1954 - Christmas Day, 2021
On the last walk Mary and I did together she took me to a small loch near Castle Douglas, where Mary of the Moss once lived. I’d never heard of Mary of the Moss, but through Mary’s story I was able to imagine her in her snug cottage looking out on the water. Later I found a painting of Mary of the Moss in Galleries in Kirkcudbright which I sent to Mary. Mary of the Moss is sitting by her fire, kettle on the swee, with a cat, flowers on the windowsill; and assorted hens, just as I’d imagined. Mary of the Moss feels like a final gift from her namesake Mary, one of so many.
Mary’s writing was grounded in the landscape, life and language of Galloway, from childhood travels with her father, who was the A.I. man (artificial inseminator for cattle) round the farms. She attended school in Castle Douglas and Kirkcudbright. Her Galloway poetry literally goes back to bedrock; unimaginable time and space is encapsulated in a small landscape: Stars in a richly textured sky/reflected in dark pools. She writes in Scots and English, and, tentatively, in Gaelic. She always said she needed more time for her Gaelic.
She seemed hefted to Galloway, but she was born, and lived her first six years, on Islay; she retained an islander’s eye for detail along with awareness of wide horizons. She knew her own country so well, all the better for having been long years away from it. She left to work for Oxfam for ten years in Blackburn. All her life she passionately upheld, and campaigned for, justice, freedom and equality. Blackburn Oxfam supported a leprosy hospital in Karachi, and Mary used her holiday to go out there and see for herself what it was like. She started working there at once, and there she met and married her husband Jon. Their son David was born in Pakistan. This was the beginning of many years working first in Pakistan, then in Afghanistan.
Photo credit: Dumfries and Galloway Council
Afghanistan became Mary’s other country. Her book Before the Taliban* is a portrait of a land, and the women, children and men who belong there. Mary knew how to write down the quality of friendship, and make readers feel it too, towards people they’d never met and who would never know them. I still know these people - Mary’s friends - by name; I lie awake wondering what has happened to them. The book is much more than a travelogue: the publisher’s first request was that Mary put herself into the book too. In the first draft the pronoun ‘I’ wasn’t used once. Mary was never one to talk about herself. Her astonishing career would emerge elliptically, over the years, usually in parenthesis. She was far too concerned with bearing witness to what she saw, to talk about herself.
During those years, after the Marie Adelaide leprosy clinic, Mary established a project setting up clinics and training local Afghan women as primary health workers among the villages. Conditions were often difficult and dangerous. Mary observes it all with compassion and a keen eye for the sheer beauty of the place: the sky at night, the delicious taste of mulberries, the desolate war-torn villages, dangerous roads, border crossings and high passes. Mary made many breathtakingly intrepid journeys. She never saw it like that.
When Mary, Jon and David came back to Castle Douglas, Mary studied and took a first class degree in Liberal Arts. She became a journalist, working for both ‘The Galloway News’ and ‘Dumfries and Galloway Life’. Her novel ‘No More Mulberries’ revisits Afghanistan and explores a more intimate cross-cultural relationship. Mary went on to do a Creative Writing masters at Glasgow University. Tom Pow, the convenor, told her that poetry was a compulsory component. Stand-off… Mary “didn’t write poetry”. But Mary succumbed. Her very first poem encapsulates the creative tension between two countries that often informs her poetry:
Litany of names, Iqbal, Shahnaz, Chaman….
Smell of cow-dung, goats and dust,
Mingling with vetch and clover.
And the scent of a little white rose
That would break MacDiarmid’s heart
Mary’s writing is lyrical, passionate and political. She never stopped teaching either, or encouraging others in groups such as Dumfries Writers, which she convened for many years. During our lockdown group writing project Writedown there was a terrorist attack on a maternity hospital in Kabul. Mary knew one of the midwives; in fact she had trained her mother. Mary wrote her immediate response to our Writedown group, ending: ‘I’m sorry. I’m not good at keeping bad news to myself, bottling it up. I need to tell someone, talk to people – and tonight you are these people.’ For Mary, writing, like life, was about co-operation, compassion, and sharing what must be said, however desperate.
I was privileged to work with her for six years, teaching residential writing workshops at Durham Hill in Galloway. Mary always remembered everyone - we had many regulars - and took endless trouble with their work. We were known as the M&Ms. Some funny things happened, we had some interesting punters. For me it was an unfailingly delightful partnership. And that was only a small part of the teaching, mentoring and support that Mary gave to others almost till the end.
Mary’s last long journey is recounted in her blog: https://marysmithsplace.wordpress.com/ Passages about the cancer journey are interspersed with memoirs of Afghanistan. Mary undertook that last journey with the same courage, humour and pragmatism as every other journey she undertook. Her last entry is entitled ‘Finishing line in sight.’
Over four hundred people all over the world tuned into the celebration of Mary’s life. Very different people and places have in common a fine writer who spoke for them, expressed what their lives are like, and what it means to belong where they do. Many of us will miss Mary very much. But her writing will endure, and will enhance many lives yet.
*Republished as Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni, 2012
Margaret Elphinstone is a Scottish author of novels, short stories and poetry. She is known especially for The Sea Road, a re-telling of the Viking exploration of the North Atlantic and is Professor Emerita of Writing in the Department of English Studies at the University of Strathclyde.
Mary Smith, who died aged 65 in the early hours of Christmas morning, 2021, was a friend and much valued member of Dove Tales. She contributed to our first anthology and took part in our first event for Celtic Connections, speaking movingly about her work with Afghan women. She was what you’d call a nippy sweetie, impatient with pretentiousness and suspicious of false friendship, yet feisty in fighting for what she believed in.
When she first became ill again – she’d had cancer once before - she was trying to maintain normality in her life and we talked about her doing an event for Dove Tales about Afghanistan. She’d spent ten years of her life working in a health project which specialised in mother and child care and leprosy and had written about the experience in both prose and poetry.
Initially it was going to be at Chrys Salt’s Big Lit festival in Gatehouse of Fleet, but Mary discovered she was double booked so we thought we’d do something on zoom instead. Then came the ill fated US withdrawal from Afghanistan, with thousands of people swarming Kabul airport in an attempt to flee the country.
It seemed the ideal time to talk about Afghanistan and particularly Afghan women, not only because Mary had worked with them but because the thousands of people swarming the airport were mostly men, scrambling to get out while the people who would suffer most under the Taliban were the women.
Mary said she couldn’t do an event because she was too angry. Personally I’d have welcomed hearing her express her anger because many of us shared it, but it was not to be.
We talked too about how we’d love to share a bottle of wine together but were never able to do that either. I regret that even more. I’d have loved to sit up half the night putting the world to rights and having a laugh with such a fine, honest person as Mary. I wish I'd known her longer.
Jean Rafferty, chair Dove Tales
Mary's book of poetry, Thousands Pass Here Every Day, ranges from the creation of the Scottish landscape to the dusty towns and high mountain passes of Afghanistan.
This poem shows Mary's wit and clear thinking - there is more than one definition of education:
They laughed at me sometimes,
the women. Not unkindly
but with amusement
and bemusement as they unpicked,
yet again, my crooked stitches.
Or when I took my turn at spinning
the stone that turned the matted fleece
into wool, they'd smile behind their hands
at the fankle I
When I admitted
I couldn't milk a goat
nor turn my hand to churning butter
they shook their heads and said,
We thought in your country
women were educated.
Thousands Pass Here Every Day
Indigo Dreams Publishing Limited, 2012