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Naomi Mitchison

WHEN Lady Naomi Mitchison died at the age of 101 she was mourned as the doyenne - the "grand old lady" - of Scottish literature. In a life that spanned the 20th century she wrote more than 80 novels - from historical to science fiction to children’s books - and she was remembered as a woman who championed the causes of the people of the west coast of Scotland.

Those who knew her - and there were many hundreds from every corner of the world - remember a woman of supreme intellect, a radical and free thinker, a gracious hostess, someone who possessed knowledge and mischief in equal measure. She was all these things and a lot more. But to regard Naomi Mitchison as simply another author is to miss out on a fascinating life story, one that is crying out for a Hollywood scriptwriter.

In her book of memoirs entitled Among You Taking Notes, she wrote: "It is always a bore being ahead of one's time". She was most certainly a woman ahead of her time - but never boring. How many other 20th-century Scots have been adopted as adviser and tribal mother to an African people?

She was born into a dynasty - the Haldane family - in 1897. Her father was the noted physiologist John Scott Haldane, and her uncle Richard Burdon Haldane was Lord Chancellor in the first Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald. (He was later created Viscount Haldane of Cloan.) Although born in Edinburgh, she spent most of her school years in Oxford. It was a life of extreme privilege; there were servants to look after her and as a young teenager she was presented at court. In 1916 she married Gilbert "Dick" Mitchison, a member of an equally well-to-do family who was on leave from the wartime battlefields of northern Europe.

The marriage was not quite "arranged" but it suited both families very well. Dick Mitchison was removed from active service during the First World War, turned to politics and became a Labour MP. Naomi passionately shared his desire to make the world a better place in the wake of the war and both were members of the left-wing Fabian Society.

The Mitchison's marriage followed a philosophy of open sexual freedom within a committed marriage. The family home in the Hammersmith section of London was the venue for large parties which, during the 1920s and 30s, were considered outrageous. The regular guests included authors Aldous Huxley and EM Forster.

"She was Bohemian, a child of the 20s, she had an open marriage and sexual freedom, taking off corsets, not wearing brassieres long before the 1960s," notes Mitchison biographer Jill Benton, a professor at Pitzer College in California. "She believed herself to be part of an intellectual elite and felt empowered to do and be any way she felt."

The disapproval of London society persuaded Naomi to move to the small Argyll village of Carradale, on the Kintyre peninsula, where she bought the local mansion, Carradale House. Typically she threw herself into local community life and served as a member of the former Argyll County Council from 1947 to 1964. She became a self-appointed spokeswoman for the people of the western isles who she believed were often unfairly treated.

By this time she was an established author in a variety of genres. She wrote political and historical novels, books about her beloved Scotland and science fiction. Her books that touched on racism in South Africa were banned in that country during the apartheid regime, as was she. Mitchison also wrote children's literature, largely because she felt there was a need to educate young minds about the dangers of nuclear power.

Her most controversial effort was her 1935 book We Have Been Wanted, which explored sexual behaviour, including rape and abortion. The work was rejected by several publishers.

In the early 1960s one of the young students that Mitchison had let out her attic bedroom to was a young African man, destined to become Lynchwe ll, Chief of the Bakgatla Tribe, whose people lived in Botswana and South Africa. When - in 1966 - Botswana emerged as an independent republic out of what was formerly the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland, Lynchwe had succeeded to the title and turned for advice to the woman who had made such an impact on him as a student.

The young chief, whose Western education helped him into a position as a diplomat to Washington, rewarded Mitchison by giving her the title of Mmarona - honorary grandmother of the tribe.

Naomi Mitchison - who was known as Nou to her friends - was still campaigning and marching against nuclear establishments well into her 80s and 90s. Benton, the biographer, got to know her at that time, saying:

"She was an amazing person, even at that age she travelled with just a knapsack and a pair of sandals."

 
 
 

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