Caroline Wickham-Jones: a generous friendship

A turning-point in life is reached when the first member of one’s own circle of close friends dies. As an archaeologist, Caroline had of course encountered death many times before and its many legacies became a profession at which she excelled: she was never one to mince her words, hence the lack of euphemism.

Caroline’s family, her friends and her colleagues will all still be in shock at her death, for Caroline always seemed a good deal more alive than most of us. She leaves a gaping hole in so many lives and hearts.

Like many of Caroline’s friends I suspect, I had not understood the serious nature of Caroline’s illness. She had enjoyed Christmas at home, then flown to Aberdeen, which I had thought planned treatment for an ongoing condition and therefore serious, but still routine in nature.

As fate decreed I found out the terrible news from Guille, Caroline’s son, just as I was in hospital being prepped for surgery myself. This was a situation which Caroline herself would I suspect have found darkly humorous (her laughter, her dear kind warm voice, I will miss them so). We shared an ability to see the ridiculous side of many of the bleaker moments of our lives, especially as mothers.

Her academic work may have been formidable, and surely worthy of its own archive, but it is her son Guille who is Caroline’s best legacy. I remember her exciting trip to Chile (at the time she was living in Edinburgh), her relationship with Alejandro Lopez, Guille’s remarkable sculptor father – and then how she settled down to embrace single parenthood and make it her own, at about the same time as I was having Matilda, my elder daughter.

Guille is a talented, sensitive young man who has inherited remarkable gifts from both his parents. He was – still is I am sure – Caroline’s pride and joy and quite rightly so. She would take great comfort in knowing how loved and supported he is at present by both friends and family.

Caroline was capable of bold moves and remarkable reinvention, both personally and professionally as a consultant archaeologist (her work in the latter field others will be better qualified to talk about in detail). Caro and I knew each other from our university days, way back in the 1980s. It is one of those old friendships whose roots are buried so far back I cannot pinpoint a precise point of origin, but it must have been a student coffee at some point. She was a year or two ahead of me. Then our paths crossed again during a Heritage Management postgrad at Ironbridge, and her old friend Jill Harden stayed with my mum in Fortrose for some reason lost in the mists of time, so I think a reconnection with Caroline may have been made then too.

It is hard to remember. Caroline has just always been there.

When Mark (my first husband, whom I met at uni too) and I moved back to Edinburgh from London in 1989 and I began to work for the National Trust for Scotland, our paths crossed once more with Caroline’s. She was generous as ever, helping us settle in as Edinburgh residents and introducing us to interesting friends. There was always a warm welcome at her elastic-walled house in ‘The Dudleys’, a curiously village-like square of flat-topped Georgian houses in Edinburgh surrounding the local bowling green.

We shared a love of cats and I remember how her large and friendly cat (either Kilmory or Harris, can’t recall which) became a Six-Dinner Sid, enjoying the hospitality of at least three other households in the square. Once, when called for his tea, Kilmory (or Harris) trotted straight for home across the centre of the bowling-green where a nail-biting national competition was taking place, much to the amusement of all – except the competitors.

Cats were always a purrmanent fixture in Caroline’s home

With her lifelong interests in anthropology and archaeology, art and craft, her house in Dudley Gardens was crammed with wonders, each artefact attached to a fascinating or funny anecdote from her travels. Her illustrated lectures from this time were jaw-dropping: I remember visiting both Outer Mongolia and Easter Island with her over the years through her remarkable slides and reminiscences of people and place. Her ability and generosity as a landscape archaeology photographer should be celebrated too.

One of Caroline’s photographs of Kilmore on Rum where the Rhum Brew discovery helped make her name

In those early years Caro was working part-time for the Society of Antiquaries for Scotland as its Secretary, affectionally – and not inappropriately from her tenure there – dubbed ‘The Antics’. I briefly became an ‘Antic’ myself and enjoyed some excellent heritage site visits she organised, notably to the costume collection at the Victorian Gothic Shambellie House, getting to know her interesting, clever parents, who sometimes came along too.

