Jane Duncan may be out of print for 40 years but she is about to be heard again

SHE has the best of views in Kirkmichael Burial Ground, Jane Duncan. Her grave is not skulking in the cold shadow of the yew tree, nor hiding behind the ruins of the pre-Reformation church, now shored up with wooden supports to prevent imminent collapse. It's a panoramic vista from where she lies, out across the grey mudflats of Easter Ross's Udale Bay, where seabirds strut in water pools and the rusting hulks of oil rigs rise monstrously from the Firth.

Across the water curls the straggling line of houses that makes up the Black Isle village of Jemimaville where Duncan lived, her own house, The Old Store, visible from here on the cheek of the bay. And there is nothing, nothing at all in this still place, or that small village, to indicate that Jane Duncan was the literary sensation of her generation. Certainly not the simple granite gravestone, austere almost compared to some, falling forwards slightly towards the sea, its base bright with the stain of yellow lichen.

In 1959, the London publishing house of MacMillan was besieged by reporters interested in a new Scottish writer. Jane Duncan was making publishing history: MacMillan had bought no less than seven of her titles in one go. Duncan had been writing for years, burning many of her efforts before anyone read them, hiding others in desk drawers and knitting baskets in her linen cupboard. Set in her childhood haunts on the Black Isle, the first of her books, My Friends The Miss Boyds, depicted Highland life at the close of the Great War. It was the first of a series of 19 Friends titles.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Duncan wrote 32 books in total, including eight for children. Not one remains in print but that is about to change. Millrace Publishing, a small, independent, English publisher, is to reissue My Friends The Miss Boyds next month to mark the centenary of Duncan's birth. The story is told through the curious eyes of nine-year-old Janet Sandison, who is sharp and observant but basically ignorant of, and confused by, strange adult ways.

But this is no fey depiction of Highland life. There is warmth and humour but the themes are poignant and, for their time, surprisingly frank. Duncan writes of mental illness, of sexual relationships and illegitimacy, but also of a changing world shadowed by war. There is that tinge of darkness that often marks the best of writing, a hint of fear and impermanency, a present shivering in the shadow of an uncertain future.

Her books were semi-autobiographical, drawing on the places and faces of her childhood, particularly The Colony, her grandparents' home in the hills above Jemimaville, which became Reachfar in her novels. Duncan spent much of her childhood there. Her father had moved to Glasgow to become a policeman when there was not enough work on the family croft, but he retired to Jemimaville and Duncan, too, chose to spend her final years on the shores of Udale Bay. Her grave is not hard to find at Kirkmichael, where the silence is broken only by birdsong and the mournful call of distant sheep. "In memory of Jane Duncan (Elizabeth Jane Cameron). Author. Died October 1976, aged 66 years."

You would think it would be the other way round, that her nom de plume, Jane Duncan, would be in brackets rather than her real name. It suggests that "author" was the dominant part of her. Death silences us all, of course. But how poignant that a woman who wrote so prolifically, in whom there was such pride, should, less than 40 years later, not have a single book left in print. Only now is she to be given another hearing.

A journey in search of Jane Duncan. It is just minutes by car from Kirkmichael cemetery, round the bay, the road hugging the coast to Jemimaville. A quaint rather than pretty village, a jumble of around 30 houses on one side of the road: tall, small, tall, tall, small. Rose Cottage is trim and white with a red door and brass knocker and a letterbox on the pavement outside. Very apt since Duncan was a conscientious letter writer. It was to this cottage that she moved when she was first published, living with her uncle George. From the pavement, you can clearly see the cosy sitting room, the dining room next door with the book cases against the wall. And that was the problem. Bus tours would drive by, curious eyes peering through the windows hoping to see the famous novelist, Jane Duncan.

You barely notice the grassy path at first, down the side of the cottage. Red tulips rising from the verges, yellow tulips lighting the way to the shore. The secret part of Jemimaville. A cluster of houses behind the main road and, out on its own, on the tip of the bay, The Old Store. It was a ruin when Duncan bought it but she renovated it into a fine house.

Further along are the remnants of an old church that Duncan also bought. In the main street, what was once the village hall has been converted into a house. A woman called Margaret lives there and many years ago, her late husband, James, who owned the local garage with his brother Hugh Scott, had swapped Jane Duncan: the old church for the village hall plus 250. Margaret's house is worth over 200,000 now. The church is just a ruin. Had Duncan intended converting it? "No," says Scott, who still runs the garage. "It was for privacy. I don't think she wanted neighbours."

