Setting the Heather on Fire

Her Heart for a Compass short story by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, and Marguerite Kaye

Edinburgh, December 1878

The sun struggled to penetrate the smog that hung over the city, but the crowd which had gathered outside the brand new extension to the Edinburgh Children’s Sanctuary seemed oblivious of the cold. Though there were some men present, and a clutch of reporters stood huddled together, pencils behind their ears, most of the expectant faces belonged to women and children.

The nurse stood at the back of the crowd, her tummy fluttering with butterflies. The door of the second Edinburgh Children’s Sanctuary was freshly painted sunshine yellow, with a brass door knocker at child height in the shape of a cat. A Christmas tree stood to the side of the front step, bedecked with baubles, wooden toys and barley sugars, to be distributed to the waiting bairns after the opening ceremony.

The door opened and the Lord Provost stepped out accompanied by a tall, elegantly-dressed woman. It was her smile that brought back a flood of memories for the waiting nurse.

‘I will keep this brief, since you have waited so patiently,’ Lady Margaret Cameron, said. ‘I’m delighted to declare the second Edinburgh Children’s Sanctuary open.’

The nurse bided her time, waiting until Lady Margaret had finished telling a story to a circle of children before approaching her. ‘Excuse me, my lady,’ she said, ‘I won’t take up much of your time, only my father would never forgive me if I neglected to introduce myself, and say thank you in person. I’m Heather, Fraser Scott’s daughter.’

‘Oh my goodness!’ Lady Margaret got up from the stool, looking quite stunned. ‘The last time I saw you, back in the days when I did charity work in Lambeth, you were ten years old.  You’re the image of your father. I was terribly sorry to hear that the dear man had passed on. He was so very proud of you.’

‘Pa was a man in a million,’ Heather agreed with a watery smile, taking the seat she was ushered towards. ‘It was his horror stories of the hospital conditions in the Crimea that inspired me to become a nurse.’

Lady Margaret smiled fondly. ‘Dear Mr Scott, he was determined to give you the education you deserved so that you could make something of yourself. Such a contrast to my own father, who had no ambition for me, save to marry me off.’

‘Then the Duke certainly under-estimated you, if I may be so bold. Pa said he was proud to call you his friend.’

‘He was vary kind to me when I most needed it.’ Her ladyship chuckled. ‘I wish my own father felt similar pride. I am still confounding his expectations at every opportunity. Tell me, dear Miss Scott, are you working here in Edinburgh?’

‘At the Royal Infirmary. I trained as a Nightingale Nurse at St Thomas’s Hospital in London, but Scotland was always the land of my father’s heart.’

‘And are you happy here, do you enjoy your work?’

‘It’s very rewarding, and I love Scotland but – oh, I don’t know, never mind.’

‘What’s wrong? No,’ Lady Margaret said when Heather shook her head dismissively, ‘I can see there’s something bothering you. Won’t you tell me?’

Heather wavered, but the big blue eyes fixed on her were filled with sympathy, and if anyone could understand her feelings, surely it was this woman. ‘I just feel I could do so much more, given the opportunity,’ she confessed. ‘I’ve years of experience, far more than some of those doctors doing their rounds, but if you ever dare to speak up, other than to offer them a cup of tea, they’re sore affronted. If it was simply my pride at stake – but it’s not. There was a patient only the other day…’

She hadn’t meant to talk so much, but Lady Margaret listened so intently, and Heather had so much pent up frustration that it was a relief to blurt it all out. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, finally coming to a halt. ‘I didn’t mean to commandeer your time like this.’

‘Have you ever thought of training as a doctor?’


‘Why not? Oh, I know it’s a novel idea here, for a woman, but in America they’ve been teaching medicine to women for years. And I have heard that a Miss Blake has lately set up a dispensary right here in Edinburgh.’

‘I’ve heard of Miss Blake,’ Heather said. ‘A formidable woman, by all accounts.’

‘The she’s precisely the person we should speak to about setting you on the right path.’

‘I can’t. Aside from the money…’

‘We’ll find a way to resolve that. If you were to work for our Sanctuaries in your spare time, for example – yes, I think that might work.’

‘But I’m a working-class woman, Lady Margaret. My education is sound but it’s not fancy.’

‘Do you want to be a doctor, Miss Scott?’

‘More than anything,’ Heather admitted, dazed and excited, ‘but I’ve never imagined it could be anything other than a dream.’

‘If you follow your heart then nothing is impossible. I know that better than most. I shall write to Miss Blake. Or perhaps it would be best if we simply paid her a visit. Are you free just now?’

‘I’m not on duty for another four hours, but – do you mean it?’

‘Of course I do. What are you laughing at?’

‘Pa once called you a force of nature. I see what he meant.’

Lady Margaret smiled. ‘Irrepressible is what my husband calls me. Dr Heather Scott. It has a nice ring to it.’

‘Do you really think I can do it?’

‘More importantly, do you think you can?’

Heather thought for a moment, then nodded. ‘I have no idea if I’ll succeed, but I’m ready to take the first step.’

Lady Margaret took her by the hand. ‘Let’s take it together.’

Seven Years Later

Heather sneaked a glance as the small gathering took their seats. Lady Margaret had brought her two eldest boys, Donnie and Ewen. Heather smiled to see her lean over and check on Ma, who had travelled to Edinburgh for the first time in her life for the occasion. Neither of her brothers were in attendance, both claiming work demands, but the truth was they thought she had ideas above her station. Nursing was a suitable career for a woman, but medicine was a male preserve. They had been genuinely shocked at the idea of their sister attending anatomy lessons, never mind putting what she’d learned into practice.

It had been hard work. There had been times when it would have been easier to give up. Those were the days when she recalled Lady Margaret’s words. ‘Doctor Heather Scott. It has a nice ring to it.’

It did, it had a very nice ring to it, and answering to it never failed to give her a thrill, but today Heather was giving it up, willingly. She was taking the first step on a new journey, at the side of the man who was taking his place in front of the altar.

The organ struck up, and she pulled her veil over her face, steadying herself to take the short, life-changing walk down the aisle. ‘Doctor Heather McInroy’, she mouthed to herself. That had a nice ring to it too.