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 A Snippet of Local History

In 1951 Dr. Martin Whittet was appointed Superintendent of Craig Dunain Hospital, commonly known in those days as Inverness District Asylum.


Very much a new broom, Dr. Whittet was to attempt to alter the perceived stigma of the word “asylum” and turn Craig Dunain into an “open” hospital where able patients were allowed to walk freely around the grounds.


He emphasised that he was Superintendent of a psychiatric hospital and in time built a reputation for the sterling work being done to foster treatment for mental illness.


A patient, Frank B., currently incarcerated within the walls, was deemed a hopeless case by relatives, friends and doctors alike. 


Because of alcoholism. Frank’s career was in ruins and his future bleak.

One day he was to read an article on the work of Alcoholics Anonymous in Glasgow and wrote away for more information. The reply filled him with hope and subsequently created an unforeseen chain of events.


Having been discharged from hospital and residing with Dr. Whittet, Frank approached him about the benefit of AA for himself and was delighted with the response.

Dr. Whittet had previously worked with Dr. Alan MacDougall at Gartnaval Hospital, who had taken a great interest in AA and the effect on alcoholics.


The connection led to a meeting being arranged in Craig Dunain Hospital to which two members of AA were invited; one a second officer serving on an oil tanker, the other a business man.


These two – Frank B. & Bob B. together with members of the medical and nursing staff, comprised what was to become the inaugural meeting of the Inverness branch of Alcoholics Anonymous, chaired by Dr. Martin Whittet.


Following a visit to the only group in Perth, membership began to increase in Inverness. The first meetings were held in Craig Dunain Hospital, and also a restaurant above the Carlton Bar in Inglis St.


Then it moved from Inglis Street to the YMCA building at the corner of High St. and Castle St.

After some time, the increase of numbers necessitated more space, and the next venue became a room at the Palace Hotel.


Then the first female member (Catherine), used her connections to allow the use of the Cathedral Hall on Kenneth Street.

After some time, Dr. Whittet offered the fledgling Inverness AA group the use of the board room at the Craig Dunain Hospital for meetings on Saturday evenings. It was not unusual at the time, for Dr. Whittet to knock on the curtained glass door, pop his head round, and ask if he be allowed to sit in. He was of course made welcome.


Catherine was to learn that the group had left Kenneth Street owing £12.00 in rent arrears and quietly dipped into her own purse to protect the name and integrity of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Sadly, Catherine took ill at a meeting and died in the arms of “John the Boat”, a traumatic experience for John and a blow to the group.

By now, word was getting around there was something going on at Craig Dunain Hospital that seemed to be helping alcoholics.

“Colin Fort William” - (COCO), was one of the first long distance travellers who travelled alone on a return journey of 132 miles round trip. He was to be joined by “Neil” and “Piper Alec.”

Bill and Ben came from Thurso and Wick, (+200 miles round trip) and “Neil” and “Watty” came down from Tain, (+70 miles round trip).

Then there was Ian and Robert from Skye (+ 200 miles round trip).

“David Gairloch” was also an early member at the hospital meeting as was “Jimmy the Piper”, and “Murdo Raasay”.

Now AA was starting to spread wings to Stornoway and Skye, Ullapool, Kyle, Tain, Lossiemouth, Fort William, Oban etc.

A copy of the book Alcoholics Anonymous (First Edition) was donated to the Craig Dunain Hospital Group with the compliments and best wishes of the Glasgow Group. The book was signed by Dr. Martin Whittet and is now kept at the AA General Service Office in York.

From 1952 – 1970, changes were taking place in the group. Growth was continuous with younger people joining, which led to differing opinions.

And so, it came to pass that around September of 1970, “John the Boat”, “Bill A.” and “Ian M.” started a group in the Mission Hall in Madras Street. This group later became registered with the General Service office and was known as The Town Group.

As AA began to grow throughout the Highlands and Islands. A second meeting began in Craig Dunain Hospital, Madras Street Hall had two meetings, Ness Bank Group opened, Fort William, Grantown on Spey, Kyle of Lochalsh, Wick, Thurso, Skye, Stornoway, and various other villages where they opened and closed depending upon membership.

In Inverness, further meetings opened at Raigmore Hospital, St. Stephens Church, The Spectrum Centre, The Barn Church, Bruce Gardens, Big Book Group in The Corbett Centre and Inshes Church Hall.

Some people thought AA to be a religious entity as most meetings were held in churches. But the truth is that in those early days, most meeting rooms in church premises were offered to AA rent free, very welcome at the time as AA had little or no money in those days.

The name of “John G.” turned up all over the place from Inverness to Stornoway, to Lossiemouth, Lochinvar, Ullapool and other places, and it was indeed one man who helped groups to be established in all of these places.

“John G.” sold his fish and chip shop in Inverness and became an auctioneer in Lochinvar. This is where Robert U. contacted him and thus the group in Ullapool evolved.

John travelled to any length to carry the AA message of recovery, but he eventually decided to drop anchor in Lossiemouth where he set up shop as a fishmonger.

At the local Fleet Air Arm base in Lossiemouth was Jimmy P. who had recently been treated for alcoholism in a local hospital in Portsmouth. Now stationed in Lossiemouth, he knew he needed the support of AA if he were to stay sober.