It was to Rose Cottage, then The Old Store, that Duncan's nephews and niece, Seonaid, Neil, Donald and Ian Cameron, the children of her brother Jock, would come to visit "Auntie Bet" each holiday. They all live in different parts of England now but still return to Rose Cottage, which remains in the Cameron family. In the summer months, Duncan helped run The Friendly Shop in Cromarty, a village just a few miles on from Jemimaville, and named Achraggan in her books. This was a teashop where she sold her own home baking. But for much of the time, she retreated to the privacy of The Old Store. "She wasn't a recluse," says Neil, an architect now based in Sheffield, "but she did spend a lot of time in her own company latterly.

"I do remember as a kid I was frightened of her," he admits. "But then I was frightened of most women because it was a family of fearsome women. She was a pretty scary lady because she was tall and she could lose her rag. She treated everyone as an adult – there were no allowances for being a child. But we all kind of doted on her, I would say, because she was a pretty impressive individual."

Interesting the different nuances of recollection; the varying shades of memory's colour chart. "Neil was frightened of everybody," laughs Seonaid, who is now retired. "I was the typical eldest child, quite rebellious, a bit more confident than Neil, who thought Auntie Bet preferred girls to boys. I was the only girl and I remember being quite close to her. If I ever had a fight with my mother, she would be a very even influence, and very wise. She was one of those people you could confide in. I don't remember being frightened of her but I was a bit in awe of her. She used to have quite well-known writers like Ian Grimble and Eric Linklater come to visit and I realised she was a bit special."

Search for Jane Duncan's voice and what rings out clearly is how far ahead of her time she was, how she forged a strong, independent life at a time when women were not encouraged to do so. Her mother died of Asian flu when she was ten and her younger brother Jock was an infant. Jock was sent to his grandparents at The Colony but Duncan attended Lenzie Academy and stayed with her father, who policed the Renton and Alexandria areas. Her father had a housekeeper whom he would go on to marry and Duncan was very unhappy about the relationship. "She didn't like her, to the point that she wouldn't go home if this woman was there," explains Neil. "I think she would have gone to university, got away from home, as quickly as possible."

There weren't many female graduates in the 1930s. "She was a very clever woman," says Neil. "Very strong. She was very pro women and pro women fighting as equals in a man's world. A pretty indomitable character. If she got patronised, she would really go for people."

After graduation, Duncan took various jobs: governess, companion, secretary. She even did a little modelling. Tall and slim, she was striking as a young woman though in later years that perhaps settled into sharpness. "She was always quite severely dressed," says Seonaid. "Her hair was tied back and she wore expensive clothes but quite formal, shirts buttoned up and tweed skirts. She was always smartly tuned out."

But as a young woman, she was defiant of convention. During the war she worked in photographic intelligence but afterwards took a job as a secretary in an engineering company, where she met Sandy Clapperton.

Clapperton was separated and, because he had been married to a Catholic, could not divorce. Duncan's writing paints a very "proper" picture of behaviour and manners. The Colony was a household dominated by her grandmother, a warm but strict woman who inspired Duncan. Yet remarkably, considering the conventions of the time, Duncan lived with Clapperton in Jamaica where he was chief engineer on a sugar plantation. It was a close relationship and as far as the family knew, there was no one in her life after Clapperton died. "I think it was opposites attracting," says Neil. "Though when Sandy lost his rag he could be quite fiery as well. There was probably a bit of plate throwing in domestic life."

Sadly, Clapperton became ill with heart disease in Jamaica. Ironically, it was this that catapulted Duncan to literary fame. Worried about the cost of medical bills, she took a manuscript from the linen cupboard and sent it to a London agent. Clapperton died just after she signed her first contract and she came home to Scotland alone to face a new life. "I think she was at a low ebb when she lost Sandy," says Neil. "She was 49 and had no idea how to make a living."

Materially, she had nothing. "She wasn't married and obviously had nothing to show for the relationship other than a few pieces of furniture," says Donald. Writing gave her confidence. "I think she had been quite lacking in self-esteem about her writing at the start," says Neil. "But the early ones were best sellers and I think a lot of her character came out then."

In terms of social issues, she did not flinch from difficult themes. When the Cameron children demanded to know why Auntie Bet didn't write a book about them, she began her series for children based on an essay they gave her. The youngest Cameron child, Ian, who was born with Down's syndrome, was a special character in these books. We take such a thing for granted now, but at that time, it was a condition people preferred not to talk about. Duncan described Ian as one of the best things to happen to their family.

Seonaid remembers that, when Ian was born, her mother was very upset. Duncan came to the rescue. "My parents were told they should send Ian away, that he would hold the other three children back. It was very difficult for them to bring him up but Auntie Bet was very, very supportive and I know she helped financially so mum could get someone in to help in the house. She was very close to Ian really. She was a bit fascinated by him." Neil agrees. "She felt very strongly that Ian's life was at least as valuable as the rest of us – which it is."

