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Dodd, Elizabeth [pseud. Lavinia Derwent] (1909–1989), children's writer and broadcaster, was born on 23 February 1909 at Overton Bush Farm in the Cheviot hills in the Scottish borders, the third of five children of John Dodd, farmer, and his wife, Bessie Wood, née Lamb. Her parents were reticent though kind, which together with her position in the family—she felt she ‘got lost between batches’ (Strickland)—made for a rather isolated childhood. According to her memoir A Breath of Border Air (1975) she found security in the company of Jessie, the odd-job woman in the farm, who recurs as the most important figure in her childhood memories. She attended Edgerston primary school and Jedburgh grammar school. On leaving school, still in her teens, she became housekeeper to her brother, an unmarried church minister. The experience is described amusingly in a further memoir, Lady of the Manse (1983), but a friend has commented that ‘it swamped what might have been a wholly different kind of adolescence’ (Wishart).

When her brother married, shortly before the Second World War, Dodd moved to Glasgow. Initially engaged by the publishers Collins for a fortnight as a caption writer, she was appointed to a permanent post as assistant editor (or ‘dogsbody’, as she described it), and remained with the firm for some thirty years. Adopting the pseudonym Lavinia Derwent, which she thereafter used for all her work, she compiled and edited a number of children's books for Collins, a demanding job which left little time for her own writing. During the war she also worked in a forces' canteen in Glasgow.

Her breakthrough as a writer came in the 1940s when her ‘Tammy Troot’ radio stories, superbly read by the actor Willie Joss, were broadcast on the BBC's Children's Hour. The protagonist, a lovable if slightly conceited young trout (‘Ah'm a clever wee troot!’), became a household name in Scotland. He featured in a newspaper cartoon strip and collections of his adventures were later published. Dodd's flat, at 1 Great Western Terrace, Glasgow, was latterly full of ceramic, glass, and plastic trout ornaments: ‘It's not my fault, I get given them all the time’ (Strickland).

Dodd began to write for newspapers and periodicals and published a romantic novel, Dinner of Herbs (1950), but by far the largest part of her work was for children. The success of Macpherson (1961), the first of a thirteen-title series of children's novels about a Glasgow errand boy, allowed her to become a full-time writer. She published many children's books over the next two decades, alternating retellings of fables and Bible stories with the adventures of Macpherson and Tammy Troot, and for slightly older children a popular four-volume series, beginning with Sula (1969), set on a fictional Hebridean island and featuring a crofter's son who could talk to seals. She was also in demand as a public speaker and broadcaster. In the 1970s she wrote and presented the series Teatime Tales for Scottish Television, and during the same decade several of the Sula novels were dramatized and filmed on Tiree for BBC children's television. She was made an MBE in 1970.

Dodd was an eye-catching figure on the Scottish literary scene, ‘dressed … in vivid, stylish colours which defied any attempts at co-ordination yet resulted in individualistic glamour’ (Wishart). Her seven volumes of memoirs, written for adults and published between 1975 and 1988, provide a lively and impressionistic account of an early twentieth-century childhood and girlhood, but behind the idyll ‘there is a painful honesty about the fact that this life-enhancing tomboy failed to match the blueprint demanded by either her parents or her siblings’ (Wishart). Dodd needed to spread her wings ‘beyond the Borders’ (the title of her last memoir), and beyond the expectations for a girl in that time and place, to fulfil her potential. Based in Glasgow all her adult life, she never married, but had a wide circle of friends, and travelled extensively. She was a member of the Soroptimists and of several writers' organizations, and was the first woman president of Scottish PEN. Dodd suffered a severe stroke in the late 1980s and died in the Park Nursing Home, 12 Park Terrace, Glasgow, on 26 November 1989. Her children's books and autobiographical works have retained their popularity and are probably most notable for the liveliness and humour which friends recall as her main characteristic.

Moira Burgess

Sources  

L. Derwent, A breath of border air (1975) · L. Derwent, Beyond the borders (1988) · R. Wishart, ‘Tammy Troot's creator leaves an echoing “Hooray”’, The Scotsman (28 Nov 1989) · G. Strickland, ‘Drawn from memory’, Radio Times (4–10 March 1978) · private information (2005) [local history librarian, Scottish Borders Archive] · b. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

Mitchell L., Glas.


Likenesses  

J. Grayson, photograph, repro. in Radio Times (4–10 March 1978)