“Oh, thou demon Drink, thou fell destroyer”

Catharine McPhail, the first wife of fisherman, Duncan McTavish, died before civil registration of Scottish births deaths and marriage commenced in 1855.  The only clue to her ancestry was thirty-year old mariner, James McPhail, enumerated as brother-in-law with the McTavish family in the 1851 census.[1]  But, James’ occupation was a fabrication and for years the death certificate for James McPhail, general labourer was ruled out while other lines of inquiry, based upon his occupation, proved fruitless. 

A renewed interest in researching Catharine McPhail’s ancestry is the motive for presenting biographical data for Catharine’s siblings.  Catharine’s children, Alexander McTavish and Annie McTavish McLean, enumerated as informants on the death certificates of their mother’s siblings provide decisive proof Catharine is the daughter of Donald McPhaile and Isabella McColl.

On 7 February 1860, forty-year old James McPhail, the son of Donald McPhail, slater and his wife Isabell McColl, died at his residence High Street, Oban.  The cause of death reads “Delirium tremens 4 days certified by George McGillivray who saw deceased February 7th.” [2]

It is difficult to say whether McGillivray was treating James, and if so, whether the treatment contributed to James McPhail’s death.  Assuming James was being treated, studies show the outcome for patients suffering from the effects of alcohol withdrawal were significantly improved when treated in a medical institution.  However, that was not possible in 1860, an infirmary type environment did not exist until the construction of the Lorn Combination Poorhouse in 1862.  Oban’s first hospital, the West Highland Cottage Hospital came into existence through the endeavours of widow, Mrs Agnes Parr of Killiechronan, Mull and was officially opened by her in September 1896.” [3]

Moreover, the type of treatment, if at all, depended on McGillivray’s point of view in treating delirium tremens and had a bearing on the patient’s outcome.

Treatment without stimulants, alcohol and opium, resulted in a higher survival rate within a clinical environment which relied on observation, hydrating with water, rest and a mild sedative to help the patient sleep.[4]  This is evident when comparing statistics from the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh for the periods 1839-1850 and 1859-1869:

1839-1850       No. of cases    406      died 101          with stimulants

1859-1869       No. of cases    668      died 26           without stimulants [5]

Observation and keeping the patient in a state of calm was an important part of the treatment for delirium tremens, as the case notes of William Gilbert show.  Gilbert admitted himself to the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh on Friday 30 May 1856.  He had been drinking for the last three months, was unemployed, depressed and felt an attack of delirium tremens coming on.  The notes for the third and fourth days of treatment, duplicated here, provide an indication of James physical and mental state at that juncture:

Day 3 “Monday June 2nd Yesterday he was still very anxious: had a little giddiness with voices in his ear.  Slept little last night: but walked up and down the ward. Today he is very irritable: again, felt giddy, and weight in his head. Perfectly rational but talkative. Wished to strike another patient who annoyed him by walking about the ward but remained quiet when prevented from doing so.”

Day 4 “Tuesday 3rd Slept very little last night: and was today very restless, tremulousness great: not conscious of where he is; talking incessantly and incoherently. At night pulse 130: very delirious ordered: Solution Antimon. Tartar; Tinct Opii; Aquae; techa quaque hora”.[6]

If treatment for alcohol withdrawal was not sought prior to the day of death, then James, quite likely, was experiencing delirium with hallucinations as well as rapid and severe fluctuations in his heart rate which resulted in myocardial infarction.[7]  Notably, the treatment for alcoholism today follows that practiced at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

In 1870, Dr George Macgillivray, Medical Officer and town councillor sitting in the licensing and police court, declined to reply to the Oban Times argument, there was a conflict of interest between his professional and civic roles.

James McPhail’s death certificate – informant brother Archibald McPhail – gives his occupation as general labourer rather than mariner.  A search of Inveraray Jail’s online prisoner records shows on the fourth occasion James McPhail, born and resident Oban, was incarcerated, he gave his occupation as slater.  His conviction in 1855 for falsehood, fraud and assault gives reason to doubt the veracity of information he supplied for the 1851 Census.

Copyright rests with Sarah Baird, and due acknowledgement must always be made of the use of any material contained in, or derived from, this paper. Citation: “Sarah Baird, “Oh, thou demon Drink, thou fell destroyer”, 21 August 2020.” The title for this paper is taken from William Topaz McGonagall’s poem, The Demon Drink accessed 2020 http://www.rampantscotland.com.


[1] MCTAVISH, DUNCAN (Census 1851 523/00 009/00 019).

[2] 1860 MCPHAIL, JAMES (Statutory registers Deaths 523/ 9).

[3] https://historic-hospitals.com/2018/09/05/west-highland-cottage-hospital-in-oban/

[4] Iain David Smith, Doctoring in a whisky-injured nation: The medical response to the “alcohol question” in Scotland,1855-1925, MD thesis, 2018, 88.

[5] Smith, Doctoring, 89.  Smith does not include statistics for the period 1851-1858.

[6] Smith, Doctoring, 80-81:  See also The Lancet, Volume 1, 1866, 91 Thomas Laycock’s methodology employed by the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh adopted by the Seaman’s Hospital, Victoria Park, London.

[7] https://www.the-hospitalist.org/hospitalist/article/123281/dealing-dts “The signs of late withdrawal consist of worsening diaphoresis, nausea, and vomiting (which may result in aspiration pneumonia), delirium with frank hallucinations, and rapid, severe fluctuation in vital signs. Sudden changes in blood pressure and heart rate may result in complications such as myocardial infarction or a cerebrovascular event. Untreated late withdrawal results in significant morbidity and even death.”

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