not particularly appealing to him but he went on to finish his medical degree by 1791. His brother-in-law, James Dickson, was studying botanical science in London and put Mungo in touch with Sir Joseph Banks who offered patronage as an assistant surgeon on an East India Company ship travelling to Sumatra, whose main trading export was pepper. Apart from undertaking his medical duties, he found time to record and sketch specimens of fish and plants to present to Sir Joseph Banks. This trip proved to be the catalyst determining Mungo’s future.

Little was known in Europe at this time about the topography of West Africa although there was a huge demand for African slaves as well as trade in ivory and gold. The African Association was founded in 1788 in London, with the purpose of discovering more about the interior of Africa, particularly ’the big river’ (The Niger) recorded by early pioneers. Several explorers had been recruited but had either died there or returned early but Mungo Park came back from Sumatra at an opportune time, hungry for more adventure and in 1795, aged 23, he sailed from Portsmouth, bound for Gambia. Over the next 2 ½ years he gradually travelled deeper into Africa, encountering hostility from the slave-traders, suspicious of his motives but generally being welcomed as long as he complied with local customs, particularly that of showing respect to the rulers of each kingdom by presenting gifts in return for permission to pass through their land. Mungo demonstrated remarkable courage and fortitude as the journey was fraught with dangers – whether to be attacked by bandits or wild animals, intense heat, shortage of water, theft, extortion and sickness. He did reach the Niger but was captured by Moors and kept prisoner, during which time he was also suffering from fever (probably malaria). Although he managed to get away from his captors, he was weak and impoverished and eventually collapsed. The Mandingo people provided a hut and cared for him during the next few months of the rainy season by which time he was strong enough to travel back to the Gambia, along with a caravan of 35 slaves.

Mungo Park's surgery. (Peebles History Tour, Amberley Publishing)

Mungo arrived in Britain in December 1797 and shortly afterwards returned to Selkirk to write an account of his experiences. ‘Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, performed in 1795, 1796 and 1797’ was published 2 years later. Meantime he married Alison Anderson, daughter of the Selkirk doctor with whom he was apprentice and their first child born in 1800. Mungo realised he could not earn sufficient money from his book and reluctantly went back to the medical profession by opening up an apothecary and surgery in Peebles in 1801 in a humble building on the High Street, described by William Chambers as ‘a miserable den’. Despite all the rigours of the African expedition, Mungo Park intensely disliked trudging out into the wilds of the Peeblesshire countryside to do his calls, although he was apparently a caring and compassionate doctor who, like Clement Gunn later, gave his services to the poor for free. He joined the Tweeddale Yeomanry, the volunteer cavalry formed during the Napoleonic Wars. His heart was set on African exploration however and in 1803 he was called to London to discuss a further visit on behalf of the British Government who were vying with the French to secure trade links. He came back to Peebles with a Moroccan man-Sidi Ombark Bouby- whom he hired to teach him Arabic, and who must have been a novelty to the locals who nicknamed him Ombark the Moor! He closed his Peebles practice in May 1804. Before departing for London he met up with his friend Walter Scott and whilst they were riding out on the Yarrow hills, Mungo’s horse stumbled and nearly threw him, an event which Scott perceived as a bad portent but to which came the reply from the doctor ‘Freits (omens) follow those who look for them’.

Mungo left his pregnant wife in September1804 to join the British Military transport taking personnel to Senegal to curtail French colonisation in West Africa but was frustrated by continual delays, particularly because his inland journey needed to be undertaken in the dry season. Eventually the ‘Crescent’ sailed from Portsmouth on 31st January 1805 stopping at Cape Verde Islands to buy mules, then at the Goree Garrison for men of the Royal African Corps before beginning to sail up the Gambia River. The party encountered problems from the start; attacks by crocodiles and swarms of bees, dysentery and malaria, which all resulted in sickness and deaths. The stock of provisions was frequently stolen, local chiefs exploited them by extortion and throughout it all, there were storms, gales and torrential rain. After 115 days, only 12 of the original 45 men remained, and the survivors were weak or ill. Mungo’s determination to discover the course of the Niger caused him to behave like ‘a man possessed’ and this drive pushed him to overcome logic and common sense. Miraculously they did reach the river with 9 men but the carpenters who had been hired to build a boat in which to travel down it had all died, although they managed to procure a canoe. By this time, the 4 remaining men were in a desperate mental and physical state and protocol had gone out the window. Mungo did not seek permission from the chief of the Tuareg, downstream from Timbuktu, a disrespectful omission which merited attack from the shore. He frantically fired back, killing many natives. It is thought that the canoe finally hit rocks causing Mungo to drown. His contribution to the scientific world was significant through his chronicles and drawings but his reputation was tarnished by the second, fatal expedition. There is no doubt that his ‘calling’ was exploration rather than medicine.

Clement Bryce Gunn, conversely, dedicated his life to that of a country doctor in Peebles, practicing there for almost 50 years. Born in Edinburgh in 1860, he and his 5 siblings were brought up by his mother who was widowed at the age of 33. All were studious and their lives revolved around learning, apart from Sundays which were devoted to church, with strictly no studying allowed; social life as we know it was virtually non-existent so this dimension of life had to be learned from scratch once starting work after University. Whilst attending Heriot’s School, however, there were annual excursions, the one in 1871 being to Peebles, the town in which he would play such an important role in the future. The family lived in Edinburgh’s New Town and Clement Gunn frequently encountered Robert Louis Stevenson who resided nearby, but who was yet to make a name for himself and was thought of as a rather eccentric and lazy youth, nick-named ‘’The Pirate’.

