In the central part of the Kirkmichael graveyard stands a small simple stone in memory of Jane Duncan, Author. In her day, Jane Duncan (Elizabeth Jane Cameron ) was a best-selling writer, the most popular of her publications being her “My Friend” series of books, although she also wrote complementary books for children. Her childhood holidays were spent with her grandparents and her much loved “Uncle George” on the family croft above Jemimaville in the Black Isle, looking across Udale Bay to Kirkmichael. The croft, which lies just within the parish of Cromarty, is known as “the Colony” although in her books she called it “Reachfar.” After many years spent in the West Indies she returned, a widow and already a best-selling author, to Jemimaville (“the Colony” by now had been sold) and wrote most of her published work there.
Why do you live in a remote place like Jemimaville? Jemimaville is my place.
Jane Duncan used these lines as a chapter heading within her autobiographical “Letter from Reachfar” (1976). She regarded the area as her spiritual home, a place from which her creativity sprung. For those interested in the background to her family, the hard genealogical information set out below has been gleaned from census and civil registration sources. However, elements of the character of most of her family and friends appear within the characters of her books. She drew profoundly upon her own life experiences for her novels. Just from the two pen names she used (Jane Duncan and Janet Sandison) it can be seen how she weaved reality into her fiction. Her parents were Duncan Cameron Police Constable and Jessie (diminutive of Janet) Cameron nee Sandison.
Jane Duncan was born on 10 March 1910, in Renton, Dumbartonshire, and died 20 October 1976, at “The Old Store”, Jemimaville.
Childhood holidays were spent in the Black Isle on her grandparents’ croft, the Colony (or “Reachfar” of her novels). She would be sent home to the Colony with a label bearing her name and address pinned inside the coat and her Uncle George would pick her up at Inverness, cross the station platform and board the little Black Isle train that would take them to Fortrose where the horse and trap were stabled.
The relationship of people, places and incidents in her novels to her real life is partly set out in “Letter from Reachfar” published in 1975, the year before her death. In this, for example, she confirms that the George of her novel “My friends George and Tom” (1976) relates to her beloved uncle George Cameron. Prior to this, Annie Holm (nee Ferguson) now of Ferryton in Resolis informs us that locally there used to be great interest in trying to relate incidents in her books to real life. Annie’s father’s sister, Isabella Ferguson, married George Cameron (Jane Duncan’s Uncle George) but, sadly, Isabella died at a relatively young age in 1917 and is buried in Kirkmichael. Isabella grew up at her father Charles Ferguson’s farm at Ardoch, close to the Colony, which is presumably how George and Isabella would have been initially acquainted. Charles Ferguson’s children were distributed far and near: of the sons, the eldest Charles went to the states, James Young took over Auchmartin, John remained in Ardoch. As well as Jane Duncan herself, at least her Aunt Isabella and her brother John are buried in Kirkmichael. Some additional genealogical information relating to Jane Duncan is as follows. Her paternal grandfather, from his death certificate, was John Cameron Farmer (Retired) married to Catherine Campbell. He died 8 May 1934 at the Colony, Cromarty, aged 90 years, and his parents were Donald Cameron Crofter (deceased) Janet Cameron nee Grant (deceased). The witness was D. Cameron (son) Rose Cottage, Poyntzfield, By Conon Bridge.
Jane Duncan describes in “Letter from Reachfar” an entertaining incident in Jemimaville. “By this time, I had moved out of the cottage into the converted barn where I now live and had lent the cottage for a few days to my friends, the Harts. Professor Hart, at that time, was Professor of English Literature at the University of Virginia and [like Duncan] a long-time admirer of Neil Gunn. Discovering that, although we lived only about twenty miles apart, I had never met Neil Gunn, Lorena [Hart] decided to give a little dinner party, made up of her family, Neil Gunn, Ian Grimble and myself and to set the scene a little further, I should explain that the cottage is surrounded by trimmed privet hedges.
Neil Gunn, when offered a drink, floors them by asking for some gin. “Lorena looked nonplussed and embarrassed and I made to send her son Russell the few yards down to my barn for some gin but, before I could speak, the little girls said in unison: ‘We’ll bring you some gin, Mom,’ went out for a second and returned with a bottle three-quarters full of gin. ‘Where did you get that?’ their father asked, his eyes popping. ‘In our garden hedge. There’s some more in the back-garden hedge,’ they assured Neil Gunn in case three-quarters of a bottle would not be enough.” [Jane Duncan explains to Neil Gunn that her kind neighbour who trimmed the hedges for her, did not ‘drink’ while working but always kept an odd bottle of gin or two in the hedges, in the apple trees and in his hen-house in case he became thirsty. Neil Gunn loved this story.]
When the Chair of the Trust was a boy, he shook hands with Jane Duncan when she came in one time at end of term to give out the prizes at Newhall Primary School in the early 1960s. He doesn’t remember her speech in detail now - although he has a feeling it was short and generally to follow what you really want to do. Her hands trembled.
She thought nothing of prizes herself; she tells in “Letter from Reachfar” of a scene in her household where her father suddenly reads out from the local paper which he has been perusing: ‘Listen to this, the Dux Medal of Lenzie Academy has been won by Elizabeth Jane Cameron, Police Station, Croy.
He put the paper down on his knees and asked: ‘Is this true?’
As part of the 2010 centenary celebrations of the birth of Jane Duncan, the Kirkmichael Trust ran a guided tour of the Colony, the farm where she spent her idyllic holidays, and nearby Jemimaville, where she returned to from her life in Jamaica. This link is to photographs by Andrew Dowsett from this tour, and from the subsequent tea-party in Cromarty hosted by the Cameron family