The Girl from the Farm

This isn’t the blog I planned to write.  But it’s a story I need to share, a kind of spreading of the pain.

I was just four years old when I started school in 1956.  I remember that first day well.  My mum walked me to the school.  It was about two miles.  But I figured I was a big boy, and could find my own way home.  So I insisted that she didn’t come to get me at the end of the day.

Of course, I got lost.  And there was a great hullabaloo.  Memorable first days!

But there is something else that sticks in my mind about that particular first day.  I fell in love.  How ridiculous is that!  Four years old.  But I did.  With a little girl I had cast eyes on for the very first time.  Her name was Jennifer, and she lived on a farm a couple of miles away in the opposite direction from where my house was.

She had a beautiful dimpled smile, and pigtails in ribbons, and she used to dip her head coyly and look up at me with lovely dark eyes.

Jennifer aged around 6

Come Saturday morning I told my parents I wanted to go to the farm to play with her.  And to my dismay I was expressly forbidden.  It was too far, and entailed the crossing of two busy main roads!

So, naturally, the following weekend I made a secret trip to the farm without telling a soul.  I carefully crossed the first main road, and then walked the rest of the way on farm roads till I could see her farm in the distance.  To avoid the second main road I took a short-cut across the fields, running with arms windmilling past a startled bull before it had a chance to take stock and charge at me.

Jennifer and I played games among the bales in the barn.  And I had my first ever kiss there.  I went back over several weekends, until one fateful day her mum took it into her head to phone my mum to ask if I could stay for lunch.  And the cat was out of the bag!

No more illicit visits to the farm.

Jennifer aged about 10 or 11

But our relationship continued off and on through the seven years of primary school.  The final dance, before heading off to secondary school, was called the Qualie (qualification) Dance.  And it just happened to coincide with one of our off periods.  So I asked a girl called Irene to go to the dance with me instead.

The week before the dance I received in the post a letter from Jennifer.  She couldn’t understand why I hadn’t asked her, and suggested that my friend Derek could take Irene and I could ask Jennifer instead.  It was signed “The Girl from the Farm”.  I still have that letter today.  But it was all too late, and I have regretted all my life the hurt I caused her.

The letter

I went to the dance with Irene, and Jennifer and I went on to different secondary schools.

Years later, working as a journalist in Glasgow, I saw an article in the paper about the first ever policewoman to take charge of a traffic patrol car.  It was Jennifer.  And then a year or so later, I met her in the High Court when I was covering a murder trial, and she was accompanying a child witness.  We exchanged a few awkward words, and I never set eyes on her again.

Fast forward to a few short years ago.  I had finished writing my series of China Thrillers, and started work on a new, totally different novel set in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland where I had spent five years filming a TV drama series.  In the story, much of the narrative involves the main character’s recollections of his childhood, growing up on the island, and for inspiration I drew heavily on my own childhood years.

Jennifer featured prominently and became the character called Marsaili.  The illicit visits to the farm, the kiss among the bales, became immortalised in the text.  Even the letter from “The Girl on the Farm”.  The book is called “The Blackhouse”, and it will be published by Quercus on February 3rd.  So a few months ago I thought it would be fun to track Jennifer down to let her know that our childhood adventures had made their way into fiction.

But when I went searching for her on the net, there was no trace of her to be found.  From my home in France I managed to track down the farm, and look at it courtesy of Google Street View.  No longer a working farm, it has been converted into an elegant upmarket residence.

I searched “Friends Reunited”, where former pupils and workmates reconnect.  No sign of her.

Eventually I accessed the National Archives of Scotland online.  At the ScotlandsPeople Centre, it is possible to track down the registration of births, deaths and marriages.

To my astonishment there was no record of Jennifer’s birth between 1950 and 1952.  I widened the search, figuring that maybe Jennifer was her middle name.  Still no luck.  I wrote to our old school.  No reply.  It was as if she had never existed.

Then a few days ago, I tried searching through the marriage records and cross-referring them with birth records.  Which is when I discovered that a Janet with the same surname, born at Carluke in Lanarkshire in 1952 (not that far from the farm Jennifer’s father tenanted), had married in 1977.  Then four years later, she remarried.  The marriages were registered in the Mearns and Eastwood district where we had grown up.

I was almost certain that this was Jennifer.  There were no other possibilities.  Maybe her mother was called Janet, and they had used the name Jennifer to avoid confusion.  But not another record could I find of her anywhere.  And so in an attempt at absolute verification I tried one last place.  Registration of deaths.

And there, in 2002, recorded in the district of Mearns and Eastwood, was the death of that same Janet.

