About the Author
David Kerr Cameron (1928-2003) may have spent most of his life as a journalist in London, but David Kerr Cameron never forgot the rigours of farming life in his native Aberdeenshire, which he wrote about with un-sentimental vividness in his three best-loved and award-winning books.
Compacts of The Soul
The previously unpublished sequel to
A Kist Of Sorrows
Set in the 1880s, this portrait of life in the crofts and farmtouns of northeast Scotland relates the changes in rural life that slowly destroy a community. It tells of the bitter struggle that develops between a heartlessly self-centred laird and his poverty-stricken crofters.
The Literary Estate of David Kerr Cameron is represented by Knight Features.
The Ballad and the Plough (1978), Willie Gavin, Crofter Man (1980), and The Cornkister Days (1984), all of which won Scottish Arts Council Awards, gave the social history of the North-East a readability that drew comparisons with the work of the late John Prebble.
The books charted a harsh way of farmtoun life which, even in his childhood, was already being eclipsed through labour controls in the Second World War and by the spread of mechanisation.
One of three sons of a cottar, he remembered the twice-yearly hiring fairs at which his father and other farm labourers would be taken on, often only to find that the farmer’s fine promises turned out to be a leaky bothy and a horse fit for the slaughterhouse.
"It was a strange, gipsy-like existence," he later wrote. "On Term Days, we piled everything we possessed into farm carts for the move - bags, mattresses, even the coal scuttle. We were like a refugee army. It only needed one good downpour for the beds to be soaked through and start rusting away."
By the time he wrote these books, Cameron was a sub-editor on the Daily Telegraph, where he worked for 27 years until his retirement in 1993.
At the start of his working life, such a career looked distinctly unprobable. Indeed, when he was 14 and his headmaster suggested that he become a writer, the very idea came as a blow to his self-esteem.
He began his 45-year career as a journalist with a series of articles about rural life which he penned for local newspapers while doing his National Service in the Royal Air Force.
After marrying in 1950, he worked on the Kirriemuir Herald and the Press and Journal, before the lure of working on a Fleet Street paper drew him south to London and the Daily Telegraph.
"It seemed such a namby-pamby thing to be when I contemplated the hard men of the farmtouns in Scotland’s North-east lowlands,"
It was only when he turned 50, however, that the books started appearing.
At first, he had only intended to write a 10,000-word text to accompany a series of photographs or pre-war farm labourers. However, the more he researched the lives behind those awkwardly posed pictures of men and women unused to the camera, the more he realis-ed that he had to write about them.
"If I had the money," he said, "I would have started a farming museum; instead, I had to do what I could by writing."
The Ballad and the Plough soon grew to 45,000 words, and instead of asking for it to be cut, his publisher (Gollancz) asked for more.
In the book, he showed how little had changed since the 1870s, when a farm labourers’ wages were only a third the cost of a Clydesdale horse, and they were treated just about as harshly.
Bothy ballads, and affairs with farmtoun servant girls offered them some respite from the relentless toil, but Cameron’s portrait of the vanished age - including his only novel, A Kist of Sorrows (1987) never confused nostalgia with romanticism.
The contrast all these books offered to today’s soulless, ultra-scientific agribusiness was not of itself, he realised, the reason for their popularity. However, for all the hardships of the life he described, it did offer a sense of belonging and identity.
"The old closeness with a landscape, and even with the figures who walked through it largely unrecorded, has gone and left a vacuum," he said in a Scotsman interview in 1978. "For all I know this is what I was looking for myself, down there in London."
The English Fair (1997) and London’s Pleasures (2001) took up the story of the transformation of country and town life south of the Border and were also well reviewed.
However, it for his portrait of the farmtouns of pre-war Scotland, the nuances of its social order, and the desperately hard lives of its itinerant workers that he will be most remembered for in his native land.
EXTRACT COMPACTS OF THE SOUL
I RETURN in the fall of the year, remembering how it was. We spoke little of you that day, crisp-linened in your deathly goon, serene at last but gone from you now that spark that had always been in you, that licht in the een that marked and measured all things and shone with wisdom. Strange it was to see you so, your life ended and lain past in a kist of pine, trestled in the parlour room as you waited dark suitors from another time. Folk had come and gone through that long afternoon. She is at peace, they said looking down at that still face they had known in life, waiting their own time to come, sad but not feared, hoping they could make as good an end of it.
A hard life she had, they said, one to the other. And never faltered in it. Her father's daughter. Some of them minding the Croft Hill maybe and the days that had been. All the bitterness of it and your father jailt like a common felon for his part in it, coming home broken by it - not the jail but the injustice of it - a hollow husk of a man that once had strode proud to the kirk on the Sabbath. He had not lasted that long, a reed broken by his betrayal.
Our fire would be lonely without you, your presence gone from the hearth. The years had failed you but they did not break you. A smile at the last for the young doctor lad that had come to you. I have lived long past my time, laddie, you told him. What comes will not grieve me. Grateful he'd been, a tear on his cheek as he stepped out from the parlour room, death a stranger to him still like the wonder of birth; he'd thought he never would get used to it.
And a strange man coming from far over by Strathdon the day that we buried you; there was none that knew him. He walked through to see you and stayed long and we never speired why. A fine man all the same; sorry he said that he had not seen you in life but then the world was like that•••
So, quiet then, to the cry of a bird, we let you down to the dark and the stillness of death, to be with Black Jock where the curlew would call from the lochside in the late summer nicht, a plaintive note in the dusk that pierced the heart as the land lay quiet in the lilac licht as always you'd loved it. The young minister's words unheard, numbed out by sorrow for none then had meaning; but helpless splints to the wound that had befallen us. It seemed that I grieved most of all that had known you; that closeness gone that had been part of me.
You will win home? my father had asked later of the stranger. Fine, he had said, and why wouldn't I? I'll take Bell's evening bus tae the crossroads of Lumphanan. Nae trouble! She's a fine nicht, nae harm come to me. He'd had a Highland lilt to him, speaking soft in the kitchen, quiet as he took his staff and turned stiff by the door. A grand harvest she has been this year, losh aye, he said as though it were enough. Mony's I've seen, grand and dour. The rear are turning, our fortunes back and fore. But are the hairst! The reckoning of the year. Strange the speak of him and his een misting again for a moment. Then, straightening frail shoulders, Well! He had gone as he'd come without saying why, no right that was known to him so that we wondered long after. That day a little of the past slipped from me; a chord in the heart that could not be restrung. Long had I imbibed the sum of your days, stealing memory from you. At the last we had gathered old summers like a bouquet to your days, to all that had been.
The Literary Estate of David Kerr Cameron is represented by Knight Features.