Obituary: Katherine Robertson OBE, doctor

Dr Kate Robertson OBE. Picture: Contributed
Dr Kate Robertson OBE. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 21 October 1921, in Glasgow. Died, 11 August 2016,in Oban, Argyll, aged 94

Did he mind a lady doctor?, an injured young Royal Engineers officer was asked in hospital in Glasgow in 1952.

It was just as well for them both he did not: that doctor, Kate Cameron, was to devote two years working to get the ankle he had shattered in a climbing accident as close to better as it could ever be, and their love would lead to a partnership that has since made them both legends in Africa.

The soldier, Lindesay Robertson, took up a new vocation in the Kirk, and after marrying him in 1954, Kate was to find herself, at the height of a medical career continued for nearly three decades south of the equator, the only doctor for 200,000 people.

The country they went out to in 1959, he as a Christian missionary, was the British African protectorate of Nyasaland, then on the brink of independence. Kate Robertson was soon drawn into politics, and stood as a candidate for Parliament in 1961 in the first democratic elections in what was to become in 1964 the new state of Malawi.

Representing the Malawi Congress Party in Mulanje and Thyolo constituency, she earned from disgruntled expatriate whites, many of whom worked on the district’s tea estates, and who supported the status quo, the nickname “Kwacha Kate” – a reference to the independence campaigners’ symbol of dawn (“kwacha”, now also a unit of the country’s currency).

Originally meant to be disparaging, the tag quickly became for her and for her political associates in the then up-and-coming party of Dr Hastings Banda, from 1961 the country’s prime minister and later President, a badge of pride.

She took care later to heal those differences, believing it important to preserve friendly relations with people of different beliefs and opinions.

After independence she was appointed medical officer for Mulanje District, and worked with Malawi’s Ministry of Health, training doctors and nurses, and inculcating principles of disease prevention.

The couple, who had two daughters, Fiona and Catherine, lived first at Mulanje Mission, and later at Blantyre and the capital, Lilongwe. They travelled on foot and by bicycle, and had many adventures crossing the country in jeeps, which sometimes stuck in mud. Home was usually a tin-roofed bungalow with a verandah.

In the country where the nineteenth-century Scottish missionary David Livingstone is still revered, the Robertsons became figures of similar high respect.

American aid representatives visiting in the 1980s were astonished at the determined work of hundreds of villagers, who joined Lindesay Robertson in digging trenches to allow the piping of water by gravity from mountains such as the 3000 metre (9,800 ft)-high Mulanje Massif:”Full and enthusiastic involvement of communities on such a wide scale is unequalled anywhere in Africa,” they noted.

Malawi’s rural piped water programme, begun in 1968, had been “highly successful”, the US inspectors wrote. Several hundred kilometres of pipeline in a single scheme, for example, had been put together by “purely voluntary self-help.”

It is estimated that after 18 years of the Robertsons’ work in Malawi, 2 million people had gained access to clean water. Later charities, including Water Aid, established in 1981, now working in 37 countries, and to which Lindesay Robertson was a voluntary advisor, have taken up their ideas.

Kate Robertson was appointed OBE on their retirement in 1986; Lindesay Robertson had been made MBE at an earlier stage in their joint career, in 1971. By 1986 a new adventure beckoned: Kate Robertson would become passionately attached to a different home among different mountains, a house of the Clan Campbell, Bragleenmore, at the head of Loch Scammadale in Argyll, which Lindesay Robertson’s father had inherited in 1930, his family returning to Scotland at that time from New Zealand.

A story goes that the couple could not depart Malawi for Scotland until Lindesay Robertson appealed to Malawians’ own traditional deep attachment to the land and their understanding of ancestral ties. They pleaded:“Don’t go; you are the adopted son and daughter of our land”, to which he countered: “But I have land of my own that I must go to.”

Back in Scotland, the couple kept up their connections with Africa, advising on water supply and health education in Ghana, and were members of the local Church of Scotland congregations at Kilninver and Kimelford. Lindesay Robertson died in 2009.

Part of the couple’s inspiration came from their participation, from 1956, in the Iona Community, set up by the Glasgow Church of Scotland minister, soldier and war hero the Rev George MacLeod MC, later Baron MacLeod of Fuinary, to help working men and combat inequality.

Kate Robertson was herself the daughter of a Glasgow doctor, Angus Cameron, who practised in the city’s poorest areas, and passed on to her his vision of better health for the deprived. Her daughters survive her.

The Government of Malawi paid tribute to her: she had given the central 30 years of her life to “her adopted country, which now sees her as its adopted daughter and which mourns her loss.”