Dr. Alexander Cran

The following is extracted from: Aberdeen Doctors at Home and Abroad: The Narrative of a Medical School By Ella Hill Burton Rodger. [To return to the Cran Family click here]

Dr Alexander Cran was born on the 16th of November 1803 in Rhynie, at the farm of Templand, where his father was tenant . He was educated at the parish school and the Aberdeen Grammar School, and obtained by public competition one of the first bursaries at Marischal College, where he became M.A. in 1824. He was a good English and Latin scholar, and Latin he continued to read, and take pleasure in, even in his old age. He studied a year at the Divinity Hall, but, giving up the idea of being a minister, turned to medicine alone, though he continued to take a deep interest in theology all his life, and had a more than ordinary knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, which he read devoutly. Dr Cran was apprenticed for some time to Dr Cruikshanks of Forgue, and went a voyage as surgeon in his youth with a whaler to Greenland. After some stay in Aberdeen, during which he attended the Medical Society, Dr Cran went to London, where he graduated as surgeon in 1826. In the autumn following he began medical practice in Tarland over a district of twenty miles. The difficulties of a country surgeon’s life in this primitive part of the country were remarkable. Dr Cran’s visiting was all done on foot or on horseback, and he never kept a gig. He often forded the Don and the Dee at the risk of his life, and had many narrow escapes in blinding drift and deep snow. He was the medical man mentioned by Sir Thomas Dick Lauder in his book about the great Morayshire floods of 1829 as crossing the river Noughty on horseback on the morning after the spate with a rope tied round his waist, held by a companion.

In 1836 Dr Cran married Margaret Reid, daughter of James Reid, farmer, Templeton, Kildrummy, by whom he had six sons and four daughters. Dr Cran and his wife were strong both physically and mentally, vigorous and capable, and with, by God’s grace, long happy lives before them, but such as no one would care to enter on now: people would certainly think themselves doomed to destruction if forced into such circumstances as they endured. To Wester Clova farm by the ruins of Kildrummy with its seven towers, built by Edward of England in the stony heart of Scotland above the old Picts’ houses, Dr and Mrs Cran retired in old age. In person the doctor was a stalwart handsome man, whose age was as noble as his youth. To one of his daughters the author is indebted for many interesting particulars in the history of this typical country surgeon, whose life presented as many risks as that of the most adventurous missionary among savages. Dr Cran had to go long distances to his patients, who lived far apart from each other; in many parts of his district there were no roads and no bridgea He was often away for days and nights together in midwinter, his wife and family meanwhile being in great anxiety about him. Mrs Cran, besides bringing up her children to be strong enduring men and women, helped her husband at home as only a good and robust wife could. Every economy was used to save for the young ones, and the idea of a conveyance even of the humblest kind was foregone as a needless extravagance where there was so large a family to bring up. Dr Cran was distant from other practitioners, and had to perform the most delicate operations alone under the most trying circumstances.

In pursuit of his practice he had many adventures. In his earlier days Aberdeenshire was infested by highway robbers, and the doctor was often waylaid . In a lonely part of the road near Tarland on a dark night a man rushed out of a wood and seized his horse’s bridle, crying, “Your money or your life!” Dr Cran had the presence of mind to give him such a blow on his fingers with his whip that he loosened his grasp. One evening, passing a gipsy encampment where a great fire was burning, a “stoutrief” or stalwart thief played the part of brigand; but on his seizing the doctor’s valuable horse it reared itself free from his grasp and galloped off. This horse, well known throughout the country, became an object of envy, and several attempts were made to steal it . One morning his stable was empty; the doctor’s steed was gone, saddle and bridle and all. Some days after the horse was found grazing in a field near Kincardine O’Neil . The hill where the gipsies always encamped had an evil reputation for being haunted, and causing folk to lose their way on it. On a night of choking “blindrift,” going home on foot, Dr Cran called in at a shepherd’s hut on the hill to ask the way, and wandering about for several hours, attracted by a glimmering light, found himself back at the same place again. The shepherd, guiding him to the top of the hill after vainly persuading him to remain all night, judiciously advised him to keep always going down hill, and he would soon find his way home. Dr Cran’s life was one of incessant toil. For whole nights in succession he was out of bed, and away long distances above Ballater. He had just got into bed after two nights spent thus when he was called away at midnight to the far end of the Forest of Glentannar, among the Grampians, to see a man whose leg had been broken by a falling tree. The patient lay in a small hut in a wild inaccessible spot at the foot of an overhanging cliff, which looked as if it might fall at any moment and crush both patient and doctor. Returning home after setting the broken limb, quite worn out, he lay exhausted on the floor of his parlour and fell fast asleep. On one very stormy night, with deep snow on the ground, he was called to a house a few miles distant. He had to walk, as his horse could not have gone through the snow, and he had great difficulty in coming home again, for at every step the snow was up to his knees, and the wreaths and drifts at the roadside were high enough to bury him. When home was reached at last, he sank down on a chair speechless; his clothes were stiff with snow and wet with perspiration—a few yards more and he would have fallen outside his own door, never to rise again. Mrs Gran, who had spent an anxious night, and was seriously alarmed, had waited up for him, and restored him to comfort and warmth with the tenderest solicitude. Many a time was her anxiety great, and her fear, not without reason, that she might never see him again. Another night he lost his way, and sank with his horse in a bog. Freeing himself with the greatest difficulty, he sent some one back to take out his horse.

Sometimes amusing incidents occurred, as when one night a loud knocking was heard at Dr Cran’s back-door. The servant opened a window and called, “Who’s there?”

A voice answered, “It’s me! I’m seeking the doctor to Baubie; but dinna hurry the gentleman—he’s a lang road afore him.”

The doctor hurried on his clothes and accompanied the owner of the voice, asking, “Is there anybody with your wife?”

“Oh, na,” was the answer, “not when I left; but the wives is coming in a’ directions—ower mony o’ them. I’m no’ seeking them; they’ll harry [spoil] the house and eat a’ my jam.”

The doctor having gone six miles, and having brought into the world by next morning an addition to Baubie’s family, the day broke amid the wildest storm.

“Noo, doctor, ye’re baith tired and sleepy,” said Baubie; “just come and tak’ a lie doon.”
“No, thank you,” answered the doctor; “I’ll go to my own bed at Ferrar,” a farm by the Dee a mile off, where there was a spare bed kept for the doctor’s use whenever he might be in the neighbourhood known as “the doctor’s bed.”

Dr Cran survived forty-four years of practice in Tarland, summer and winter, through storm, snow, and sunshine, and did not retire till he was nearly seventy years of age, when, as already said, he went to the farm of Wester Clova, Kildrummy, where he and his wife lived together into hale hearty old age. He still kept up his interest in the progress of medicine, and every new medical discovery was as interesting to him as it was in the days of his vigorous youth. He was a man of high moral tone and temperate life, a kindly and good Samaritan, on whoso head was showered many a blessing from the sick poor as well as the sick rich. Ho had pride and pleasure in his tenor of eldership, fifty-five years long, in the Established Church of Scotland, and his blameless life was a great example.

Dr George Cran, Banchory-Ternan, is a son of Dr Cran, as was also the late Dr Robert Cran of Ballater. The life of this patriarch among Aberdeenshire country surgeons serves to show that whatever be the labours of the country surgeon now, they are little in comparison with the difficulties of those who lived and toiled fifty years ago