There was still an outside chance that I was wrong.  But then, by a strange quirk of fate, that very same day I finally received a reply to the query I had sent to our old school.  Someone there knew of Jennifer’s family.  My hopes were raised, only to be dashed almost immediately by the news that my searches in the national archive had brought me to the correct conclusion.

That little girl whom I’d fallen in love with on that first day at school, was dead.  And a little bit of me died too, when I learned that.

In the book, my main character, Fin, gets to see Marsaili again – eighteen years later.  Here is the moment…

He slowed and turned down on to the Macinnes drive and stopped the car in front of the garage doors. A blink of moonlight splashed a pool of broken silver on the ocean beyond. There was a light on in the kitchen, and through the window Fin could see a figure at the sink. He realized, with a start, that it was Marsaili, long fair hair, darker now, drawn back severely from her face and tied in a pony tail at the nape of her neck. She wore no make-up and looked weary somehow, pale, with shadows beneath blue eyes that had lost their lustre. She looked up as she heard the car, and Fin killed the headlights so that all she could see would be a reflection of herself in the window. She looked away quickly, as if disappointed by what she’d seen, and in that moment he glimpsed again the little girl who had so bewitched him from the moment first he set eyes on her.

I don’t know why I should have believed that any of us is immortal.  But somehow, I really always thought I would see wee Jennifer again.

I am in touch now with her family.  She is survived by her sister and two sons.  And I wanted them to know that even although Jennifer passed away eight years ago, she lives on in the words I wrote, and in the memories I have of those days on the farm.

About Author Peter May

International best-selling author of several series of books: the Lewis Trilogy - "The Blackhouse", "The Lewis Man" and "The Chessmen" - The Enzo Files and the China Thrillers, as well as standalone novels including "Entry Island", "Runaway" and "Coffin Road".
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64 Responses to The Girl from the Farm

  1. D.J. Kirkby says:

    Wow. What a post! I look forward to reading The Black House.

  2. Inge Kutt Lewis says:

    John played this song so many times for so many different reasons. One I know for sure, he did hope to see you again. Just finished reading “Freeze Frame” today, so you were on my mind. Damn, damn, damn.

  3. Bill Hill says:

    Nice new blog, nice piece. We’ve all done things we wish we could go back and fix. But then our lives would probably not turned out the way they did, would they? “Water under the bridge” is the only way to look at the past…

  4. maypeter says:

    I’ll be in London for the launch of the book in February, DJ, so if I see Carol I will try to get her a signed copy for you.

    Inge, I would have given anything to have seen John again, to sit and talk, and laugh, and chew over stories. He has a very special place in my memory.

    It’s true, Bill, we can never go back, and probably wouldn’t even if we could. I have lost a number of close friends over the years but every one of them still lives in my heart. And in the end, what are any of us but the sum total of our memories?

  5. Carol says:

    That was one hell of a first post Dad!! So sad…we always think we have all the time in the world and then suddenly there is no time left at all!

    On a different note, what do you mean if you see Carol? Just you try and stop me coming to your book launch! (and I have a sneaky suspicion that if she can make it DJ will be there too!)

    C x

  6. maypeter says:

    It seems strange, Carol, to be grieving for someone who died eight years ago, but it feels to me as if it just happened yesterday. I feel so sad for her. She was just 50, so think about it… that’s only 15 years older than you! Live your life to the full!! My publishers were so moved by the post that they are putting excerpts up on their website and linking to the blog.

  7. Donis Casey says:

    Sounds like karma, Peter. You know someone the moment you clap eyes on her. Maybe you’ll meet again next time around. and p.s. I also insisted on walking myself home on my first day of school and became similarly lost. I found my way back to school and the janitor walked me home (more trusting days). We met my mother on the road, looking for me in a panic, my baby sister perched on her hip.

  8. maypeter says:

    Ahhh, Donis, the days of independence – and the days when it was safe for kids to walk the streets. These days all the kids get taken to school in cars. A sad decline in trust and morals in present day society. And now I just sound like an old person!

  9. Wow, I really enjoyed reading that and it has left me with a lump in my throat. I will definitely be looking out for this book next year. Peter, will you be coming “up north” to do any signings?

  10. maypeter says:

    I certainly very much hope to be touring and talking about The Blackhouse throughout the UK following publication in February, BW. Dates and itinerary still to be fixed. This was a particularly sad postscript for me, following the writing of the book, but I am happy to say that Jennifer’s family are taking a great deal of comfort from the fact that she has been remembered in this way.

