Friday, March 9, 2012

Island Years Island Farm - Frank Fraser Darling

There's an island theme emerging at the moment - I'm on a roll and enjoying it so there's more to come. 'Island Years Island Farm' felt like a book that had been waiting for me most my adult life - it's curious that amazon have never tried to make me buy it, as it was I saw it when I was eyeing up a new copy of 'Ring of Bright Water' (there was a display of Little Toller Books - it's a fantastic looking series of classic nature writing and worth looking up here).

This was one of those books that it surprises me not to have met long ago. Googling Frank Fraser Darling doesn't reveal much either, there is a standard blurb about his work in the Scottish islands with his wife Bobbie but very little more. It seems that he was a prominent environmental campaigner, researcher, philosopher, and visionary. Clearly a much respected man and I wonder if that's why there's not more information about his personal life, normally this wouldn't bother me but this is an intimate sort of book, and from the moment that the introduction by his son Alisdair referred to Bobbie as his fathers first wife I was curious. From what little I've found the Fraser Darling marriage broke down not long after the original publication of 'Island Farm' and Frank went on to have two more wives and three more children. It's pertinent because 'Island Farm' is full of plans for a future that clearly never happened and I was left wondering what happened to the croft on Tanera Mor.

Indeed it's the only (very little) fault (and perhaps only in my eyes) with the book and it's presentation - originally two books 'Island Years' and 'Island Farm' Little Toller have melded them into one (this isn't an omnibus) the joins are pretty seamless, the time line is sometimes a bit confusing, but I think that may have been the case anyway and the Scottish one didn't notice any discrepancies (he's generally far more pedantic than I am). I think there should be a little bit more about what Bobbie went on to do with her life in the introduction, she's a shadowy but crucial part of the narrative, I hope she went on to do something that made her happy.

For anyone who's ever dreamed of living on a remote island or bit of coast line this is a must read book. The Fraser Darlings met at agricultural college in the twenties and quickly married. Frank went on to do a Ph.D in Edinburgh before heading off to research red deer in the highlands. It seems that he and Bobbie had a love of wild places and dreamt of living on an island. Eventually they got funding to study bird life on Eilean A' Chleirich and went off with a small child in tow to live in a couple of tents for more months than would seem feasible. After Eilean A' Chleirich came stints on North Rhona, Treshnish, and finally Tanera Mor where they  rescued a derelict croft, and as war breaks over the rest of Europe Frank and Bobbie labour to bring it back into production. (Frank was considered to old for active service and then manages to break his leg on his way to milking a cow, but a sense of guilt and frustration is palpable as news keeps coming through of friends being blitzed or taken prisoner).

Otherwise my own experience tells me that this is a particularly accurate view of Island life in Scotland. There is the almost constant presence of the wind with the corresponding wonder of a calm day. The rewards of living so close to not just land, but also sea, and sky when you have to learn to accommodate to the environment around - if the wind blows and the tide is against you there's sometimes no way off an island. If you can accept that though the pay off is seeing things denied to others, knowing a place intimately shore to shore and having it's secrets revealed to you, that and a very primitive satisfaction in being the only ones to see it.

Although written in the 1940's it's only very rarely that this book feels like a period piece, mostly because if you choose to live somewhere very isolated not much has changed - links to the outside world are still sometimes tenuous and the weather can still cut you off. The thought of casting off possessions and expectations to live an entirely stripped back kind of life is seductive despite the sacrifices it would call for (although I have no romantic illusions about living in a tent and don't suppose I would thrive as a small holder). 'Island Years Island Farm'  is after everything a timely read though. It's salutary to realise that the message to reduce, reuse, recycle is old, old, news. There's a lot to think about in this book, as well as a lot of entertainment (and for me at least a lot of nostalgia). I can't recommend it highly enough.  

20 comments:

  1. On the island theme, at the other end of the country, you should read "We bought an island" by Evelyn Atkins, about 2 mad sister who buy an island in Cornwall!

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  2. I'm fascinated by island life and nature writing, too. This sounds great. Adding to tbr longlist!

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    1. It's a fascinating book with glimpses of philosophy amongst the accounts of living on deserted islands. It's how I spent my early years so I can testify to the general accuracy of his account, but more than that there's a lot of food for thought about the way we live and what (for me) I think I need in my life as opposed to what I might actually need.

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  3. I love books about Scotland & especially the islands so I've added this to my wishlist as well as a couple of Mairi Hedderwicks after your earlier post. I have her Eye on the Hebrides on the tbr shelves so that should keep me happy until I start book buying again. I have a couple of Little Toller editions & I agree with you, they're beautiful books. Love those French flaps!

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    1. The other Hedderwicks have gone on my wish list too, she's someone I'd love to hear talk now I've read this, it's also a book I mean to go back to - there was far more to absorb than one reading would do and the pictures are so pretty as well.

