Vivian Cripps on Elizabeth Jane Cameron, Kate Baylay

The Black Isle and the Miss Boyds

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Reachfar is a ruin now. Approach, as we did, from the north, across rough, boulder-strewn fields, and it has a blind, sad look, just one small window in its long stone front. Go round to the other side and the mood changes. You are greeted by a blaze of gorse and a yard that has reverted riotously to moorland. Only a stone trough remains. But, for all its decay, the croft has a companionable air, although parlour, kitchen and attics are now all one and ivy pushes its way in over crumbling sills.

Reachfar, as it was in its bustling heyday, is the heart of Elizabeth Jane Cameron’s first book, My Friends the Miss Boyds. I came across it when I was still at school, reading everything I could lay hands on as long as it wasn’t one of my A-level set texts. For a Buckinghamshire girl who had never been further north than Rhyl, the portrayal of life in a remote, closely knit Highland community was bewitching, a glimpse of an unguessed-at world.

Narrated by 8-year-old Janet Sandison, the novel has immense vitality. An only child growing up at Reachfar in the First World War, Janet observes unfolding events with a wit and fierce intelligence inherited from her elders. When the local town of Achcraggan is invaded by a covey of Miss Boyds, a discordant note enters the even tenor of country life. Their desire to show how things are done in sophisticated circles in Inverness and their determination to catch a man – any man – provokes widespread amusement, masked by inscrutable Highland politeness. But, as the war ends, irresistible comedy gives way to an Ophelia-like tragedy. Though life returns to its normal rhythms and everyone but Janet seems to have forgotten Miss Violet Boyd, profounder changes loom: economic depression will threaten the rural way of life in a way that the foolish Miss Boyds never did.

The book carries unshakeable conviction: this is a writer who knows her landscape and people intimately. Indeed, Cameron is drawing a map of th

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About the contributor

In 2010, as part of the Jane Duncan centenary celebrations, Vivien Cripps’s publishing house Millrace brought out a new edition of Jane Duncan’s My Friends the Miss Boyds (1959) (Pb • 288pp • £12.50 • isbn 9781902173313). Reviews and reactions that summer showed that her writing has not lost its appeal. In 2011 Millrace also reissued My Friend Monica (1960) (Pb • 272pp • £12.50 • isbn 9781902173320).

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