Caroline’s move to Orkney was an inspired one both for her and for Guille. Surrounded by rich archaeology and a kind and nurturing community they both thrived there, Caroline producing some of the definitive archaeological guides to the archipeligo.

Her list of publications – her writing style always curious, accessible and readable – is phenomenal. Her support and advice to other authors, like myself, was unstinting, reassuring and kind, even in the face of archaeological idiocy, and she found our ineptitude (‘but why wouldn’t they have pulled standing stones along upright and from the front…?’) a source more of amusement than of irritation.

I am certain Caroline will become acknowledged as one of Orkney’s great documentors by future generations, as they discover and rediscover her peerless work.

When I was writing Major Tom’s War Caroline was one of my key beta readers. She was so encouraging and gave me some excellent advice, recommending I go with a smaller publishing house and not one of the big boys. We shared a common need to control our work and ensure it was of the highest quality possible.

Caroline was so naturally intelligent and talented that she could often unsettle others in her field less confident of their abilities. At times she found the backbiting (and occasional backstabbing) tiresome, especially when linked to institutional misogyny, but I know she did also rather enjoy ruffling establishment feathers on occasion.

When our children were all small and after I relocated from London back to the Black Isle in the early 2000s, we often holidayed in Orkney. I deeply regret having only been able to come up to stay with Caroline twice in recent years, attending my first St Magnus Festival in (I think) 2017, then 2019, when I spoke on Major Tom’s War. Caroline has been quietly accommodating St Magnus Festival performers and attending festival events for years and was always ready to support community activities in Orkney.

Orkney visits will never be the same again.

Caroline’s other more personal achievements too should be recorded. The purchase of the field beside her house to prevent house construction and to secure wild mouse-hunting land both for her feline friends and the ghostly cattieface owls or hen herriers which glide up and down it at dusk was a huge source of pleasure and pride. She was also beginning to channel her love of the Orcadian landscape into artwork, producing some remarkable felted standing stones in exactly the right shapes and colours. If you have one (I do not, alas) treasure it!

Caroline, standing, among stones!

It is a small consolation to me that we did see each other here in the Black Isle fairly recently, as Caroline was able to attend my second wedding in December 2019, a happy small gathering of our very closest friends and family. In her usual practical way Caroline asked me what she could do to help, and we agreed on some flowers for my hair designed by her talented flowery friend Ruth Alder. It was an unimaginable little touch of luxury and I have dried and kept the circlet. We had the only sunny day that winter and Caroline took some of our best pictures on the icy beach afterwards.

The blushing bride at sunset – taken by Caroline on Rosemarkie Beach on 31st December 2019

I always felt that Caroline ‘got’ me, when not everyone does, and I suspect that is a sentiment many of her friends may share, that ability to relate to us all as a valued individual. All the friends who attended that wedding day are like family to me, and I mourn Caroline now as I would a relative.

The last time I saw her was fleetingly and by chance in Academy Street, Inverness. We had already met up for a late lunch and a catch-up at Storehouse of Foulis during that brief period when early Lockdown eased. She had booked a hotel in Inverness for a few nights just to have a breather from home turf. I was coming out of lovely Leakeys book emporium just as she was going in – a favourite haunt for us both. She looked happy and relaxed and we laughed at the coincidence and then parted, without any idea that it could possibly be for the last time. And COVID of course meant I could not hug my friend goodbye that day.

COVID has deprived us of so much in the way of normal contact with friends and family and I am only relieved that the restrictions had eased enough to allow Guille to be with his mum in hospital at the sudden end of her all-too-brief but loving and brilliant life.

Caroline Wickham-Jones packed more into her years on planet Earth than most centenarians. She should be an inspiration to us all: if there is something you need or want or should do, then do it now, generously and with a smile. Carpe diem, seize the day.

Author: veewalkerwrites

Hello new readers. If you enjoy my blog why not try my prizewinning novel of WWI, Major Tom's War? It's available as a revised and expanded second edition in paperback and on Kindle. You can order it via my lovely publisher Kashi House at www.kashihouse.com or from any good bookseller.

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