  11. Great, I’ll keep an eye out for the itinerary. I like the sound of this book.

  12. Peter
    Dust in the wind…………….all we are (eventually) is just dust in the wind


  13. Sharon Gilmour says:

    Enjoyed The Black House immensely! Can hardly wait until The Lewis Man comes out!

  14. Al says:

    Just read the Black House a couple of weeks ago it is the best book I’ve read to date. So many reminders of my childhood growing up in late 60`s early 70`s in Scotland. Funny, sad, loving and dark, an utterly beautiful thing. Thank you so much.

    Can`t wait for the Lewis Man.

    • maypeter says:

      Hi Al, thank you so much for your kind comments on The Blackhouse. I am delighted that you enjoyed it. We are obviously contemporaries – or nearly (I would guess you are a bit younger than me). It is very rewarding to know that I have been able to strike a chord with my peers. The Lewis Man is out at the beginning of January.

  15. Darla Sue Dollman says:

    A touching, emotional story. So sad, and beautiful. I wanted to cry when I finished reading.

  16. Simon Haigh says:

    Hi Peter. I loved the Black House and look forward to reading Lewis Man next. Thank you for sharing ‘The girl from the farm’.

  17. Alan says:

    Hi Peter,
    The Lewis Man. Once again thank you for a beautiful book, I was a bit worried it might not be as good as the Black House, however it did not disappoint, I can`t get enough of these stories. Can`t wait for the next one.

    Many thanks

  18. Morag Bell says:

    Loved The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man. I got Lewis Man on audio and downloaded it onto my ipod and listened to it in the car. I am a nurse working in the community in a rural setting (Orkney) so many longish drives between calls sometimes, problem was I didn’t want to get out of the car when I arrived. Spent my lunchtimes looking over Scapa Flow and listening. I’ve got my friends hooked on your books too, especially Etta my colleague who hails from Lewis. More power to your pen Peter, loving your stories and eagerly awaiting The Chessmen.

    • The Blackhouse was beautifully read, too, Morag by an actor called Steve Worsley. I got a very clear image of you sitting in your car, buffeted by the wind, gazing out over the wild seas as Tormod told his tale. I shall think of that while writing my next book. The Chess Men will be read by the same actor who read The Lewis Man. Hope you’ll enjoy it, too.

    • Morag Bell says:

      I forgot to say I also have the books!

  19. Linda Haynes says:

    Just as I began to read your blog….I thought hey up! (I’m from lancashire) I recall this story, but how sad to hear of Janet’s death. Twenty years ago, I decided to have a school reunion. We would all be ‘around’ the 40-years-old mark, my goodness Peter, I was so shocked to learn about five deaths of my dearest old school friends, it was so sad. The reunion still took place and we remembered our friends. I hope to organize another reunion as we all approach 60-years-old in two years time and again we will recall old friends we never forget. I know make sure if I see an old friend passing by, I will always make the effort to say hello…..we never know what is around the corner. Thank you for sharing a little piece of you Peter.

    • It’s a shock, isn’t it, to discover that your contemporaries have passed away? Intimations of your own mortality. My best friend, Bryan, died aged 30. And years later I discovered that the young man who played drums in my teenage band had died aged 24. We really just need to be grateful for the time that we have, use it fully, and not fritter it away. Thanks for writing.

  20. Linda Haynes says:

    sorry, typo….”I now make sure”

  21. Sue Choppers-Wife says:

    I have a friend in Paisley who has been sending me books to introduce me to some Scottish authors. I remember after reading The Blackhouse (the first time) that I had mentioned to her how sad it was about the letter from the farm girl and that’s when she told me if was a real part of your own history worked into the book. As a matter of fact she gave me this link so I could read your words 🙂 I really like your style of writing…I just re-read the book as I’m waiting for The Lewis Man to come in the mail. I grew up in the same time period in upstate New York and I’m fascinated by the cultural and everyday life differences we experienced, so polar opposite. It’s one of the reasons I love reading. What I love about your stories is that even though the solving of a murder is the central theme, most of the book is about the relationships around it, rather than just about the police work surrounding a murder. It made for very interesting reading and you painted beautiful pictures with your words. I’m truly looking forward to The Lewis Man showing up at my door. .

  22. Gina Deen says:

    How interesting to hear that Marsaili was based on a real person from your life. I’m not surprised that her family have loved the connection to Janet in your novel. I would love to visit Lewis and do a tour of the venues there. I have them all in my head – that’s the wonder of skillful writing. I need a ‘timeline’ of your books so that I can read them in order. Mind you, I started with the Lewis books so maybe I should go backwards! Best wishes.

