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Old family diaries and cine films inspire author's latest book

Author Janet MacLeod Trotter used newly discovered family archive material in reasearching her new novel

Janet MacLeod Trotter, who has written a new book, The Planters Bride
Janet MacLeod Trotter, who has written a new book, The Planters Bride

On the cover of Janet MacLeod Trotter’s new novel, The Planter’s Bride, is a striking photograph of a young woman in a beautiful wedding dress of early 20th Century vintage.

This is no mock-up or lift from the intenet. Rather, it is Janet’s grandmother, Sydney, shown posing on her wedding day in December 1923, a touch stiffly but with a beautiful bouquet of pale flowers in her hands.

It offers a glimpse of a bygone age and a taste of Janet’s latest novel, a sequel to The Tea Planter’s Daughter but set a couple of decades later in the 1920s.

Janet researched the first novel in her India Tea Series carefully and was inspired by the stories told to her by her mother who spent her early childhood in India.

But before she embarked on the sequel she was acquainted with a treasure trove of new source material including old cine footage of her mother and grandparents in India and also photos, letters and diaries documenting their lives overseas early last century.

 

One of the cine clips shows her grandparents, along with Janet’s mother and uncle as children, embarking on a trek in about 1930.

We see the children being lifted into a wobbly basket on the back of a pony and setting off down a treacherous-looking path in the Himalayan foothills. The clip shows Janet’s grandfather and mother throwing snowballs at the film-maker who, Janet assumes, was her grandmother.

“There are some even scarier bits of film,” says Janet.

“My mum always had a bad head for heights so it probably stemmed from being shaken around in a basket on the back of a pony.”

The films were among material stored in a box in the garage of Janet’s aunt’s home in Edinburgh. The material came to light after the death of her uncle, Donald Gorrie, in 2012.

“To find these incredible films has been absolutely amazing,” says Janet.

“They provide a graphic snapshot of my mother’s life in India when she was a little girl and I feel so blessed to have them.

“With the diaries and letters I have been fortunate enough to have access to a treasure trove of rich resource material. They are also wonderful personal memoirs.”

She adds: “The films have added the last bit of the jigsaw and certainly inspired the India Tea Series.

“Some of the clips show my mother at tea parties and others show my adventurous grandparents on mountain trips with my mother hoisted on a pram strung on poles.”

Janet’s grandfather, Robert Gorrie, was always known as Bob to friends and family. Among the cache of material which has recently come Janet’s way are his First World War diaries. She says she and her husband, Graeme, spent a year reading them, an extract a day over a cup of coffee.

“It was such a good read. He started off in the Scottish Horse as a 17-year-old and got posted to Northumberland. He was billeted in an old cricket pavillion at Blagdon Hall, where he nearly froze, and then at the biscuit factory in Newcastle because they were helping with wounded cases coming up from the south where the hospitals were getting congested.

“Eventually he decided he wanted to do something more exciting so he joined the artillery and got a commission. He was posted to France in early 1917.

“He was only about 19 or 20 and had a lot of responsibility but it seems he had a lot of fun as well. He lived for every moment and took advantage of every bit of local leave. His letters home are full of energy and life although obviously they saw some horrendous things.

“He was known to have a bit of a temper but his letters don’t show him as that kind of person so you wonder if he suffered some delayed shock. My mum was always told, ‘Don’t speak about the war to your dad’.”

After the war Bob Gorrie went home to Edinburgh and studied for a degree in forestry. He learnt Hindustani and went off to India where he acquired a new nickname, Jungli Gorrie, for his work as a conservator in the Indian Forestry Service based in the Punjab (now part of Pakistan).

Clearly he had an adventurous lifestyle. Janet reckons the reason her grandmother looks slightly apprehensive in that photo is that she hadn’t seen her fiancé in over a year and had just travelled out by ship with her parents from Edinburgh.

Janet says her mother, Sheila, was sent back to school in Edinburgh at the age of eight and lived with her grandparents. She never returned to India.

Grandmother Sydney returned home before the Second World War but her husband stayed and helped to keep the Army supplied with timber. After the partition of the country he worked for a while for the new government of Pakistan but finally returned to be be reunited with his family after a six-year absence.

“He died in 1970 and I have good memories of him,” says Janet. “My grandmother lived until I was 18. I was on a bus trip across India at the time but I sent her a postcard from Lahore (where she had been married in the cathedral decades previously) and I know she received it before she died.”

Among her childhood memories of Jungli Gorrie are of joining him for early morning yoga-style exercises and of watching the old cine films of India which she has become reaquanited with after many years.

Janet says her uncle, Donald Gorrie, who was Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West from 1997 to 2001 and then a member of the Scottish Parliament, had had his father’s war diaries put into book form and had donated the fragile old cine films to a national archive in return for a copy on video. This has now been transferred to DVD.

The Planter’s Daughter, telling the story of cousins and best friends Sophie and Tilly, will be launched at the Chantry Museum in Morpeth on Saturday at 3pm. Another book in the series is to follow but first Janet and Graeme are planning a trip to the tea plantations of India in October where they will be hoping to follow in at least some of the footsteps of Janet’s intrepid grandparents.

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