Obituary: Katharine Stewart, author, crofter, teacher and postmistress
Born: 29 August, 1914, in Reading. Died: 27 March, 2013, in Inverness, aged 98.
Sitting at the kitchen table of her remote croft one bleak winter afternoon, necessity became the mother of invention for Katharine Stewart.
As the rain lashed down and with finances running dry, she came up with the idea of supplementing the family income by writing about how they lived in the Highlands.
From a blank sheet of paper emerged her first evocative account of a rural way of life now largely vanished. She had rightly surmised that it would appeal to readers in towns and cities and it quickly became a weekly column in The Scotsman called On The Croft.
That led to her book A Croft In The Hills, first published more than 50 years ago, and was followed by a prolific output of short stories, scripts and books. Her last title appeared when she was 96, capping an extraordinarily varied career that took her from chalet girl to war service at the Admiralty, hotelier, crofter, author, teacher and postmistress.
Although her heart was always in the Highlands, and Edinburgh became her intellectual home, her roots were in Reading, where she was born the daughter of schoolmaster Richard Dark and his wife, Hilda, a modern languages teacher.
The family was living on the Isle of Wight, where her father worked at the Royal Naval College at Osborne, when her mother died when Katherine was eight. There had always been an intention to take young Katharine and her brother, Christian, to live abroad and following their bereavement the children spent two years in France with an aunt. Educated at a convent in Boulogne, the little girl, who knew only two French words when she arrived, returned to the UK as a bilingual ten-year-old.
By this time her father was a master at Edinburgh’s Loretto School and Katharine went initially to Musselburgh Grammar before completing her education at the capital’s St George’s School for Girls.
From there she went to study French and romance philology at Edinburgh University, spending a year at the Sorbonne in Paris before graduating in 1937. She then took off for the French Alps where she worked as a chalet girl in order to pursue her passion for skiing and climbing.
By the summer of 1939 she was on a post-graduate course in Italian at Perugia University but as war loomed she was advised to leave for home. She travelled across Italy and France by train, catching one of the last boats across the channel from Calais. After returning to Edinburgh she took a job at St Andrew’s University library but once Second World War broke out she wanted to do something more useful to the country. She went to London, secured two interviews – one for Bletchley Park, the other at the Admiralty – and was offered both jobs. She opted for the Admiralty post and worked in an underground bunker plotting convoy routes on sea charts.
It was a demanding role with punishingly long shifts but the feisty young woman was not afraid of hard work. At one point she even wrote to Charles de Gaulle, the French statesman then in exile in London, volunteering to be parachuted into occupied France to aid the French resistance. He did not take up her offer. By the summer of 1944 the long hours working underground were taking their toll and her health began to suffer. She returned to Edinburgh and was sent to the Marchbank Hotel in Balerno to recuperate. It was run by Sam Stewart, who became her husband.
The couple, who had a daughter, Hilda, ran the hotel together until 1950 when the family moved north to a croft at Abriachan near Inverness. Previous generations of her husband’s family had been crofters and she had always loved the outdoors. They picked up farming as they went along, aided by advice from generous neighbours, and worked the land in the traditional way, operating with a mix of crops, cows, pigs and sheep.
It, too, was arduous work and not particularly remunerative and after a few years, with money, in short supply, she hatched her writing plan. She had always kept diaries and had dabbled in writing short stories but when her column took off, it marked the start of a hugely productive and successful career. She ended up writing On The Croft for 13 years – even when she was no longer living there. Later she would write the book Crofts and Crofting and lecture on the subject at the Aigas Field Centre in Beauly.
The publication of A Croft In The Hills came around the same time as she and Sam realised they would have to sell the croft and change course. Katharine went to Aberdeen to do teacher training, gaining a job in Inverness and in the early 1960s the couple moved into the school house at Abriachan. The village post office was located in the property’s porch and Sam ran it while his wife taught until 1974.
The previous year, BBC Radio 4 had begun broadcasting Morning Story, a daily 15-minute tale. She started providing stories based on life in the Highlands and contributed about 40 in all. She also wrote scripts for children’s educational radio programmes.
After being widowed in 1977 she took over as postmistress, ran a small branch library and was the returning officer for elections held in the local village hall. Her book A Garden In The Hills, based on the garden she created at Abriachan, was published in 1995. She followed that a year later with A School In The Hills, the story of the local school and education in the Highlands, with The Post In The Hills, which included a look at Scotland’s postal history, coming out in 1997.
She also produced The Crofting Way, Katharine Stewart’s Country Diaries, a compilation of the articles she had written for The Scotsman. It was the last of her books to be produced by her publishers Birlinn.
Abriachan: The Story Of An Upland Community was published in 2000 by Abriachan Forest Trust before she moved to Luath Press in Edinburgh. By this time she was living in Inverness and well into her 80s but the books kept on coming: The Story Of Loch Ness in 2005; Women Of The Highlands in 2006 and, in 2010, her final volume, Cattle On A Thousand Hills.
As she once said: “The writing came quite naturally.”
Mrs Stewart, who was awarded the British Empire Medal for services to the community and a Saltire Society Award for her contribution to the understanding of Highland culture, is survived by her daughter, Hilda,, grandchildren and great-grandchildren