John Purser – visiting Meikle Mochrum

As the latest in our growing collection of tributes to the writer Joan Ure, and reflections on her work, we’re delighted to present a remembrance generously contributed by the composer, playwright and author John Purser. Born in Glasgow in 1942 and now living in Skye, Purser is one of Scotland’s most important cultural ambassadors. His award-winning radio series and book, Scotland’s Music, is widely regarded as the essential authority on the subject. A champion of Scottish Gaelic, he continues to bring new passion to the Scottish cultural landscape. Further information on his work can be found at

(It may be of interest that, as indicated here, Meikle Mochrum is the location for the well-known photograph of Joan Ure, motorcyclist.)


I used to give evening classes on classical music on consecutive nights in Kirkcudbright and Dumfries. Sometimes I would stay the night with Betty who was living in a remote farmhouse a good half-hour’s drive from Kirkcudbright. The narrow roads at night in midwinter were full of speculative shadows and the light from distant car headlights was reflected at improbable angles from the underside of the dark, low cloud-cover. It was a spooky drive.

I would bring things, but Betty enjoyed giving me food, though she ate little herself. She was the best of hostesses. She almost mothered me – full of care, affection and encouragement: and herself full of desperation, questioning her right to be living on her own trying to write, and desperately conscious of the weight and significance of everything she wrote.

We would go for walks and then her anxieties would find some release. You could have said she was demanding company. Needy. But she was a giver and always thinking of others, not least the actors in her plays. I have kept a letter from her. It was written at Meikle Mochrum in 1973 and it brings her back into my company.  In it she writes

Oh John I don’t want Helen and Ida to wish they hadn’t bothered! So let’s hope that somebody sees the play and gives them work from it. Forgive my spilling out to you how desperate I get. Things have to be said ‘on stage’ so that if there’s anything inside anybody in the audience which felt bitter or something, it can be cauterised maybe.

She wrote, too, to my then wife, Wilma Paterson, who composed music for Joan’s play Rehearsal. Christopher Small was not impressed with the production, and felt the company could not ‘be much blamed if they have not found quite the way to make all this asking intelligible.’ But he liked the music, as did Betty:

But Wilma I do appreciate your having made such magic music. Thankyou very much and forgive my not having written sooner – I had to caper around all the week so that Christopher’s bad review would not take the heart out of the cast, and that Putting on of The Act is very exhausting with nothing left over for the real things.

The publication of The Tiny Talent is a wonderful thing to have happened. It is just so sad that, as it re-awakens interest in Joan’s work, she is not alive to know that her voice is still heard.

I think of some of her writing in terms of Beckett. She has a precision that can be almost philosophical, and an existential awareness that is sensitive to the point of neurosis. And there are levels of irony which at times seem almost impenetrable. But she possessed and conveyed great tenderness – and this is in the writing. She may have been frustrated, angry, rebellious, with a hatred for cruelty; but her heart was a heart full of love.

John Purser