Obituary: Mollie Hunter (McIlwraith), writer
Born: 30 June, 1922, in Longniddry, East Lothian. Died: 31 July, 2012, in Inverness, aged 90
Mollie Hunter was one of the greatest Scottish writers and storytellers – and a passionate Scot. Born in Longniddry, she educated herself by getting a job at the age of 14, working in an Edinburgh flower shop and studying in the National Library. One her finest books, A Sound of Chariots, was semi-autobiographical, telling of a young woman working in the city, struggling to educate herself to become a writer and meeting the man she would marry.
Her late husband Mike (Thomas) was a former school friend and the pair were devoted to each other, with Mike being her constant companion, travelling worldwide with her.
Mollie’s writing became internationally known, especially with The Kelpie’s Pearls, The Thirteenth Member and The Lothian Run.
But her greatest triumph was winning the Carnegie Medal in 1975 for The Stronghold, an extraordinary story of life and death in a prehistoric Orkney broch. Her writing gathered inspiration at her house in Milton, a small village near Drumnadrochit.
Here she wrote most of her extraordinary books, becoming totally immersed in her characters, as her husband found one day when returning from work. Mollie explained: “I had been aware of someone else in my study. I looked at him, my husband of 30 years, and said, ‘Who are you?’ The story had taken over; I was there. I was living it.”
(That didn’t prevent Mike, one day, from throwing Mollie’s typewriter out of the window when her immersion in the past proved too much!)
She spent a great deal of time touring schools and libraries, and was especially welcomed in the United States. Mike would accompany her, and his kilt was always a great hit.
Visiting schools, libraries and book festivals, Mollie was inspirational – youngsters who’d never read a historical novel in their lives began an unprecedented demand for her books.
“They don’t teach history as they used to,” she once told me, somewhat sadly. “Children’s interests are not awakened. But history is the story of other peoples’ lives – it doesn’t matter if it happened long ago as long as it’s exciting.
“You share peoples’ lives – the good and the bad – and you live with them in their time and in their way.”
Most of her books were based on Scottish history and legends – including selkies and characters both famous and infamous; everything and everyone from the past fascinated her.
Her research could sometimes lead her into danger, as on one occasion visiting Orkney for The Stronghold. Tramping over the island to find a suitable site for her imaginary broch, she came to a grassy knoll on a cliff top. “The sea was thrashing and churning several hundred feet below over great rocks when I noticed a cormorant flying into a cleft in the rock. I attempted to see if she was nesting, so, laying down, I looked in,” she told me.
“There was the hen bird. Oh, she was so black and beautiful. Her eyes were golden and she looked at me serenely. I rose to go – and found I was six inches from the cliff edge.
“A voice in my head shouted, ‘Throw yourself backwards,’ and I did, landing on my back at the very edge of the cliff. The grass was slippery and I began to slide until my feet projected over the edge. I dug my hands in, eventually, hauling myself away from what would have been certain death.” Sitting round Mollie’s table, I listened, spellbound.
Mollie did not suffer fools gladly and could usually be relied upon to be provocative, demanding and infuriating, but put her in front of an audience, and she electrified them. Her portrait by Elizabeth Blackadder hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, an accolade which made her inordinately proud.
I last saw her in 2007 when I went to interview her for Carousel magazine. The door opened and Mollie appeared with a cigarette in one hand and a glass in the other. We talked and talked. She had lost none of her old magic.
As she told me: “If your imagination has not been captured by the lives of people who lived yesterday, how can you be aroused by those of today?”
She died, aged 90, in Inverness. Hopefully, she will now be reunited with her beloved Mike, no doubt sharing a few drams and talking, talking, talking.
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