Argyll’s heroic Great War nurse honoured by Royal Mail

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Highly decorated in military honours, nurses Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm were affectionately known as ‘The Madonnas of Pervyse’ by the press during the Great War.

The women now grace the Royal Mail’s commemorative stamps which were released last week.

What is less known is that after the war, and being one of the most well-known women of her time, Mairi Chisholm moved to Barcaldine where she lived with her childhood friend May Davidson for decades.

Among the many medals Mrs Knocker and Miss Chisholm were awarded were the Order of Léopold II (1915), the Order of Queen Elisabeth of Belgium (1915), the Military Medal (1917), the 1914 Star (1917) and the Order of St John of Jerusalem (1918) for bravery in Belgium and for saving the lives of of thousands of soldiers on the front line.

At the time many women ripped up the rule book and nursed against official British regulations at the front.

Near Flanders, at first the women collected men midway onto the field of battle before moving them to the hospital to wait for treatment, or to the mortuary.

Miss Chisholm wrote in her diary: ‘No-one can understand … unless one has seen the rows of dead men laid out. One sees men with their jaws blown off, arms and legs mutilated.’

The women came to the conclusion that they could save more lives by treating the wounded directly on the front line.

They set up a treatment area 100 yards from the front line. Acting as free agents and raising their own funds, they stayed on the front line for three and a half years, leaving, due to ill health, only months before the armistice.

Their bravery was legendary as they carried men on their backs from the front and survived gas attacks.

Following the war, the two nurses went their separate ways and, after an argument, barely spoke again.

The war had taken its toll on Miss Chisholm’s health. She had been poisoned, contracted septicemia and had a weak heart.

Yet, after a brief stint in the women’s RAF, she took up motor racing.

Partly on doctors’ advice, Miss Chisholm returned home to Scotland where, it was hoped, she would lead a quieter life. She based herself in Barcaldine where she became a successful poultry breeder with May Davidson.

The women had a gardener, Miss Partridge, and a cook, Miss Johnson, who lived for more than 60 years in a house called Dock Cottage but later changed its name to Cnoc an Hurrin and is now Creran Cottage.

People can still remember Miss Chisholm shooting rabbits from her bedroom window.

In her later years, she spent much time corresponding with The Clan Chisholm Society.

Mairi Chisholm died on August 22, 1981, aged 85, from lung cancer.

Thank you to reader Moira Haywood for highlighting the story to The Oban Times. A book on the subject, Elsie and Mairi Go to War, by Diane Atkinson, was published by Cornerstone in 2009.