  23. Andrew A Millar (Drew) says:

    I bought all three of your books for my Kindle Fire, (due to the wife, a Bankie, being fed up of my bookcase bursting at the seems), after Christmas and read the Black House over 2 days. WOW!!!
    Having been born and raised on Skye Fin’s youth shouted out to me of the days of my youth in Tote and latterly in Portree.
    I could picture those walks to the bottom of Tote road from our home on our fathers parents Croft to get the bus for the 1.5miles to the top of road leading to my wee Primary school….no matter the weather we loved the walk….even remember otters one year running up the burn at the side of the road and chasing them all the way…(we were only 5/6 so please forgive us)…
    I could smell the peat, my Grandfather murdo over in Borreraig used to cut his own and loved them smell when we visited them.
    The above memories and more came flooding and i jumped straight into Lewis Man and I’m now a third of the way in….work is interfering with my reading 🙂

    I know its a trilogy but do you plan more from the Hebrides?

    I now have your China Thrillers on my wishlist ready to purchase when I’ve finished the Lewis Trilogy.

    Best Wishes,

    • Hi Andrew, I’m so pleased you are enjoying the books. Fin’s story definitely ends with the trilogy. However a substantial portion of my new book (which I am just about finished) also takes place in the Hebrides. But it is quite different. Should be out this time next year.

      • Andrew A Millar says:

        Don’t let me distract you then get back to work :-D…..
        As I’m sure all your fans are waiting for it with anticipation……I know I am
        Thank you for taking the time to reply to my wee post.

  24. Sue says:

    Just finished reading The Lewis Trilogy and absolutely loved it. Is there any chance we’ll see these as TV drama – that would really be the icing on the cake !

  25. Barbara says:

    hello Peter,
    I first heard of your Lewis trilogy on a visit to Australia from Joch,an ex Scot now living in Canberra. I was telling him that my grandmother was raised in North Uist and how proud that made me. I have visited Uist to visit relatives and feel myself constantly being drawn back to a magical place and people.My great grandfather came from the beautiful island of Bernera between Uist and Harris. Having travelled throughout the Outer Hebrides, walking on those amazing beaches and gazing at the awesome mountains I am proud to have links to such a unique environment. Your stories are wonderfully evocative and took me right back there again to hear the washing of the waves and lilting soft Gaelic which was granny’s first language. A very big thank you for three gripping stories.Barbara

    • Delighted you have enjoyed the books, Barbara. Watch out for “Hebrides”, a photo companion book to the trilogy coming out in October. More than 200 amazing photographs of the islands, and text explaining my relationship with the Hebrides, and the locations picked for the books. Also, next January, a standalone to follow the trilogy set between the Hebrides and Quebec.

  26. Brenda Webster says:

    Hi Peter,
    Your books were recommended to me by my daughter and I have just read The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man one after the other. I love crime novels but these were the best I have read. We spent a week on Lewis and Harris a couple of years ago and your descriptions of the countryside, coastline and the weather are spot on – fortunately we did see some sunshine so could appreciate the incredible beaches. Having visited the spot where the Chessmen were found I can’t wait to read the next book. Thank you so much for these books.

  27. sara says:

    Hello I read the Blackhouse a few years ago and didn’t realise there were more. Just finished the other 2 in 2 days and my 17 year old daughter is reading them. Have to say Lewis Man was my favourite! We frequently holiday on Skye, must try and venture a bit further.

  28. Sally says:

    What goosebumps your story gave me! I almost feel I have to re-read the trilogy! It won’t ever be quite the same knowing your story.
    After a trip ‘home’ to the Hebrides in 2012 it was my godfather that first suggested I read your Lewis trilogy…
    ‘Home’ is perhaps incorrect, after all I’d never been there…not in this trip on earth…a Glasgow girl who moved abroad aged 15…I have always felt a pull to those isles…and finally with family in tow we spent 3 of the best weeks of our life, meandering through the isles.
    The land, the language, the people…we were all left spellbound.
    My heart was left in Berneray, that tiny island that another of your readers mentioned above. As far as I am concerned simply heaven on earth!
    Thanks to your books I was able to relive those weeks. Thank you!
    I also thoroughly enjoyed your next novel ‘Entry Island’. It seems I have a fascination with islands.
    Nowadays I am a rep for a book wholesalers and I am delighted to be able to enthrall about your books for a living! Indeed there are not many of my clients who haven’t read your books but I hope that my enthusiasm will mean that there will always be one more reader who discovers your talent!
    Thank you for sharing such a personal and heartfelt story.