'Lindores' - home and surgery of Dr Clement Gunn. (Peebles History Tour, Amberley Publishing)

During 1879, when Clement was studying Pathology, Physiology and Materia Medica in the run up to sitting the Second Professional Examination, he was asked to do a locum position for a general practitioner in Northumberland, a role that was permitted then, despite not being fully-qualified. He had to deal with conditions not previously encountered, commonly maternity cases but also an outbreak of scarlet fever, most visits being done on horseback-another new experience for this urban-raised man. These locum positions left him debilitated with exhaustion and he missed the following academic term, recuperating at the manse at Stitchill, where his eldest brother George was minister. Returning to Edinburgh for the winter term, he divided his time between university lectures, house-surgeon work in the eye department of the Royal Infirmary, administrative duties in the surgical department and Practical Dispensing in the Cowgate as well as voluntary work for the University Missionary Association; travelling between these locations involved an enormous amount of walking!

Clement qualified in Medicine in 1882 and spent a relaxing few weeks in Stitchill before securing a general practice assistantship in Newport-on Tay in Fife where he worked very hard and was responsible for all the night calls, most of which were again done on horseback. He also learnt how to make plasters from sheep skins and prepared ointments in the kitchen, where the basic pot of lard was heated on the range. Throughout his writings, his spirituality is apparent, frequently commenting on the beauty of a night-time starlit sky, a sunset or the view to Northern peaks from the autumn-tinted woodland on the shore of the River Tay. He met his future wife when they were ice-skating on the local Lindores Loch and became engaged in 1885.

By this time he had been in Newburgh for 3 ½ years and was looking for a vacancy to open his own practice. Peebles, which only had two doctors, was the location of choice and in October 1885, he arrived by train and booked into rooms at the top of the Old Town. Once the brass plate had been put up, he eagerly awaited the knock on the door…. but it was 6 weeks before the first patient called. In the event, she couldn’t afford to pay the fee, a situation Dr Gunn would experience often. His compassionate, selfless disposition and deep religious beliefs however, resulted in sympathy for the poor and throughout his tenure he treated the residents of the local poorhouse for free. He quickly realised the correlation between poverty and disease and demonstrated gratitude for his ‘privileged’ circumstances by giving as much as he could to the impoverished and was touched by the charitable attitude the sick-poor took to caring for each other. He was delighted when a Queen’s Nurse was appointed in Peebles and summarises his thoughts in his book ’Leaves From The Life of a Country Doctor’ :- ‘’We doctors are greatly indebted to these nurses for much valuable help and observation: and the poor have a greatly improved chance of recovery owing to their skilful, efficient and devoted nursing. It is borne in upon me that unless one is animated by the spirit of Christ, one cannot be successful either as a doctor or as a nurse. One must have spiritual insight if one is to approach the poor, the sick, the destitute and the fallen. Upheld by this inner vision, one can find courage, inspiration and determination to fight disease…not otherwise.’’ He lived and worked by this sentiment throughout his life.

Celtic cross at grave of Dr Gunn. (Peebles History Tour, Amberley Publishing)

The Cross Kirk, once a Trinitarian monastery, had been utilised as the Parish Church since The Reformation in 1560 but required such extensive repairs that the Town Council had decided to build a new one at the foot of Peebles High Street. This had opened in 1784 but the design was aesthetically displeasing, as well as having frightful draughts, and the replacement was under construction when Dr Gunn came to the town. He was a devout Christian and church played a big part in his life; by the time he died, he had written about each Parish in Peeblesshire - ‘Books of The Church Series’- and was been responsible for the restoration of the Cross Kirk, now a tranquil sanctuary under the care of Environment Scotland. The proclamation of his marriage to Margaret Cameron was the first to be made in the new Parish Church after it opened in 1887.

A country doctor was on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and as Clement’s practice became established, the workload was onerous, frequently entailing long and arduous journeys in the pony and trap to remote dwellings. He records that one January he was called out on 16 nights, battling through atrocious weather, once making a round trip of 55 miles to see 4 patients; on this occasion he empathises with Mungo Park’s hatred of Peeblesshire weather! However, Clement Gunn embraced rural life and somehow found time to give talks to the local community, including some on natural history to the girls employed in the wool mills and first-aid lectures for the general population. He was appointed vice-president of the Burns Club and organised quizzes and competitions about his poetry in the schools. He was passionate about local history, particularly ecclesiastical and studied the Parish Records whenever he could. He conceived the idea of having Wardens of Neidpath Castle and of the Cross Kirk, the ceremonies of which took place during Beltane Week, the ancient annual festival. He was nominated as the first one and held the position at Cross Kirk from 1930 until his death in 1933.

At the turn of the century, war broke out in South Africa between the Boers and the British. Dr Gunn treated the families of the deployed men without charge and also ran evening classes in stretcher-bearing. Subsequently, he commemorated the lost soldiers in a large wooden plaque, inscribed with brass letters, all of which he did with his own hands. This is displayed today in the Ex-Servicemens’ Club in the town. He was Surgeon-captain of the Royal Scots, in which capacity he was presented to King Edward VII at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. During the Great War, he was medical officer to 100 German POWs who were used to fell timber from Dawyck woods, as well as being in charge of the War Memorial Hospital on Tweed Green and attending the TB patients in the Sanitorium up Manor Valley. In 1925, he published Books of Remembrance for Peebles, West Linton and Tweeddale in tribute to all the local men who lost their lives in the war.

Dr Clement Gunn’s dedication to the Peebles community, both medically and socially is inspirational and unprecedented. This devout, kindly man always acted with humility and was driven by his deep care and understanding of the human condition. His work was recognised by the town in 1922 when he was given the Freedom of the Royal Burgh of Peebles. The beloved doctor is commemorated by plaques in the Parish Church and Cross Kirk and he is buried in St. Andrews cemetery.

Liz Hanson's book Peebles History Tour is available for purchase now.