R.I.P. Iona McGregor, 92, in March 2021 (British historical novelist)
From Lenona@21:1/5 to All on Tue Jan 25 21:19:19 2022
Born in Aldershot, England, she graduated with honors from the University of Bristol and then lived most of her life in Scotland. (Not to be confused with the Australian-born Scottish novelist.)
Her other books are mostly historical novels for teens.
(I found two remembrances of sorts, but the Legacy.com obit is inaccessible right now. She died at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, March 14th, 2021.)
From Contemporary Authors:
Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, Scotland, sub-editor, 1951-57; teacher of classics at schools in Canterbury, England, 1958-62, and in Cheslehurst, Kent, England, 1962-69; St. George's School for Girls, Edinburgh, teacher of Latin, beginning 1969.
JUVENILES; PUBLISHED BY FABER EXCEPT AS NOTED
An Edinburgh Reel, 1968.
The Popinjay, 1969.
The Burning Hill, 1970.
The Tree of Liberty, 1972.
The Snake and the Olive, 1974.
Edinburgh and the Eastern Lowlands, 1979.
Death Wore a Diadem, St. Martin's Press (New York City), 1989.
Bairns: Scottish Children in Photographs, National Museum of Scotland, 1994. Getting Married in Scotland, NMS (Edinburgh, Scotland), 2000.
Sub-editor of Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, Edinburgh, University Press. Author of "A Kind of Glory" (radio play), first broadcast on August 18, 1971.
McGregor's novels are usually set in Scotland, but The Snake and the Olive is an exception. Set in ancient Greece, this book relies on the author's background as a classicist to relate the story of Hippocrates, the father of medicine. According to a
Junior Bookshelf reviewer, "the Greek historical situation and way of life takes its place naturally in the book."
The story of Hippocrates "is told," said Marcus Crouch of the Times Literary Supplement, "sympathetically and with neat character sketches." It illustrates the future physician's struggle to decide whether he should espouse inspiration or science. As a
youngster born on the island of Cos, Hippocrates watches sick pilgrims flock to the temple of Ascelpios, the god of healing. He has two role models, each representative of one polarity, from which to learn: his father, the scientific doctor devoted to
Ascelpios, and Antigenes, the political, superstitious high priest. By the end of his apprenticeship, Hippocrates comes to know that he must transcend superstition and temple rituals to create more scientific methods of healing.
McGregor once told CA: "I would describe myself as a `period' rather than a `historical' novelist since the setting is a focusing lens for the quirks and clashes of my (very private) characters. It is not an excuse for dramatizing the great public events
in which they sometimes find themselves involved. For whatever reasons, the distancing effect of a remoter period helps me pick out the pattern of circumstance and personality I wish to use. An additional bonus is the wider social and technical details I
can use in such a setting. Sixteenth-century gunnery and medicine are within my scope. I doubt if I could say the same about their modern equivalents.
"The minute detail found in research, boosted by an interest in the stone building of Scotland, generates character and incident for me. Call it pump priming if you like. Anyway, what is a historical novel? All novels are historical fiction since they
all modify and interpret past experience."
Hearing of the death of my friend Iona McGregor, aged 92, who was an author and teacher, several gay Scottish friends, not given to cliche, commented: “It’s the end of an era.”
What they meant, I believe, is that the Scotland of Iona’s youth and middle years was a different universe from the world we live in today – and that living through that time marked someone out. It was a harsh, unforgiving environment. Sex between
men remained illegal until the early 80s; and, although that law did not apply to women, the stain of criminality seeped into the whole of gay life.
Iona was a brave and inspirational pioneer in the struggle for gay rights that got under way in the 1970s. Working with others in the Scottish Minorities Group, she helped to create safe spaces in Edinburgh in which women could meet socially, and to
develop a befriending service for those emerging, blinking, “out of the shadows”, in the tabloid speak of the day.
Involvement of this kind was very courageous as she was teaching full-time and would have lost her job if her activities had become public knowledge.
A member of Scottish PEN, and a keen hill walker and traveller, Iona always preferred sun to shadows – unless the latter were of the dramatic kind that marked the Scottish history that she loved and wrote about vividly, both in novels and in scholarly
but accessible studies. Her novels, for a core readership of young people, included much-loved titles, The Popinjay, An Edinburgh Reel and The Tree of Liberty. The National Museums of Scotland commissioned essays on subjects like childhood in Scotland.
After retirement, Iona felt able to mention what had been previously been unmentionable, and in 1989 published with The Women’s Press the novel (for adults this time), Death Wore a Diadem, memorably described by a cultural researcher as “a heady
combination of a thoroughly researched historical novel, a comedy of manners, a melodrama, a lesbian romance and a cosy crime whodunnit”.
Born in Aldershot, Hampshire, Iona was the daughter of Michael Joseph McGregor, a teacher in the Army Educational Corps, and Clarice Mary (nee Watkins). She was the eldest of three sisters. Based in Perthshire during Iona’s childhood, the military
family was split up by war and postwar appointments.
As with many gay people of her generation, friendship was central to Iona’s life. In harsh times bonding was essential to survival. Perhaps partly because there was no form of legally recognised partnership (civil partnerships were introduced in the UK
only in 2004), friendship offered a particularly broad canvas, marked by variegated and contrasting colours. Iona was a loyal friend to many, including gay men she had socialised with in the 1950s and 60s, radical (and riotous) lesbians from the 1970s
and 80s, and, in later years, serious-minded members of Edinburgh U3A.
Iona’s early education at Morrison’s academy for girls in Crieff was continued at Bury convent high school, now in Greater Manchester, where the family moved in 1940. During her time at the convent, she was said to have “kept arguing with the nuns
about Darwin”. Thanks to a scholarship, Iona became a boarder at Monmouth school for girls, after which she studied classics at Bristol University.
Iona’s sister Masry predeceased her. She is survived by her sister Ailsa, and by nieces and nephews.
This article was amended on 25 May 2021 to say more about the centrality of friendship in Iona McGregor’s life.