As a cook in the pioneering Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH), Ishobel Ross served up meals, hospitality and comfort in a setting that was far from comfortable for anyone.
Her early life was far removed from her later wartime experiences. She grew up on the Isle of Skye where her father, James Ross, ran the Broadford Hotel and is credited with developing the recipe for Drambuie, the whisky liqueur. The sale of the recipe funded her education at Edinburgh Ladies College and the Atholl Crescent School of Domestic Science.
Ishobel spent the first two years of the war making bandages for the Red Cross while teaching cookery at a girls’ school. She decided to plunge more deeply into the war effort after hearing SWH founder Dr Else Inglis calling for volunteers to go to Serbia.
She became a cook in the American Unit, with the job of producing meals for the entire camp on a primitive, wood-burning stove. The SWH cookhouses were flimsy buildings with muddy floors and leaking roofs, if they had roofs at all. They were also the closest thing to a homely environment for the many Serbian, Russian, French and Italian soldiers she fed. While her role mimicked that of a traditional female home-maker in some ways, the setting was entirely unconventional.
Ishobel’s unit moved from place to place along the Balkan front and eventually settled in the town of Ostrovo. Her diary, published in 1988 as Little Grey Partridge, gives insights into the everyday experiences of an SWH volunteer.
One morning she wrote: ‘Four more boys have died through the night. It is so sad to see the other Serbs making wooden crosses to lay on their bodies.’
Another entry reads: ‘What a terrible sight it was to see the bodies half buried and all the place strewn with bullets, letter cases, gas masks, empty shells and daggers’. On one occasion, she assisted with a leg amputation because all the nurses were sick; malaria and dysentery plagued the staff.
SWH volunteers kept their spirits up by marking occasions as they would have at home. For Hallowe’en they held a dressing up party. At Christmas they enjoyed a special feast of turkey, tomato soup, fruit, nuts, sweets and plum cake, all things normally denied them under rationing. They danced with Serbian officers – both the traditional Scottish jig and reel and the Serbian ‘Kola’ – to music by a local violinist and concertina player.
Ishobel carried strong memories of her experiences in Serbia for the rest of her life – not just of her work but of the new culture she encountered. Serbs reminded her of Highlanders in their appearance, temperament and the haunting sadness of much of their music. Her daughter, Jess Dixon, recalled her singing Serbian songs and believed she would have volunteered to return had she not married in January 1918.
Ishobel received a personal letter of thanks from Captain Mikhail Dimitrivich of the Serbian Army in 1918. She kept in touch with the other women from the Ostrovo SWH unit for the rest of her life.