An enduring friendship ...

Dame Elizabeth Blackadder
Dame Elizabeth Blackadder

When two little girls started school in Falkirk 75 years ago, little did they realise that their friendship would endure to this day.

The connection between Elizabeth Blackadder and Dorothy Williamson has stood the test of time: from schooldays when they were able pupils, as well as accomplished hockey players, to student life in Edinburgh. Both then went on to teach, Elizabeth at the capital’s College of Art, and Dorothy at Falkirk High where she was eventually head of the school’s modern languages department.

Wherever their individual careers took them the pair shared the bond of friendship. Now that camaraderie is going to form part of a new exhibition at The Park Gallery within Callendar House. For Elizabeth Blackadder, who was made a dame by the Queen in 2003, is one of the country’s greatest painters. She is also Her Majesty’s Painter and Limner in Scotland, the first woman in the 300-year history of the office.

‘Journeys from Home’ has been organised by Falkirk Community Trust and looks at the distance Dame Elizabeth has travelled to become one of Britain’s most distinguished artists.

Meanwhile, a parallel exhibition at The University of Stirling, entitled ‘Journeys Together’, gives a glimpse of the extraordinary partnership between Elizabeth and her late husband, John Houston, himself an acclaimed artist.

Born in Falkirk in 1931, Elizabeth’s family were engineers who owned Garrison Foundry, close to MacFarlane Crescent. She grew up at 6 Weir Street, the first house in the town to have central heating.

She attended the First Infants at Falkirk High School, which in those days was fee-paying and had a primary department.

Dorothy clearly remembers their early days in the Rennie Street building, which later became Woodlands High but has now been knocked down and replaced with housing.

She said: “The fees were seven shillings and six pence a term and you used to give the money to Matt Kennedy who would be sitting at a table in the hall.

“It was a wonderful school and it’s quite sad that there isn’t anything like it in Falkirk today. The school was very much at the heart of the community and everyone living round about sent their children.”

Elizabeth attributes her draughts-manship skills to her father, who tragically died while she was quite young but her aptitude for art began to show when she was sent to live with her grandmother at the Holy Loch in Argyllshire during World War Two. Already with a keen interest in botany, she revelled in the opportunity to paint the abundance of plants, particularly those she found growing wild on the hillside.

Years later, her botanical paintings now sell for thousands of pounds and are much sought after.

Elizabeth has previously paid tribute to her Falkirk High art teacher James Scott, who encouraged her to make use of her obvious talent and who, according to Dorothy, was

held in high regard by the budding young artist.

But the pair didn’t confine their friendship to the classroom and were eager hockey players. “When we started out in third year we weren’t very good, but by the time with were in sixth year, we were unbeatable. I remember we used to go down to the Bleachfields for practice,” recalled Dorothy.

“Even at that age Elizabeth was a very private person, although she was very reliable and was appointed the captain of girls, whereas I was treasurer but wasn’t a lot of use as I lost the books!”

The pair’s connection continued when they went to study at Edinburgh University, a late decision by Elizabeth who had planned to go to Glasgow before discovering the university did a combined course with Edinburgh College of Art. They both stayed in Masson Hall where students were given just one bucket of coal each week to heat their room.

Dorothy added: “Elizabeth had her wally dugs, which have featured in her paintings, sitting on her hearth. I think that was the start of her collection of objects which she then uses in her work.

“She was and is a lovely person. Elizabeth never talks about her work except to say that she has no plans to retire as she doesn’t know what she would do.”

Although Elizabeth has lived in Edinburgh for over half a century, the pair remain in touch and Dorothy fondly remembers joining Elizabeth and John to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary. Sadly, he died a short time later.

In July an exhibition of Elizabeth’s work was unveiled at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, its major event for 2011.

The second portrait hanging in the vast gallery is of a young girl in her Falkirk High School distinctive maroon blazer. It is Elizabeth’s cousin Jean Blackadder, whose family used to have the garage at the foot of High Station Road.

“I was playing golf with Jean two days after I visited the exhibition and she remembered being bulldozed into being the model.”

Much of the work on display is from Elizabeth’s travels around the world, but it seems fitting that memories of her early life in Falkirk have been given a prominent place.