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