The Cameron children remember the excitement of Auntie Bet arriving from the Black Isle to their rural Aberdeenshire home for Christmas. She would hire a car all the way. "She wasn't grand but we thought that was incredibly impressive," laughs Donald. They would plan for weeks, says Seonaid, what to buy with the money she gave them. She was always so generous.

Despite the colour variations, there are some threads of the same hue running through the Camerons' reminiscences: love, pride and, perhaps most dominantly, admiration for her wisdom. "She had been all over the world and knew a lot of people," says Neil. "She was a great studier of people, and her books were full of observation, so she had a lot of good advice."

She wrote a brilliant letter. Duncan used to write to Neil when he was a student – to them all in fact – and though it was unusual, even in the 1970s, for a young man to correspond with his aunt, he did. "Writing a letter to her was the price you paid because you got a belter back. She could make words dance." Although, there is one quirky little memory about her abilities with words that they share: she was useless at Scrabble. The great wordsmith was often beaten by the children… and she was not amused.

HE last part of the journey, by foot now, in the hills above Jemimaville looking for the ruin of The Colony, where Duncan's fascination with the Black Isle began. The scent of pine is on the wind from forestry plantations, and outbursts of yellow gorse blaze across the hillside.

It is said Duncan could never bear to come up here again when she moved back to Jemimaville and you can understand why. Roaming these hills tells a story. Ruins other than just The Colony, forlorn heaps of fallen rubble and shattered glass, plants straggling through open windows and weathered doorways, winds whistling a high-pitched tune through the collapsing roofs of corrugated iron steadings. A lost life. Lost people.

It is here that the value of Jane Duncan's voice is underlined. You stand on the remoteness of this hill and wonder how people ever eked out a living here. "I didn't realise until I went back to read the Miss Boyds," says Donald, "what a fascinating historical document it is." There was, perhaps, a certain stiff sensitivity locally at times about the fact that Duncan's work was semi-autobiographical and some characters were recognisable. But to read of those characters now is to bring a generation back to life.

"When we look for a picture of Highland life that has now gone, she presents that picture," says writer and broadcaster Carl MacDougall, author of Writing Scotland. She may have been too popular to have attracted many serious literary critics (though she was not without admirers) but, says MacDougall, "what can be overlooked in a writer like Jane Duncan is the actual craft. These novels are well written and very entertaining. I am surprised she hasn't been picked up again before now."

Her books may be out of print but Duncan has never been forgotten on the Black Isle. In The Emporium, a second-hand book shop in Cromarty, her books are a sought-after rarity. The last that was brought in was an edition worth 48. Even at that price, it sold within days. Now the publication of My Friends The Miss Boyds will enable a new generation to read of a life largely gone and forgotten. "She's got an incredible sense of place in her writing," says Millrace publisher Viv Cripps, "very evocative. I felt I knew the Black Isle long before I visited. And her voice is extraordinarily distinctive."

Perhaps there was loneliness in the end, down at The Old Store after her uncle George died. She wrote in the winter from January to March, long hand. The manuscripts remain and they show barely a word crossed out. Afterwards, she typed them herself. It was always an isolated period and her family weren't sure she looked after herself that well. She liked her cigarettes and her drink, though the story is that she got a neighbouring alcoholic off the booze. Seonaid was on her way north to visit when Duncan died suddenly of a heart attack, aged 66. She was found by a neighbour who had gone to check on her.

Maybe it's right the final word on Jane Duncan should go to one of the villagers who knew her. Hugh Scott, in the Jemimaville garage, who is like a character in one of Duncan's own novels the way he looks at you with such measured suspicion before answering questions. He tells of the private woman he used to taxi around who had a liking, along with uncle Geordie, for the whisky. His assessment makes you smile. You think it says nothing but maybe it says everything. "She was," Scott says, "what she was."

My Friends The Miss Boyds is published by Millrace at 12.50. It is available from bookshops from late June, or can be ordered direct from the publisher (01663 765080, www.millracebooks.co.uk).


I AM sitting now at the Back Window, which looks away to the north, with the long field and the march dyke in the foreground, and beyond them the fertile fields of Braeface sloping down to the Firth. It is full tide at the moment and the Firth looks like a long rag of blue-grey silk, tattered at the edges, a plaything of which some fickle giantess has grown tired and cast aside on the patterned lap of the earth.

Beyond the Firth, the dun-coloured hills which the sun can turn to an unwilling gold, the hills between Ross and Sutherland, are looking playfully menacing today, as Fly the sheep-collie does when she plays with the kittens.

Like Fly, the hills can be truly menacing when they choose but today they are playing at it as they posture beneath the light of the sun and the shadows of the blown clouds.


•This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 16 May 2010