    • Life is full of sadnesses, and wrong turnings and missed opportunities, Sally, so for me it is quite therapeutic to be able to write about some of them. And I am glad if some of the things I write about touch others, too. It is wonderful that you finally got to visit the islands. The strange things is, although I am Glasgow born and bred, too, going back to the islands now feels like going home. I was on Harris in March, for one short week, in dreadful weather, and didn’t want to leave. It is the setting for the book I am currently writing, so at the moment I am spending every day there, although physically I am in the south of Spain. It’s a funny old world.

    • Incidentally, Sally, you can better follow what I’m up to on my FB author page, where I post more frequently – and recently some fabulous images of the Hebrides:

  29. RswHS2 says:

    I have just finished the Lewis trilogy and it has changed me. I grew up on a small croft near Uig in Lewis, and I cannot commend highly enough how well you describe life and the land. The stark (barren at first glance), harshly beautiful landscape and people who are fiercely loyal. I have fond memories of peat cutting, gala days, school in Stornoway, and you have brought many to the surface for me once more. Thank you.

    It makes it all the more real to know that Jennifer/Marsaili is now immortalised in the books, and I like to imagine Fin and her finally rekindle their lost love following on from the books.

    Any idea as to screen adaptation? The people of Lewis would welcome you with open arms (most of them!) 🙂

  30. Ann Sharpe says:

    i have just found Peter May, through a review, I am now working my way through his books. I cannot imagine these books being turned down. Just my cup of tea. What a wonderful setting to read and dream of the landscape.

  31. Joe Boyd says:

    I just finished the Lewis trilogy. It was wonderful. I found the books while cruising around Scotland, Ireland and England. We stopped in the orkney Islands. Wow, the books were a great read, but what happened to Fin and Marsalli? They are young enough for a new family. With all of their hurt they need to heal together. Any more books about them? I plan on reading all of your books now. They are coming to America. Sincerely, Joseph Boyd MD FACC Nashville, TN USA

    • Delighted you enjoyed them, Joe. All three have now been published in the States. My new book, “Entry Island” came out in the US just two days ago, so you should be able to get your hands on it.

  32. Sandra Inglis says:

    I have just read The Blackhouse again and have enjoyed it even more the second time around. I initially didn’t realise that the author was the Peter May that I had watched – I think at Giffnock Tennis Club playing in a band. I too went to Carolside Primary and Eastwood High School, two years behind you and have been fascinated to read of your progress since your premature departure from Eastwood. Runaway was a great story! I am in a book group and have chosen The Blackhouse as my choice for this month. I’m looking forward to reading the next two books in the trilogy and wish you continued success. Ps I was Sandra Thomson

    • Hi Sandra. Delighted you are enjoying the books. It was probably at Clarkston Tennis Club that you saw me playing with the band, although I think we did play Giffnock once. If you were two years behind me, you probably knew my first wife, Katrina Hutcheson. I think I remember the name Sandra Thomson, but I’m having trouble putting a face to it. Were you a friend of Gill Pennman?

  33. carley says:

    I loved The Black House! Thank you so much.
    I am embarrassed to ask, however, but what is the significance of the title? What is the black house?
    carley, from New York city

    • There are many references to blackhouses in the book, Carley – the stone-built thatched dwellings that people on the islands used to share with their animals. The Blackhouse of the title refers particularly to the small blackhouse on An Sgeir used by the guga hunters.


    The blackhouse was the first of your books I read while on holiday in outer hebrides .What a shame you didnt find Jennifer before she died.a lovely childhood story

  35. JIM says:

    Looking at the photographs it’s not surprising you should fall in love, a happy time in your young life and memories carried through your life, makes the Blackhouse more meaningful. Looking forward to the next book set in our beautiful part of France.

  36. Peggy Williams says:

    I read it on audio book beautiful Scottish accents I felt I was living the story. I did fun the falling in love at 4 a bit far fetched even for mature Scottish bairns!

  37. Jennifer says:

    This is a lovely story-sad of course. I am just discovering your books and am almost through The Black House. I started it last night and have not been able to put it down. I am an ardent lover of good murder mysteries and the European authors of the genre in particular, so I was delighted to come across your books at my local bookstore. Three quarters of the way through and I have decided that your book is really a love story: of Lewis Isle, of the savage beauty of the Hebrides, of first loves, of friendship and memories that shape us. I don’t yet know who killed Angel but the story of Fin is mesmerizing. Thank you.

  38. Liz Davie says:

    Hi Peter, I’m currently reading the black house again whilst in France with Ken, – enjoying it as much as the first time. Hope you both remain well.

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