Scotsman Obituaries: AJ Stewart, playwright, author and, she believed, reincarnation of King James IV

AJ Stewart was a well-known figure on the Seventies Edinburgh sceneAJ Stewart was a well-known figure on the Seventies Edinburgh scene
AJ Stewart was a well-known figure on the Seventies Edinburgh scene
AJ Stewart (Ada F Kay), playwright and author. Born: 5 March 1929 in Tottington, Lancashire. Died: 13 June 2024 in Edinburgh, aged 95

Why is it when somebody claims to have been reincarnated, they invariably choose to have once upon a time been a king or queen?The response from AJ Stewart, author of the bestselling book Falcon: The Autobiography of His Grace James the 4, King of Scots, was uncompromising: “When you have met your death violently accompanied by a tremendous sense of guilt, bitter regret and anger, all of those feelings are transported into your future lives.”

Such were the dying emotions of one of Scotland’s finest and most remarkable monarchs. AJ Stewart genuinely believed that all of us return to this world many times. She could also vividly recall having served as a Roman centurion on the Antonine Wall.

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Born Ada F Kay, the only daughter of a Lancashire schoolmaster, she was posted as a private in the ATS to Fairmilehead in Edinburgh in 1947. As the night train from Kings Cross reached Berwick in the grey light of dawn she said she instantly recognised the landscape – the River Tweed, the Bass Rock and Edinburgh Castle. “My heart filled with a gigantic gladness to be home,” she wrote at the time. Home? How could that be?

With the realisation that she had been to Scotland previously came about an instant search for identity, but this was temporarily put on hold when she returned to England to write her first successful play Warp and Weft, later renamed Red Rose for Ransom, based on the Lancashire cotton industry.

This was rapidly followed up by her best-known radio and stage play, The Man from Thermopylae, which was featured in 1961 at the Gateway Theatre and four years later as part of the official Edinburgh Festival programme. By then Ada had joined the script section of BBC Television and married, taking her husband’s surname of Stewart, which she retained after their amicable divorce eight years later

However, it was then that she returned to Edinburgh to research a play based on the life of that largely overlooked Scottish monarch, James IV. Adopting the author name AJ Stewart, she described the following 12 months as not unlike wearing a plastic membrane separating her from the world around her, and eventually the role of her alter ego took over completely.

Essentially feminine, she found herself instinctively buying thick black tights and a long black polo-necked tunic from a shop in Tollcross. “Thank goodness it was the 1960s and most women dressed like medieval men,” she recalled.

On a return visit to the battlefield of Flodden on Branxton Moor in Northumberland, the atrocities of that terrible day for Scotland came flooding back to her. She had vivid recall of his/her head being decapitated and it being used as a football. She later observed that writing Falcon and its subsequent success completely destroyed her life. “I had got it all out of my system but it had wrecked my marriage and ended my career as a playwright,” she said.

Nevertheless, celebrity makes its own demands. The sequel to Falcon was Died 1513-Born 1929, later renamed King’s Memory. In 1973, she founded the Society of Scottish Playwrights with Ian Brown, Hector MacMillan, Ena Lamont Stewart and John Hall and, in the years that followed, acquired a certain notoriety taking part in documentary television films, visiting his/her old haunts of Stirling Castle, Falkland Palace and Linlithgow Palace, which she insisted on pronouncing “Lil’ithgow.”

Living for the most part in the New Town of Edinburgh and holidaying at a family house on the Isle of Bute, she became a familiar figure with her hennaed hair and ankle-length robes up until the first decade of the second millennium, receiving a chosen elite in her grand Georgian drawing and reception rooms where she featured a replica set of the Honours of Scotland in a glass case.

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Her dining preferences included pig’s trotters and a range of single malt whiskies. She purchased tooth powder instead of toothpaste, and would enlighten her friends with accounts of the politics and customs of Scotland’s golden age. Several distinguished academics were impressed that she knew the answers to the questions they had puzzled over for years.

An accomplished artist, there were framed drawings of her 16th-century contemporaries hanging in her hallway. She once informed me that I, too, had died at Flodden.

From his bachelor pad at Craigmillar Castle, prior to his marriage to Princess Margaret Tudor, King James had regularly ridden over to his shipyards at Newhaven on his favourite black stallion to inspect the progress on The Great Michael, the largest ship of its time. When the King and his horse failed to return from the disaster of Flodden, there were regular sightings of a black horse at the gates of Craigmillar. When I visited Craigmillar Castle with her in 2002, there was a black stallion grazing in the adjacent field.

Since 2017, AJ Stewart had been in residence at Belleville Lodge Care Home, Edinburgh. One wonders if any of her fellow residents were aware of just how exalted an individual they had in their midst?

Obituaries

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