If I ever had to make the decision to keep my entire collection of only one author, my choice would be Dorita Fairlie Bruce. I don’t have a complete collection of her books and I suspect that a handful will elude me forever (Mistress Mariner and The KIng’s Curate, I’m looking at you) but there is nothing I have that I don’t enjoy reading. Naturally, though, I have my favourites: the Colmskirk set and Nancy. In fact, I like these so much that I wrote a group of pieces imagining the futures of some of the characters for the last issue of the late lamented Folly Magazine.
As I may have mentioned before, I’m an east-coaster. However I studied at the University of Glasgow in the days when seventy per cent of all students lived at home. So inevitably many of my friends were from the Glasgow area. They talked about places up and down the Clyde and I got to know some of them. My parents moved to Glasgow, I got a job in Lanarkshire and for many years the Clyde coast was my playground. And it was in these days that I discovered Largs.
I can’t now remember when I first read the Colmskirk books or the Nancy series. They weren’t my first – that was Dimsie – but I had certainly read some of them by the time I went to university. It’s also now lost in the mists of time when I discovered that DFB settled in Skelmorlie and that many of her books used that part of Scotland for their setting. I do remember poring over OS maps, both old and new and trying to locate places and pieces of action.
For those who don’t know, Largs is a little seaside town about an hour from Glasgow. It’s famous for Nardini’s restaurant and ice cream. It straggles round the coast and climbs up the hill behind it. From the pier these days you can get the ferry across to Millport on the Isle of Cumbrae; once upon a time the Firth of Clyde was criss-crossed with boats going everywhere! I have never been to Cumbrae, mostly to confound my west coast friends. It’s a sort of rite of passage with them! If you have read any of Dorita Fairlie Bruce’s books set in Colmskirk or Redchurch you will know more about Largs than you think you do. It is to DFB what Peebles is to O Douglas.
The only problem is that Largs is so good that DFB renamed it twice! Primula Mary and Anne, as well as Nancy and Desda, knew it as Redchurch. The Springdale houses stretch out along the coast road and could certainly still be picked out when last I was there. Nancy had two stints at St Bride’s on Inchmore as DFB calls Cumbrae and she crossed there from Redchurch amongst other ports, latterly with Desda. But the Lendrum girls and Triffeny, to say nothing of earlier generations, knew it as Colmskirk. It’s easy to see where the names derive: St Columba’s Parish Church is a red sandstone building.
There’s not really a problem with this double identity until it comes to Primula Mary Beton (descended as you might remember from one of the Queen’s Maries). As mentioned, she goes to school in Redchurch. However, later in life, she becomes the curator of the local museum – in Colmskirk! To the best of my memory, DFB never addresses this confusion. When I wrote my pieces for Folly, I called the town Colmskirk and, in my head, decided that Redchurch was its local nickname!
I enjoy the Colmskirk books, particularly, for their Largs setting. It’s a small community where going shopping could be a morning’s occupation by the time you’d stopped to speak to all your acquaintances. There’s the Norse history, the Skelmorlie Aisle, the ferries going out into the Firth and the smell of the sea. I’ve whiled away many hours sitting across from the Springdale houses looking at the water. Maybe one day I’ll even take the ferry over to Millport!