Anna Blair’s Historical Novels

Girtridge Farm, by Drybridge, Dundonald Parish, 20th May 2012

(Reviewed by Tom F. Cunningham, originally published in Troon @ Ayrshire Family History Society, Journal 68, Spring 2013)

Just lately, I have had just cause to reconsider my position on ‘historical fiction’, a phrase which, after all, possesses at least the makings of a contradiction in terms.

With every passing year, my thinking has come to be dominated by a typically Calvinist aversion to fiction - whatever is untrue is a lie. With a world full of engaging facts which no mortal mind can ever embrace in anything like their entirety, what point is there in wasting time on unaided fabrications? At times, though, I have to concede, fiction serves as a vehicle for a poetic and aesthetically elevated use of language (such as Thomas Hardy) or for striking philosophical insights (Franz Kafka). When fiction has this ring of truth about it, it scarcely seems like fiction at all.

My position, with admitted reservations, was clear enough until I recently had the immense pleasure of reading Anna Blair’s A Tree in the West and, after the briefest of respites, its sequel, The Rowan on the Ridge.

The books are best considered as a single work in two volumes, telling the story of the author’s husband’s family, the Blairs, in their successive generations from about 1580 until 1865, briefly reprising with the birth of Mrs Blair’s husband at some time around 1920. Insofar as it is possible to establish, this remarkable yet ordinary family had scraped a meagre living from the Dundonald Parish soil from time immemorial and so a thoroughly familiar landscape is bathed in an entirely novel light. Those better qualified to judge may disagree but to me the historical background appears to have been meticulously and reliably researched. The result, as stated on the sleeve notes, is indeed a ‘detailed and absorbing picture’.

A Tree in the West begins with a ‘Historical Note’, explaining the significance of Scotland’s Protestant Reformation and the subsequent ‘Killing Times’ in which martyrs and Covenanters – our true Bravehearts - fought and died to sustain the Presbyterian beacon of truth, freedom and democracy in the face of both religious and political persecution. While not everyone will share my enthusiasm for the subject, for me, this brief section is worth the price of admission alone.

What follows is an engaging saga in which the trials and tribulations, triumphs and tragedies of one single family are set against a pageant of nobles and Kirk Sessions, witches and smugglers, advances in agriculture and hard times of warfare, pest and famine, the beginnings of manufacture and the coming of the Troon to Kilmarnock railway.

A glossary of terms would have been helpful, to explain the picturesque but obsolete dialect; one might also have hoped for footnotes pinpointing the various – for the most part mysterious - locations in which the action takes place. (Bobby Kirk, in The Kirk Roads - Historical Jottings around Dundonald, at p. 19, supplies this deficiency to some extent by locating Burnside Farm, the scene of much of the action, on the site of the present bowling green.)

It is apparent that the first volume, spanning three successive generations, relies heavily upon Mrs Blair’s considerable creative abilities and that she was thrown upon much conjecture and guesswork in order to supplement the meagre trail of Parish Register and Kirk Session entries. No doubt, in the second book, it was possible to be more factual, as available documentary sources grow more frequent and detailed.

The Rowan on the Ridge takes up the story in 1709. Throughout the first book, the family home had been a cottage in one of the several farmtouns which eventually merged to form Dundonald village. In the later chapters of the first book, Jamie Blair dreamt of building a farmhouse on a ridge near the River Irvine but is overtaken by the infirmities of old age and this project is eventually brought to fruition by his son, Bryce. This farm, identified as Girtridge Farm by Drybridge, remains the principal scene of the action until it is eventually sold and on this sad note the story ends.

There are appearances from Johnson and Boswell, during their documented visit to Old Auchans, and even up-and-coming poet Robert Burns flits in and out of the narrative, during his Irvine period; his intimate friend, Richard Brown, married one of the Blair girls.

I have a single criticism of the second book. So many generations are crammed into its pages in rapid succession that new principal characters rise and fade with almost every chapter. I had constantly to refer to the family tree to keep track of who they all were, particularly in relation to one another.

Reading these books is a poignant and emotional experience; one conceives a profound attachment to each character in turn, only to see them swept away one after the other by human infirmity and the passing time.

A memorable and striking climax comes as Matthew Blair, in 1865, moves on to pastures new:

Matt looked out over to the hills where Auchans House and Dundonald Castle stood. He saw the railway line curving out of sight, and he looked back at Girtridge farm up there on the slope. He wondered how long his forebears had been in Dundonald, two three even four generations maybe.
Taken together, these two wonderful books embody one woman’s family history project and present an inspiration to us all. Originally published by Collins and the Molendinar Press in 1976 and 1980 respectively, they are depressingly difficult to get hold of now, which seems far less than they deserve. A Tree in the West and The Rowan on the Ridge are books which every household in Dundonald Parish – and far beyond – should be proud to possess.

If ever a single reader were moved by a publication of mine in the same way that Mrs Blair’s marvellous compositions have moved me, I should consider my life complete.

Dundonald Family History Project