      I've only just discovered Little Toller - which ones do you have? They are lovely books indeed and 'Island Years Island Farm' is something I'd have been sorry to miss out on.

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  4. If you are interested in Sir Frank Fraser Darling, you might want to read John Morton Boyd, his biographer - although Boyd tiptoes around discussion of his wives. I spent some time with Sir Frank, and Boyd gets it just right in describing him as a man "of great charisma and no tact". (Paraphrased somewhat.)

    By the way, there is no hyphen in "Fraser Darling".

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    1. He sounds like a fascinating man, it must have been interesting meeting him. I think what I really want to read is a biography of Bobby - she's a shadowy but vital figure in this book and knowing something of the logistics of Island life her achievements strike me as impressive. The tone throughout the book suggests a reasonably happy and stable marriage so realising that it fell apart just after the book finishes was surprising. I had some conversation with Little Toller press about this with the result that they went back to Alisdair Fraser Darling and he filled in some of the blanks about his mother's later life - better yet this is now included in the introduction.

      I'm quite embarrassed about the hyphen - bad enough to have put it in, worse that it wasn't even consistent!

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    2. By the way as a member of the family I can confirm there is indeed a hyphen and the correct one is Fraser-Darling.
      Please get your facts right before making such claims

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    3. Dear Reader,

      Bobbie went on to become the first Warden of the National Association of Girls' Clubs and Mixed Clubs holiday centre based at Kilmory Castle. She stayed there until 1959 during her stay there she developed a remarkable array of programmes. In many ways she pioneered during those years many aspects of outdoor education for young women.

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    4. Thank you for that, she sounds like the most remarkable woman and I'm so pleased to get a little bit more information about her.

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    5. In 1955 after finishing my last year at school I went on a holiday with the Girls ans Mixed Clubs, from the Victoria Dock Mission in the East End.
      The holiday was to Scotland.
      When we arrived we were thrilled to see the Castle, it was wonderful and I remember the red carpeted staircase. Mrs Fraser Darling was a beautiful stately lady with thick white hair and we loved her. In spite of getting sun stroke,(there was a heat wave in 1955!) and being made to stay in bed for a couple of days by Mrs F.D., and drink salty water, it was a wonderful holiday. Irene.

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  5. Dear Desperate Reader, I too have long wondered about Bobby after reading ( and often re-reading ) an earlier Pan Books copy of Island Years. After recently reading the Little Toller Edition which includes Island Farm I wanted her to have a good life and reap the benefits of her hard work and generosity and care so it was delightful to read this morning in your correspondances that she went on to the Girls Clubs and Mixed Clubs Holiday Centre in Scotland. It's a great thought that so many young woman ( and young men ) must have been inspired by her. And that she would have been the focus of so much enthusiasm and appreciation. Thank you, Tessa

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  6. I loved this book and the way that Bobby emerges from it, what has made it even better are the anecdotes that have arisen from posting about it. I asked the guys at Little Toller about Bobby and now they've got a bit more about her in the introduction. That all these years later people will still share memories of her on a blog like this is a testament to what an amazing woman she must have been.

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  7. Erratum. I think I said Gwyn Jones when I really meant to write Gwyn Thomas. (Gwyn Jones is a good writer too however.)
    J Haggerty

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  8. Just had the combined volume from local library and had the same fascination as others as to what happened to "the first Mrs F D" (or should that be F-D?). Although F.F-D. featured quite widely in my professional life as an agricultural ecologist, never met him. But the "charisma without tact" comment rings true of many in his position. It would be great if the son or other descendant could flesh out the separation and subsequent life of "Bobbie" who from reading of the book was at least as deserving of widesptead recognition.

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    1. I believe that's why Little Toller put her photo on the front of the book. She must have been a remarkable woman. There was a little bit more about her on their website, and later editions of the book have a slightly longer peice about her in the introduction.

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  10. You mentioned about Tanera Mor, so thought i would link this.

    http://www.rightmove.co.uk/property-for-sale/property-43950127.html

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  11. My mother, Jean, on leaving school, undertook domestic science training. One summer, in the late 40s, she was out of work and her brother, Ronald McClure, who was training to be a doctor, introduced her to his friend and co-student, Alasdair Fraser-Darling. Alasdair told my mother that his, Marion Fraser-Darling, was looking for a cook for Kilmory Castle and my mother took the post. The other member of staff was Cyril Bailey, a trained youth leader from Berkshire. His role was activity coordinator for the young people.
    Among my mother's possessions, I have recently found a number of photographs of my mother, Cyril and Mrs FD, many titled "Wee Free", with all three looking very happy - particularly Jean and Cyril, who celebrated their golden wedding in 2001. There are also pictures of groups that include Alasdair and Ron.
    My parents always felt that it was Marion who brought them together and were very grateful to her for this. She was always spoken of with great affection. We visited Kilmory as a family, but I don't remember whether Mrs FD was there in person.

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