The weekend before last I travelled north to the Black Isle Word Festival, which was being held in Cromarty, a short drive north of Inverness. I went along because the festival was celebrating the centenary of Scottish novelist Jane Duncan (the pen-name of Elizabeth Jane Cameron, 1910-1976), a terrific writer to whom I was introduced by my very dear friend Kat, at whose kind invitation I made the trip.
Jane Duncan was a publishing sensation. In 1959, unpublished and unknown, she sold seven novels to Macmillan. These were the first in what became a best-selling series of nineteen titles, the “My Friends” books. She wrote another series of four adult novels, an autobiography, and several children’s story and picture books. Thirty-two books in total. The first of the My Friends sequence, My Friends the Miss Boyds, has recently been reprinted by Millrace Books to celebrate the centenary. Set during the narrator’s childhood, it recreates Highland life prior to the First World War, but is by no means a cosy pastoral. Apart from this, only her three picture books, the Janet Reachfar books, remain in print.
Which is a great shame, since the My Friends books are marvellous. The reader gets to know their narrator, Janet Sandison, book by book as she takes you (not always in linear fashion) from her early childhood on her grandparents’ croft (Reachfar) on the Black Isle, her adolescence in a lowland Scottish town, her wartime experiences, the post-war meeting with the love of her life, and her relocation with him when his work as an engineer takes him to a sugar plantation in the Caribbean in the years shortly before independence. After his death, Janet returns to the Black Isle as a newly famous writer. The books are largely autobiographical, but with key differences: Jane Duncan was born and brought up in Glasgow, and only visited her grandparents’ croft – in reality, named the Colony – for summer holidays. But Reachfar remains the central symbol of the book: the rock from which Janet was hewn, the northern point on her compass.
I enjoyed the talks given at the festival (one by author and illustrator Mairi Hedderwick, who illustrated the Janet Reachfar books, one by academic Fiona Thompson, who has access to Jane Duncan’s papers). The venue, Cromarty East Church, has recently undergone extensive renovation – the paint will apparently need ten more years of touching-up before the plaster has completely dried! We also saw the Jane Duncan exhibition at Cromarty Court Museum, itself an excellent small museum and £2 well spent. Cromarty is an extremely attractive town and the money directed to renovation and heritage projects has been used effectively.
Our main purpose for the weekend was to explore some of the places particularly significant to Duncan’s life and books. As well as Cromarty, we visited Jemimaville, the small village to which Jane Duncan retired on her return from Jamaica. (Cromarty and Jemimaville are represented in composite form in the books as Achcraggan.) Duncan owned Rose Cottage on the road which passes through the village, but found that curious tourists intruded too much upon her privacy and ability to write, and eventually bought and renovated the Old Store, which lies behind the village on the edge of Udale Bay. The current owners of the Old Store have charmingly commemorated the former owner, and seem to have renamed the house Reachfar in her honour. The view across the bay must have been inspirational.
Across the bay is Kirkmichael graveyard, where Duncan is buried. The kirk itself is currently in ruins (although the Kirkmichael Trust hopes to be able to renovate). The graveyard is beautifully kept. Duncan’s gravestone looks back towards Jemimaville and beyond, to the Colony, high on the hillside.
Our chief pilgrimage was of course up to the Colony – the Reachfar of the books. The land is no longer in the hands of the family, and the croft itself is a ruin. There are two routes up by road; in both cases the road runs out well before the Colony and you have to continue by foot. We got fairly close, but were thwarted by dry stone walls and barbed wire on one route, and, on the other, a fearsome slurry pit. To be honest, I don’t think we needed to get any closer: the view from the hillside across Cromarty Firth and Udale Bay was remarkable. Here was the spirit of Reachfar. The people are gone, but remain present in the books.
There’s an excellent article on Jane Duncan here. I hope people are tempted to try My Friends the Miss Boyds, and perhaps look out for the other books in the series. As well as the rich evocation of place, the My Friends books have a playfulness and wit with language, a shrewd eye for character, and a great humanity based on a deep understanding of our connectedness to each other. The last seven or eight books in particular show a steady maturation in Duncan’s skill and ambition as a writer. She is unfairly neglected.
More photos from the weekend here. Grateful thanks to Kat for inviting me to come on this journey with her, and for a memorable and happy weekend.