‘Once, long ago - or so it seemed now - I had lived alone on a hilltop and been perfectly happy in my solitude." Solitude, and travel, seem to have been the only things which brought Rowena Farre happiness, whether in the wilds of Sutherland or in the foothills of the Himalayas. Now the best-loved of her three books, Seal Morning has been re-published, in the process raising questions about the veracity of this enigmatic author’s autobiographical best-sellers.
Seal Morning, A Time from the World and The Beckoning Land, sold like hot cakes in the late 1950s and 1960s. Seal Morning, in particular, was acclaimed as a minor classic, and evokes the teenage years she spent on a remote Sutherland croft, which she shared with an Aunt Miriam, a performing seal, a tame rat, otters and God knows what other sociable livestock. Or did she?
The book’s re-publication by Edinburgh’s Mercat Press is focusing attention once again on the elusive Rowena Farre - real name Daphne Lois Macready. A roving recluse, she would have hated that. And in an "afterword" to the book, author and former Scots Magazine editor Maurice Fleming admits that, in spite of the enduring charm and freshness of Farre’s book, "a rather large question mark hangs over the credibility of the narrative".
Farre, who died in 1979 aged 57, was the India-born daughter of a British Army medical officer who, like most other children of that background, was sent home to be educated. According to Seal Morning Farre was not then sent to boarding school as would have been normal for a child of her background but dispatched to stay with her Scottish Aunt Miriam, a retired teacher. The aunt subsequently upped sticks from the Home Counties to live in a remote croft in Sutherland. There the two of them accumulated an unlikely menagerie, most improbably a baby seal who played the harmonica and bellowed along to the piano.
Reading the book today, one has to wonder to what extent Macready was writing with her tongue, as they say, planted firmly in her cheek.
To whatever extent she was cutting loose with a fertile imagination, Seal Morning was clearly what the public wanted. The book was an immediate success. The Scotsman in February 1957 praised its "irresistible charm" and "underlying grace and eagerness". Other reviewers were even more effusive: one hailed it as "a minor classic", another described it as "an astonishing book, a gem of purest ray, serene" while, in the Daily Mail, Kenneth Allsop welcomed "a graceful and essentially honest book".
He added: "Rowena Farre does not romanticise the wilderness, nor braggingly dramatise the toughness of their Cold Comfort Farm."
The book was reprinted several times and translated into seven languages. A film was made of it as late as the 1980s, starring Jane Lapotaire, though transposing the action to Norfolk, rather than Sutherland.
It has been out of print for two decades now, and Fleming, whose own work has been published by Mercat, suggested the Edinburgh publishing house re-print it, believing that its charm will win over today’s more cynical readership, although he himself admits to some major reservations about just what is fact and what is fantasy.
"It’s a book that you just have to go along with and enjoy, and not ask too many questions."
Fleming agrees that the more eccentric animal antics are highly unlikely and, after spending considerable time in that part of Sutherland in which the story appears to be set - around Strath Skinsdale, between the Strath of Kildonan and Ben Armine - even the book’s most fundamental tenets may be up for questioning. "There don’t seem to be many stories about her," he said this week. "Although one man said she did camp in the area in a tent for several weeks, while someone else said he’d been told by his parents that she had spent holidays in the area, but had never lived there for any length of time."
As to whether the aunt even existed, he finds it impossible to say. "There is a lot more research to be done and I’d be delighted to hear from anyone else who knows about Farre. She was obviously a recluse and a very private person."
However, one person who contacted Fleming did know Farre, as Lois Macready, when she was a WAAF aircraft woman, stationed on a small radar station in Pembrokeshire during the war.
Margaret Allan, wife of a retired Edinburgh doctor, has fond memories of the strange woman with whom she shared a room for a year in 1942, and whom she regarded as an amiable fantasist, an inveterate spinner of yarns.
"Sixty years is a long time, when you were just 18 or 19," says Mrs Allan, "but I can picture her right now as I speak. I would think she was maybe a year or two older than me, but she was certainly very much more street-wise than I was.
"She had a middle parting of what we used to call ‘peroxide’ hair, which was always dark at the roots. And it never seemed to be washed - I don’t know I like saying these things about her, but I’m just trying to give a picture." The two young women discovered that they had a lot in common - both their fathers were military doctors (in fact the families almost certainly knew each other when Allan’s father was stationed at Edinburgh Castle), and both of them had spent their early childhoods in the Far East: "We had both been sent away to boarding school at a very young age, as was done in those days."
