Obituary: Mary Dudgeon MBE, farmer, Festival Fringe pioneer and founder of the Timespan museum

Mary Dudgeon MBE. Born: 28 July, 1927 in Brora. Died: 6 August 2021, aged 94

Mary Dudgeon with her husband Geordie. The couple married in 1950.
Mary Dudgeon with her husband Geordie. The couple married in 1950.

Mary Geary Wilson was born on Tuesday 28 July, 1927 at the family house ‘Sunrise’ in Brora. A new life joining the family of Mary Hilda Wilson and Joseph Geary Wilson, a graphic designer for Rootes Automobiles, originally from Lisburn in Northern Ireland. Her mother was truly a woman of the times, having been a front line ambulance driver in the Great War, and a great supporter of many charitable institutions.

The family lived in Burgess Hill in Sussex and also Park Lane, London. ‘Sunrise’ in Brora was their holiday home, where the family enjoyed fishing, shooting and golfing. Older members of the community knew Mary locally as ‘Mary Geary’, an appellation that is still in use.

School days beckoned and Mary attended Seymour Lodge in Perthshire, where her eldest daughter Clarinda later followed. Following school, she enrolled at Edinburgh Art School to read Art and Stage Design.

From the beginning, Mary was a pioneer, which is exemplified in her involvement in the creation of the Edinburgh Fringe in 1947. Mary used a chance encounter with the Lord Provost to engage him in a new vision for an inclusive, youthful arts festival. Having won him over, she set about putting on their first production, Easter by Strindberg. She later described it as a rather boring play, which she had chosen at random thinking it sounded suitably highbrow! This, and other performances, gave rise to a fringe festival of contemporary arts and culture, which lives on as the internationally recognised Edinburgh Fringe.

Always one to make an impact, Mary’s return to Sutherland from Art College, was once described as ‘Hollywood arriving in Brora!’. Attending local events, it wasn’t long before she caught the eye of her future husband Geordie Dudgeon of Crakaig. In 1950 they were married in Clyne Church in Brora, followed by a splendid reception at Sunrise. The marriage produced four wonderful children, Michael, Clarinda, Antonia and Sally.

Mary was completely involved in farming life alongside Geordie. She took the transition from art school graduate to farmer completely in her stride, becoming an excellent stock woman with a keen eye for picking the perfect ewe or tup at shows and sales.

However, Mary’s life changed in 1976 after the passing of her beloved husband. Mary, with the support of her family and Michael returning to Crakaig, continued to go from success to success at the farm. This also extended to the revival of the garden at the farmhouse.

Using her innate creativity and developing an encyclopedic knowledge of Latin plant names, Mary’s passion for gardening grew, and over the years, she completely transformed the garden at Crakaig.

Her vast botanical knowledge and passion was acknowledged by the Royal Horticultural Society, when she received notification that a flower had been named after her. The ‘Mary Dudgeon’ is an unassuming miniature daffodil, which with her usual diffidence, she described as ‘a bit boring’!

Mary and Geordie held many events in the garden including many Liberal Fairs for hundreds of local people. Happy memories of vats of tea, homemade cake and swimming competitions in the pool in the lower garden, remain in the minds of many. The other inhabitants of the garden Mary loved were her birds – she loved nothing more than feeding her collection of peacocks, geese, chickens and finches.

Alongside her love of animals, she continued to engage with one of her other loves – drama. From the heady days of the first Edinburgh Fringe, Mary’s love of theatre continued to flourish. She was delighted to join the Greycoast Theatre Company board as a director and was the creative force behind their productions which included The Great Bunillidh Volcano in Camster and Helmsdale, as well as Flags in Caithness. Never has Helmsdale seen the like of scores of people below acres of red fabric simulating the lava flow from the volcano through the streets!

Mary’s ability to bring together people in the community through stage performances was exceptional. Early productions included and extended to many variations of The Good Old Days and annual (hysterical) pantomimes, starring everyone from the village including shop owners, fishermen, shepherds and anyone else she persuaded to perform! The after-parties were legendary and perhaps for Mary the most fun part as the pressure to keep everyone on track was over and she could really let her hair down!

Mary’s extraordinary creativity coupled with a fascination for local history, inspired her to create a local museum in Helmsdale. Timespan was born in 1987 with Mary firmly at the helm. Her vision, tenacity and leadership of this project has resulted in the museum not only creating local employment, firmly putting Helmsdale on the tourist map, it has also been instrumental in bringing the community together to celebrate their heritage. Always on the edge of controversy, only Mary would get away with having a mannequin of Barbara Cartland, resplendent in Norman Hartnell, as a fixed exhibit in a Highland museum!

She was told the day before she was admitted to hospital that Timespan has been shortlisted for the Art Fund Museum of the Year award 2021.

Mary’s leadership in her local community knew no bounds – extending to be the orchestrator of a strong man competition in Helmsdale. Recreating television’s Superstars, which involved Michael and a group of other burly farmers hauling heavy trucks around Helmsdale harbour, led to some of them training for the Highland Games.

This gave Mary the idea of holding Helmsdale’s very own Games. So, off she went with three other ladies, to the Highland Games Society HQ in Perth. When they got the reply “no, you are women”. It was like a red rag to a bull. Through dogged determination and sheer bloody-mindedness, the Helmsdale Highland Games were established in 1981.

Mary’s remarkable drive to succeed, and strong desire to see her local area thrive, was recognized by the Queen, when she chose to honour her with the award of an MBE in 1996.


Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.