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Anne Leitch Dunnett - Obituary

31st May 2017

Photograph of Anne Leitch Dunnett - Obituary

Anne Leitch Dunnett, born 11.08.1932 John O'Groats, Caithness: died 24.04.2017, Wick, Caithness.

Miller's daughter who compiled a lengthy 'reference book' for her home area, regarded as a role-model for Scottish social history.

Anne 'Nancy' Dunnett, nee Houston, who died at the age of 84 at Wick's Town & County Hospital on April 24th, will be best remembered for conceiving, editing and producing 'Lest We Forget: the Parish of Canisbay' .

The 471-page volume, containing scores of vintage illustrations, told the story of life, work, people, events and places in Scotland's most Northerly mainland parish, mainly over the past two centuries. It was first published in 1996 and later re-prints are still available.

It was a labour of love that took Nancy five years to compile, but it sold thousands of copies and substantially funded the building of a new Church Hall alongside the medieval-origin Canisbay Parish Kirk, where her funeral service was conducted by the church's Minister the Rev. Lyall Rennie on Saturday, April 29th, 2017.

As stated by her cousin Rognie Brown in his eulogy, the reference volume, printed on A4 pages, has often been cited as a model for a Scottish community social history project.

As well as arm-twisting to convince dozens of local people and those with Far North links to write and/or loan their period photographs or drawings, she used her tactful, persuasive, powers to access previously-unpublished accounts of past life and industries on the Caithness shores of the Pentland Firth.

Her Houston forebears 400-year association with the Far North and that fact that she was born into a corn-milling agricultural family with a 250-year record of business there, meant that foodstuffs and history would be recurrent themes throughout her life.

Nancy was the first-born of two children to miller Magnus Houston and his wife Annie; her father possessed legers etc. of the family's business dating back to 1750, when a direct ancestor commenced milling at a site dating back to the Viking era.

After schooling at (now closed) John O'Groats Primary and Wick High, where she excelled in science and maths, a teenage Nancy Houston enrolled at the Domestic Science College in Atholl Crescent, Edinburgh, (now part of Queen Margaret University) where she qualified as a school-teacher in 'home economics'.

Her career commenced in Aberdeen, before leaving for a lengthy spell in Canada and the United States.

On her return to Scotland, she taught at Golspie High, in East Sutherland, before coming 'home' in the mid-1960s, commuting daily from the Mill House as 'department head' in Wick High.

'Miss Houston' innovated with classroom concepts that, at the time, were regarded as near-revolutionary. She started crash- courses in cooking for senior boys, while she introduced then-exotic bolognaise dishes and curries, showing that such meals could be prepared economically and were also nutritious.

She had commenced her literary efforts ... anonymously ... in 1991 with the 'John O'Groats Cookery Book' : in 'Lest We Forget' she returned to that theme, getting contributors to list over 50 'Recipes from Yesteryear', that included preparation instructions for salt-preserved traditional ingredients.

After retiring from teaching, she started a small B&B establishment in the house she had built for herself, a stone's throw from the Mill House. It lay within 100 yards of the mid-17th C. stone single arch structure, said to the oldest military bridge in the Highlands, from Oliver Cromwell's era.

Links between Nancy's family and Canisbay Kirk go back a very long way.

As James Black stated in his classic The Surnames of Scotland (1946): 'People of the name of Houston in the Canisbay district (there pronounced Houghstoun) are descended from Rev Andrew Ogstoun. minister of Canisbay, Caithness 1601-1650'.

The family's milling business continued until the sudden death of her younger brother Magnus in 2001, in a building designed by a close antecedent Billy Houston, who had trained as an engineer in Glasgow.

Now a local Trust has been formed to restore the stone-built Mill ... a listed building ... to working order. A notable product was 'bere-meal', ground from the ancient quick-growing barley-like cereal. For millennia, 'bere' was the main crop of NE Caithness, Orkney & Shetland and used for baking un-leaven 'bere-bread', the area's once-staple foodstuff. Bere was also malted for brewing and (unofficially) for distilling.

115 years after the Mill was built, a direct descendent of Biily Houston, through his maternal line, arrived at Nancy's doorstep. Naval architect Rupert Raymond, from London, is a senior consultant in the construction of the world's first sea-water 'horizontal hydro' tidal stream electricity 'demonstration project' in the Pentland Firth's Inner Sound, with its landfall half-a-mile from the ancient Kirk.

Romance blossomed for green-fingered Nancy 'three quarters of the way through adult life', as her eulogist put it during her funeral service.

Prominent bio-scientist Dr Jack Dunnett, MBE, a native of Canisbay, had been in charge of the potato-breeding programme at the Government's Pentlandfield Plant Research Station, near Edinburgh, where he was involved in conceiving many of the 'Pentland' varieties of 'spuds'.

In 1976, he returned home to Canisbay to establish himself as Scotland's first independent 'tattie' breeder for generations, relying on royalties from new varieties that he had created for his income.

The Caithness Potatoes Company, that he founded with the support of several Perthshire-based seed growers, expanded to have an annual turnover of several millions of pounds.

Several of the new varieties that he bred ... notably Nadine and Stemster ... became best-sellers in supermarkets, not only in the UK, but in Australia and New Zealand. Dr Jack Dunnett bred other varieties suited for semi-arid growing conditions in North African markets (Egypt, Algeria & Tunisia etc.) where those were notably successful.

Nancy first worked with Jack in the editing his book 'A Scottish Potato Breeder's Harvest'. His second volume of the same name was published 'free on-line'. He used it to argue that a 7,000-year-old 'freeze-drying' process developed by the Indians of the Altiplano of Peru and Bolivia, to create 'chuno', a non-perishable potato product, could have a 21st Century 'twist'.

He stated that it could be adapted using modern technology ... and utilising crops grown in desert conditions... to provide an emergency food-source for UN-supported famine relief in sub-Saharan Africa. (Published on-line by Caithness.org).

A Scottish Potato Breeders Harvest - Part Two

After he was widowed, Nancy and Jack found romance and were married at a ceremony in Southern Germany officiated by a pastor friend of hers.

Lifting experimental 'blooms' of potatoes provided her with a new purpose in life, as she helped out in his research programmes in breeding and testing new 'tattie' varieties, in the bio-laboratory, greenhouses and outdoors in soils in various parts of the UK.

Over the past six months Nancy became increasingly frail as her health deteriorated.

Nancy is survived by husband Jack, an elder at Canisbay Kirk, her sister-in-law Sina and her grown-up nieces Janet and Anne.

As eulogist Rognie Brown observed at the service: 'Sadly there goes so much knowledge, despite her tremendous achievements in capturing folk history'.

At the service, she chose a hymn 'Come, Let Us To the Lord Our God', written by Dr John Morison, (1746.1798) Canisbay Minister from 1780 until his death in post..

Inspired by watching the changing sea-states of the Pentland Firth's Inner Sound from his manse's North-facing window, it contains the memorable lines:-

'His voice commands the tempest forth,
and stills the stormy wave,

His arm is sure and strong to smite,
But also strong to save'.

(Church of Scotland Paraphrase no. 30).

Bill Mowat and Rognie (Rognvald) Brown

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