He somehow made contact with “John G.” and together they travelled from Lossiemouth to the Craig Dunain Group and another one in Elgin.

“Jimmy Nairn” as he was latterly referred to, was later instrumental in opening the Nairn Group somewhere around 1980.


This group is still going strong although "Jimmy Nairn" passed away in or around 2003.


The above (edited) text has been taken from a document passed on to the Friar Street Group by a long-term LOCAL member of AA.

The full text of the original document can be seen in the group folder.

This was posted to this web site on 5th April 2019.


Dr. Martin Whittet


Physician and psychiatrist.

Born: 12 November, 1918, in Glasgow.

Died: 10 December, 2009, in Inverness, aged 91.

DR MARTIN WHITTET was a leading physician, clinician and psychiatrist, highly respected throughout the UK for his work on depression and other mental illnesses.

For 32 years he had the stressful task of running the only psychiatric hospital in the Highlands – Craig Dunain in Inverness where he strove to remove the stigma of mental illness and change traditionally negative and fearful public perception.

From 1951 until his retirement in 1983, he took Craig Dunain, once officially called the Northern Counties District Lunatic Asylum, into the modern age as an "open hospital" – brightening its decor and encouraging patients to visit voluntarily, something almost unheard of beforehand.

When he took over, aged only 32, admissions averaged five a year. By the time he retired, it was not uncommon to have five voluntary admissions a day, which often caused overcrowding.

He also helped spread mental healthcare far beyond the hospital, setting up clinics across the Highlands and Islands, notably to deal with growing and still much-misunderstood depression.

"We take it for granted that other parts of our body will have ups and downs and need attention from time to time," he liked to say. "So it's only natural that something as complicated as the mind will also have its ups and downs."

A Glaswegian who became something of an honorary Highlander, he was also deeply concerned by the high level of alcoholism in the Highlands and Islands.

He helped set up branches of Alcoholics Anonymous and wrote many influential research papers on the subject.

Whenever possible, Whittet tried to visit every patient in Craig Dunain every day, otherwise ensuring one of his senior consultants filled in for him and reported to him at the end of their shift.

Relatives of patients recalled being invited into his office for a comforting cup of tea by a roaring open fire, a far cry from the clinical environment of today.

As part of his belief in "proactive mental health care" he introduced healthier diets for patients, repainted the hospital from the old depressing brown and encouraged patients to have occupational therapy and use their skills.

He organised leisure activities from films and dances to Burns suppers, opened a shop and canteen for patients and even built a bowling green.

To make sure he could understand, be understood and be respected by patients, relatives and colleagues alike, he learned Gaelic and became a keen member of the Gaelic Society.

Because of his expertise in psychiatry and forensics, Whittet was often called to act as an expert witness in criminal investigations including murder cases.

Martin Matthew Whittet was born in the Jordanhill district of Glasgow to a father whose family were originally from Perthshire and a maths teacher mother with origins on the Isle of Skye.

He attended the High School of Glasgow, where his father was head of the art department, and where his memories were of "carbolic soap, pea soup, fog, strikes, janitors in top hats and purple vestments, and tramcars where boys were expected to stand up and give ladies their seats".

 He went to Glasgow University, initially to do an engineering degree, but switched to medicine, graduating as Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MB ChB) in 1942 and adding a Diploma in Psychological Medicine (DPM) from the University of London soon afterwards.

Having contracted TB while a student, he was rejected for military service during the Second World War, but got a job at Glasgow's Royal Infirmary, where, in the burn’s unit, he witnessed Professor Tom Gibson's breakthrough work in skin grafts and saw visiting professor Sir Alexander Fleming assess the efficacy of penicillin.

From 1943-51, he worked at the old Gartnavel, at the time known officially as Glasgow Royal Mental Hospital, where for the latter eight years of his term he was deputy physician superintendent under the charismatic Dr Angus MacNiven.

In 1951 Dr. Whittet was appointed physician superintendent and consultant psychiatrist at Craig Dunain, where he would spend the next 32 years until retirement.

When he left Gartnavel, Dr MacNiven recommended a single book he said would be essential for dealing with the psychiatric problems of Highlanders. It was called Para Handy.

Dr. Whittet recalled a crofter on the Isle of Lewis visiting one of his clinics for the first time and saying: "You'll be the doctor for the nerve. Aye, it's a difficult thing, the nerve."

During his career, Dr. Whittet also served as psychiatric commissioner to Her Majesty's armed forces, as psychiatric consultant to HM prisons, notably Porterfield prison in Inverness, and as Lord Chancellor's medical visitor for Scotland, the latter involving travelling around Scotland to ensure the interests of mental health patients were being upheld.

Dr. Whittet was a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

He was awarded an OBE in 1973 for services to medicine, particularly mental health.

Despite the stress of running a psychiatric hospital, Dr. Whittet found time to write several papers, magazine articles and books including Medical Resources of the Forty-Five, A Liquid Measure of Highland History and Over the Hills and Not So Far Away.

He spent his retirement golfing, salmon fishing, writing, walking and playing the accordion, after a fashion.

At the time of his death in 2009, Dr. Martin Whittet was survived by his wife of 62 years, Nina, daughter Jean, sons Martin, David and Gordon and eight grandchildren.


This extract has been copied with kind permission from Scotland’s National Newspaper “The Scotsman”

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