Iris Macfarlane, mother of Alan Macfarlane, spent her life split between England and India. At the age of 54 Iris went to University at Glasgow to study Scottish literature, but when her husband died suddenly died she had to give up her studies. She also completed two thirds of an Open University degree in Philosophy.
Having learnt Assamese and Gaelic she published books of translations of folk stories from the Assamese and the Celts. She has published both children’s stories and articles recounting life on the croft. She wrote several short stories which were broadcast on the BBC.
And We in Dreams; A Herbidean Journal
Moving to the Hebridean island of North Uist in the late 1960s, Iris Macfarlane learnt Gaelic and published a book of translations of folk stories, The Mouth of the Night (1973). She also wrote a children’s story, The Summer of the Lame Seagull (1970). She contributed forty articles of a ‘Hebridean Journal’ to The Scotsman, upon which this book is based. Her poem 'I Climbed the Peaks of Glass With You' was recorded by the folk-singer Vashti Bunyan in the 1970s. The book is a combination of poetry, philosophy, ecology, history and literature, based on a lifetime of wandering, from India to the Hebrides. It records a unique moment both in the author's life and in the transition of the Outer Hebrides into the age of electricity and modern communications, the end of a certain kind of Gaelic community. There are echoes of Gavin Maxwell's Ring of Bright Water and Thoreau's Walden in a book which is a classic evocation of changing beauty and loss.
Daughters of the Empire; A Memoir of Life and Times in the British Raj
Iris Macfarlane was born in Quetta, India (now Pakistan) in 1922. Her early adult life was split between England, where her children were educated, and Assam, where her husband Donal Macfarlane was the manager of a tea estate. Here she learnt Assamese and translated Assamese folk-tales and wrote a children's story based on her experience. She studied Assamese and Indian history, which led to a number of articles in History Today, and the book The Black Hole; the Makings of a Legend (1975). This remarkably honest and insightful book tells the story of four generations of women who were sent out to India and Burma and separated from their children. Through contemporary letters, diaries and other personal papers, and on the basis of her own experience, Iris Macfarlane reconstructs the lives of her great-grandmother Maria, her grandmother Annie, her mother Violet and herself, who bore the pain and cost of the British Empire and its demands. There is a forward by Professor Susan Bayly which places the account into the context of other writing on the Raj.
Love's Legacy; Selected Poems
Alan Macfarlane came across some of his mother's poems scattered through her extensive papers. Only two of these have been published, one in an Indian newspaper in 1943, the other as a song by the folk-singer Vashti Bunyan in the 1970s. Iris's voice can be heard clearly in these and other poems. She read poetry avidly and had been writing poems from her early teens. The poems on love are grouped under 'Romantic Love', 'Motherly Love' and 'Neighbourly Love', and these are supplemented by a section of poems on her legacy, both from the past, and the one she wished to pass on to her children.
The Week the World Began
Alan Macfarlane came across this unpublished typescript of a short children's book among his mother Iris Macfarlane's papers after her death in 2007. Based on several earlier models such as Kipling's Just So Stories and The Meeting Pool, it describes, from the point of view of some villagers in Assam, India, how the world was made in a week. The drawings in the book were done by Lily B. when she was about two years older than one of the heroines of the book, Claire.
Robert Chambers of Edinburgh; Victorian Polymath and Educator
This is the first full modern biography of one of the greatest writers and polymaths of modern Britain whose work has had an influence all around the world, including Japan and China.
Using the Chambers archive of letters and diaries and business papers, Iris Macfarlane describes Robert's childhood in Peebles and early poverty in Edinburgh before he set up, with his brother William, the famous publishing firm of W. and R. Chambers. This was a pioneer in popular publishing for ordinary people, and, alongside other series of cheap but informative materials in Papers for the People, Chambers Miscellany and more, Robert Chambers set out to create a virtual university for nineteenth-century readers. As well as this he was a pioneer antiquarian, local historian, folklorist, biographer of Robert Burns, writer on Edinburgh. He was a geologist and in his most influential book, The Vestiges of Natural Creation (1844) he took nineteenth century literary and scientific circles by storm, anticipating much of Darwin's work and influencing Tennyson's poem In Memoriam. It is an extraordinary story, told in Iris Macfarlane's customary brilliant way, and illustrated with contemporary drawings and paintings.