Pan-Ross

Pan Ross Collage
Elizabeth Sutherland had an Orcadian father and a mother from Fife which she claims makes her a Pict. After training at Edinburgh University to be a social worker she married an Episcopalian clergyman and lived in four parishes which included Galashiels, Orkney, the Black Isle and Baillieston with Shettleston in Glasgow. On her late husband's retirement to Rosemarkie in 1982 she took over Groam House Museum and was responsible for its becoming a Pictish Centre. She has written from the age of four and has published twelve books, both fiction and factual, numerous articles, reviews and stories. As a result of her particular interest in early history she has published In Search of the Picts, The Pictish Trail and Five Euphemias, which is a multiple biography of five medieval Highland women all related to the medieval Earls of Ross. But her first love is for Highland folklore and in particular Highland second sight which she has explored in two historical novels about Coinneach Odhar entitled The Seer of Kintail and The Eye of God, her edition of Alexander Mackenzie's Prophecies of the Brahan Seer and her comprehensive study of second sight in Ravens and Black Rain. She was involved in co-writing a biography entitled Lydia, Wife of Hugh Miller of Cromarty,  published in August 2002.

Highland Culture

WILD WOMAN
Miss Jean Brodie she was not. Her girls were not the creme de la creme but the drop-outs of the school, the cricket dodgers, the poetry writers, the mooners, the smokers and the rebels. I wrote poetry. Martha was a rebel.

That war-time summer we lived for Life Drawing on Thursday afternoons in the art room with Miss Crowe. Her thick black hair was never properly controlled by hairpins, her bosoms were large and low and unsupported under flowery smocks, her rather short legs were white and enviably bare to the rest of us who were forced to wear lisle stockings. Rumour had it that she went with Poles. We adored her flamboyant looks, her gossipy conversation, her wacky portraits including a male nude (the only penis any of us had seen) which adorned the easels and walls of the studio by the harbour where we would sometimes be invited to smoke, drink shandies and eat lobster using her hair-pins to get out the juicy bits. We were sure she was disapproved of by the head mistress and most of the other staff. So were we. You could tell her anything, and we did.

We listened mouths agape to her advice on love affairs. "Sleep with him if that's how you feel. For God's sake you're seventeen years old. It's high time you lost your virginity." On difficult parents. "Leave home then. You'll survive. One does." On visiting the proscribed cinema in town. "Go. The worst that can happen is expulsion. Give you something to talk about at dinner parties for the rest of your lives." She had laughed. "You all know what I think. You've only got one life. Live it."

"Like youl" one of us, me I think, gushed sycophantically. She gave me a long questioning look but I had intended no irony. "Of course,' she said lightly. "Exactly like me," and changed the subject. It did not occur to any of us to ask why then was she a teacher in this expensive exclusive girls boarding school in a remote Scottish town instead of surviving on her art in an attic in Paris or living in sin with a lover in Soho.

Come to think of it did anyone ever take her advice? Did any of us actually run away from our parents, sleep with any of those spotty youths we met at dances in the Christmas holidays, or pay illicit visits to the cinema and risk expulsion. Probably not. One didn't in those days. But with Miss Geraldine Crowe our horizons were widened and the possibilities delicious.

Half way through that summer term - the last for our lot before we went on to university, St Thomas's Hospital or the WRNS - Geraldine was absent from the plafform at assembly and her art room door shut. A few days later a retired teacher from the grammar school came to take those girls who were doing art for school certificate. Those of us who attended Life Drawing as an optional extra had our classes cancelled. What had happened? No one knew, but rumours circulated like midges in the dormitories. Someone told us breathlessly that she had heard that Gerry's male nude had been accepted by the Scottish Academy and the head had been so horrified that she had dismissed her on the spot. Hottest favourite said she had been caught necking in the arms of a Pole by one of the house-mistresses walking her terrier along the cliffs who had reported her to the head out of sheer jealousy. Whatever the reason, Gerry did not return to school. Martha was bold enough to ask the head what had happened and was thanked courteously for inquiring but told firmly that it was none of her business.

