Obituary: Doris Davidson, author and teacher

Doris Davidson
Doris Davidson
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Born: 30 June, 1922 in Aberdeen Died: 19 June, 2012 in Aberdeen, aged 89

She once had so many rejection letters she considered either papering the toilet with them or giving up writing.

She opted to give up and did not write again for many years. Even then her stack of lovingly crafted novels failed to find a publisher, languishing instead in boxes under the bed.

But when Doris Davidson did finally manage to break into print big-time, she became one of the country’s best-loved romantic novelists, her sagas appealing to generations of readers far beyond the shores of her native Scotland.

Yet, while hundreds of people queued to meet her at signings, she remained a down-to-earth pensioner, happily ensconced in her council flat in the Aberdeen multi-storey block where she produced her books, working away amid what she described as “utter chaos”.

Her own life story was as engrossing and richly textured as any of her fictional works – encompassing tragedy, love and a strong heroine determined to fulfil her dream – and eventually she committed it to paper in her autobiography A Gift From The Gallowgate, the title referencing her family’s roots as butchers on the brow of Aberdeen’s Gallowgate.

Born in the Granite City’s Rosemount Viaduct, she was the daughter of Robert Forsyth, a master butcher, and his wife May, a country quine from near Peterhead. A bright child, she was sent, aged four, to the Demonstration School, a training ground for teachers, before moving to the Hilton area of the city and Woodside School three years later.

The family moved up in the world, buying a villa in Midstocket in the west end, but just as she was due to start at Rosemount Intermediate School her father was killed in a motorbike accident on his way to work.

She was 12 and her sister, Bertha, just two. To keep a roof over their heads her mother took in lodgers, one of whom was eventually to become Doris’s second husband. Meanwhile, Doris, who could have left school at 14, was granted a bursary to stay on for another year. She left, as Dux, on her 15th birthday.

Her working life began as an office girl in a small wholesale confectioners where her weekly wage was 7s 6d – around 37p today. To supplement her income she also worked on Saturday afternoons at a dog track before moving to Van der Bergh and Jurgens, the producers of Stork margarine, as a junior clerkess. During the Second World War she volunteered for the Women’s Royal Naval Service, but was refused entry as her job meant she was involved in the distribution of food.

Years later she was working in R S McColl when a friend, who was at evening classes and planning to become a teacher, pointed out that, as a former Dux, serving sweeties was a waste of her brain. The comment fired Doris’s imagination and with husband Jimmy Davidson’s support she went to the Commercial College, passing three Highers and two Lowers in a year, paving the way for teacher training college.

She graduated with merit when she was 45 and taught at Aberdeen’s Smithfield Primary before moving to Hazlehead Primary School where she remained until retiring in 1982. It was only then that she began writing seriously.

In the late 1960s she had attended a creative writing class, joined a Writers’ Circle and had a couple of short stories published in the Sunday Mail and Woman’s World, but the number of rejection letters she received, coupled with the amount of time-consuming preparation teaching required, prompted her to give up. She promised to give it another go in retirement, but still faced an uphill struggle to become published.

Her first book, Time Shall Reap, was written in pencil in exercise books, revised in blue, then red, Biro and typed on a portable Smith and Corona typewriter. She sent some chapters to a publisher, but said they “homed back faithfully after every outing”. The book went into a box under the bed.

Then came a whodunit, Jam and Jeopardy, but it was deemed too long and was consigned to the box under the bed. Her third attempt she considered too autobiographical and never sent it out. Then she wrote Brow Of The Gallowgate, a family saga based around a shop with a house above, just like her father’s Gallowgate butcher’s shop. It, too, was rejected and she vowed to tear up everything she had ever written.

Encouraged by her daughter, who had heard Collins was looking for new authors, she sent it off again. It was accepted, only if she cut it down by 20 per cent, and was published in 1990. The Road to Rowanbrae, another family saga, followed in 1991 with Time Shall Reap published two years later.

She produced a clutch of other titles, gaining a faithful fan base, until her publisher announced that tastes and styles had changed and they no longer wanted any more of her books.

Her titles were remaindered and no more appeared until around the new millennium when she was rediscovered by bookseller Vicky Dawson, then manager of Ottakers in Aberdeen, which had asked Doris to write the foreward for a local interest book. She introduced her to Edinburgh publishing house Birlinn which bought all the rights and discovered she had six more manuscripts in a drawer.

The old books were rejacketed and new ones published, reaching a new, multi-generational readership. While once a much-loved North-east author she was now considered a great Scottish novelist and continued writing, well into her 80s, on a laptop in her multi-storey flat.

She adored writing. She “couldn’t not write”, she said, and her greatest pleasure was the launch of a new title. Her last, Duplicity, was published in 2009. She also loved meeting readers at signings and would gently chide those hesitant to approach her: “It’s no use being embarrassed to talk to me,” she insisted, “I’m just an ordinary wifie.”

Widowed last October, she is survived by her daughter Sheila, son Alan, grandson Matthew and her sister Bertha.

ALISON SHAW