And that is one thing she finds so difficult to accept with Farre’s Seal Morning, account. "In no way would the child of an educated family like that have gone without schooling. And when I knew her, she was certainly not a child from the wilds of northern Scotland."
Farre may have displayed the hallmarks of her background, but she was also, in Allan’s words, "weird".
" In those days we didn’t have so much unconventionality as we have now. There weren’t such things as hippies, " she says.
So was Macready a sort of proto-hippie? "Exactly. And as you know, that’s what she became, and she eventually went out to India."
Mrs Allan also remembers Farre, with whom she lost touch after they were posted, as being a guarded person, and frequently scribbling in a notebook, though never professing any ambitions to be a writer.
"I believe she told me a lot of fairytales which I was gullible enough at that age to take in, not that I can remember any of them," she says.
But, perhaps most significantly, Allan insists that her room-mate never, ever mentioned anything about an idyllic seven years spent in Sutherland.
MACREADY wouldn’t have appreciated the renewed interest in her life. The demand for information about her following publication of Seal Morning prompted her to go to ground. She later complained about the "human bloodhounds" of the press, "who made my life every kind of hell".
So while her first book was being acclaimed and the public clamouring for details of its author, Farre was on the road - gone, as they say, with the raggle-taggle gypsies. If her books spilled into fantasy, in fairness, she does seem to have lived a fantasy lifestyle. In A Time from the World, she describes the only relationship she is known to have had - with a gypsy called Jai, whom she travelled with but ultimately left, though he wanted to marry her. Maurice Fleming, however, picked up one report of her sporting a wedding ring.
More than 20 years after her untimely death, she is still proving difficult. "A very elusive character," observes Tom Johnstone of Mercat Press.
"I think she was quite a reluctant author in some ways. She must have made a considerable lump of money for her books, but the story goes that her publishers often couldn’t find her to send her the royalties."
Johnstone himself can recall the title of Seal Morning from his childhood - "it’s amazing the number of people who do remember her from when they were young. Anyway, we got an old copy and we all agreed it was such an unusual book, and it still had such a freshness about it, that it was a pity it had been out of print so long."
It took Mercat two or three months before they could track down who held the copyright to the book. It turned out to be an arts organisation in Australia, where Farre is thought to have spent time.
In her books, Farre alludes to being short of money, and interspersing her compulsive travelling with what she calls "grim, sedentary periods of working in offices and living in bedsitters", among people with whom she clearly felt nothing in common.
Seal Morning brought Farre "modest financial gain". But she added: "It was nothing like the fantastic sum given out in the press, after Inland Revenue had taken their bite."
The unwanted publicity, she claimed, forced her to forsake ideas she had nursed of re-establishing herself in a Highland croft or a cottage in Eavesham, and she reverted to the old pattern, and went travelling once more.
This time, however, it was a spiritual as well as a physical journey. Whether or not influenced by the late 1960s trend for the Beatles and other celebrities to flock to assorted ashrams, she made her way to the Himalayas, seeking enlightenment.
She detailed this ultimate quest in her third and last book, The Beckoning Land, in which she also reveals more than before of the family from whom she was so alienated, particularly her father: "The few memories I have of him are nearly all negative ones. I have great difficulty now in conjuring up his face, perhaps because I have no real wish to remember him ... I used to ask myself as a child why I had been born to this particular couple with whom I always felt myself to be a stranger."
There was a brother as well, but the only "family" she seemed proud or happy to acknowledge was her great-grandfather, the celebrated actor-manager WC MacReady.
She never seems to have been one for ties. "There is a call," she wrote at the end of The Beckoning Land, published in 1969. "The traveller listens and turns within. He has taken the first step towards that bright land in comparison to which the countries of this world appear as fleeting shadows."
When Farre died ten years later there was, says Fleming, a death notice, a private cremation and a brief obituary which gave little away, but noted that she had not been in touch with her family since 1953.
Had she passed into a shadowland, or had she at last slipped the bonds of necessity and society which seemed so irksome to her, at last to embrace her "bright land"?
Seal Morning is published by Mercat Press at 8.99