We tried to visit her on Saturday afternoons but the studio door was not opened to us and though I swore I had seen a curtain twitch in one of the upstairs windows, I could not be sure. We decided that either she had gone away or that she must be ill. That was it. She was ill in hospital. "But surely they would have told us," I protested. "Not if it was some unspeakable disease" one of us murmured. "If you mean VD, why don't you say so." Martha displayed her knowledge boldly. Some of us nodded and some of us shook our heads. "Is it infectious?" I asked remembering the hair-pins and the lobster. No one knew. The only clue was offered by the school secretary who said sniffily, "I've no doubt she'll be back in due course."

But what did that mean. We speculated endlessly. "She could have got married," someone suggested tentatively. That was possible. To one of the ubiquitous Poles, the one she had been seen smooching with on the cliffs. But why keep it a secret? "I know," said Martha triumphantly. "She must be having a baby. It's the only explanation."

She wouldn't! We denied it hotly. Babies out of wedlock in our world happened to factory workers and maids. "Having got married first, you asses," Martha added but it was an afterthought. Thus we worked it all out. She had been caught necking her Pole, forced to marry him secretly and they had gone away together to have a baby. "She's too old," said one of us practically. "At least forty." We denied it fiercely, her being forty. To us Geraldine was all woman, the epitome of SA and ageiess. And so we whiled away the summer term. We heard however that the school secretary had been right. Geraldine returned to the art room the following term but by that time we had left school and gone our separate ways.

Twenty-five years later Martha and I went back to a reunion celebrating the centenary of the school with royalty present. Shrieks of recognition and cries of "You haven't changed a bit!" echoed down the corridors and in the hall. The art room door was open and there was Geraldine surrounded by a fragrance of smart women some older, most far younger than we were. "My God, she's still here!" Martha exclaimed and we dived into the throng. She hadn't changed all that much except that the humorous lines on her face had multiplied and her black hair turned into an untidy white nest held together with hair-pins. She still wore a flowery smock, still sported the same bare legs and thonged sandals.

We pushed through the chattering crowd and waited our turn. It was a bit of a shock to find that she didn't remember us, our names meant nothing to her, but she remembered that war-time summer. Her laugh too was exactly as we remembered it.

"You were here that summer? How amusing."

"No one would tell us why you left."

"Boring" she said lightly." I'd much rather hear about you. What have you done with your lives?"

So we told her. Martha was a twice-married psychotherapist. I was writing my third novel. "Now it's your turn," I said.

"What do you think I did" she asked, her black eyes alive with humour.

"You wouldn't want to know."

She laughed, told us to keep our illusions and turned away to greet another group of old girls, much younger than we were. She remembered their names.

But we did find out. At dinner that night we found ourselves sitting opposite the school secretary now retired, an ancient little creature who peered at Martha through thick lenses. "No, don't tell me. I never forget a face. You were here that summer when Geraldine Crowe went on strike."

"On strike?". The one thing we had never thought of. "What was it all about? " I could only think of gay rights, equal pay and CND, all wildly anachronistic. She told us. The head had informed the staff that they must set an example of seemliness to the girls. Stockings were to be worn at all times. When Geraldine paid no attention she was told not to come back improperly dressed so she stayed away.

"But she must have caved in," I said disappointed. I preferred my illusions.

"Let us say a compromise was reached. Stockings were duly donned in the winter and spring terms but the following summer three of the younger staff followed Miss Crowe's example into bare legs and the girls were allowed to wear ankle socks."

"She won then, " said Martha poking a face at me. .

'`It wasn't a case of winning or losing, my dear. Geraldine Crowe has always done exactly as she likes in school and out of it.. She should have retired a decade ago, but as you see, she's still here. She makes her own rules.'

And in my book, that's living.

Elizabeth Sutherland

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