John Prebble’s ‘other woman’ lifts lid on affair

AS THE author of masterly studies of Culloden, the Highland Clearances and the Glencoe massacre, John Prebble won acclaim for his long and lingering love affair with Scottish history.
John and Jan Prebble after they were married. Picture: ComplimentaryJohn and Jan Prebble after they were married. Picture: Complimentary
John and Jan Prebble after they were married. Picture: Complimentary

What is less well known is that his passion for Scotland was more than matched by a secret extramarital affair that lasted for more than four decades.

Details of the late historian’s secret love life have been revealed for the first time by his long-standing mistress – later his wife – in a book that describes their illicit liaisons, many of which took place on trips to the Highlands to research his books.

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Forty Two Years a Secret Mistress by Jan Prebble is published later this month and tells the story of her life as “the other woman” before the couple married in 1994 after the death of the author’s first wife, Betty.

Prebble, who died in 2001 aged 85, began his relationship with the then Jan Reid in 1953 when they were both Fleet Street journalists working for the now defunct Sunday Dispatch.

Thirteen years her senior, he told her he would never leave his wife and family. Nevertheless, the pair embarked on a relationship that brought great happiness, but also the heartache of her taking the decision to abort two unborn children.

Extracts from Prebble’s love letters are contained in the book, which describes the elaborate lengths to which they went to hide their identities on their Highland trysts – a challenge when one half of the couple happened to be a best-selling author and scriptwriter for blockbuster film Zulu.

The odd oblique reference to his mistress can be found in Prebble’s books. Previously only understood by the two lovers, they are explained in Mrs Prebble’s memoirs.

At a time when hoteliers objected to unmarried couples sharing a room, they would book in under the name of Mr and Mrs Wood (Prebble’s mother’s maiden name). When asked by fellow guests what he did for a living, he would reply that he was “in paper”.

From Inverlochy Castle Hotel, near Fort William, to Gleneagles in Perthshire, they were known as Mr and Mrs Wood. In Edinburgh, where Prebble was too well known to travel incognito, they reverted to their true identities and booked separate bedrooms at the George Hotel.

Often, they would have to listen as fellow guests lectured them on Scottish history, unaware the couple were in Scotland to do research for the latest instalment in the historical series from where those guests had gleaned their knowledge.

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The covert nature of their relationship meant Prebble was reluctant to acknowledge publicly the important role played by his mistress in helping research his books on their Highland jaunts.

In his book Darien Disaster, there is, however, a coded acknowledgement. He thanks a certain JR Ker “for valuable introductions in Scotland”. That is a play on Mrs Prebble’s maiden name of Jan Ker Reid.

In Prebble’s autobiography, she is referred to as an “unknown woman in a red Robertson tartan” in the graveyard at Croick who lent him some face powder. The face powder was sprinkled on a church window, so the author could read names etched into the glass by people in Glencalvie when they were cleared from their land in 1845.

Yesterday, Mrs Prebble said her late husband had wanted her to write about their affair, and that she wanted to do so as an antidote to articles about unhappy mistresses, whose husbands refuse to leave their wives.

Before he died, Prebble wrote: “I have suggested that she should put our tale to paper in due course. It has been a true love affair of high intensity for nearly half a century – a love affair that could not shine in public without hurting others.”

Mrs Prebble said she hoped her late husband’s children from his first marriage – Jolyon, Simon and Sarah – would understand her book. “I hope they will be interested in what an amazingly romantic father they had,” she said.

For the then Miss Reid, the affair also brought sadness. The stigma then associated with single parenthood meant she twice went to an abortion clinic when she became pregnant. But there was great happiness, too, and Mrs Prebble writes: “He was worth waiting for.”

• Forty Two Years A Secret Mistress is published this month by Author Solutions.

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Profile: Former journalist who brought Scottish history to life for millions

Born in 1915, John Prebble was a journalist, historian and novelist who played a big role in popularising Scottish history.

Though born in Middlesex, he spent much of his boyhood in Canada, and latterly lived in London and Surrey. He fought in the British Army in the Second World War.

Despite his English roots, he had a strong affinity with Scotland and it was his vivid histories of bloodstained episodes in Scottish history that brought him fame.

With nearly 20 published books selling millions – and some in print for more than 30 years – Prebble kept pace with the times by writing and filming for television. He wrote the script for the 1964 film Zulu, about the defence of the Rorke’s Drift mission, in Natal, in 1879, by a small group of British soldiers facing 4,000 Zulus.

He had an interesting war, as his Communist leanings aroused suspicion. In 1945, unsupervised on secret radar work, he jumped aboard an invasion boat heading for the Netherlands and worked his way through to Germany with the army. Irma Grese, the sadistic Nazi concentration camp officer, spat in his face after luring him to the fence of the camp in which she was now confined.

In Fleet Street, he worked as a columnist, feature writer and reporter until 1960, after which he concentrated on his books and his work for radio and TV.

John Prebble Letter extracts

I feel in limbo. You are unapproachable, untouchable, unreachable. Somewhere I put out a hand for consolation but touch no breast, no thigh or rounded curve. I am lost without contact, deep or caressing, without your voice, your smile, your courage. In other words I love you

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Your voice was such a warm sound, a generous, loving, deeply sexed sound and the day was all the brighter for it

It will probably be raining here with the sky mourning your departure … I am so close to you today, tomorrow, last week and next, that I delight in you and am strengthened by you and it has always been so all these years with no tiring, no lessening of the love I have for you

I’d far rather use to tell you in words that come from my heart and my mind and not from rhyming dictionary. In words that are in any case hopelessly inadequate to tell you sweet Jan that I love you most dearly