I like to remember my friend Barbara MacDonald on her birthday, 28 August. She would have been 107 this year. This is what I said at her post-funeral gathering in her home village of Moretonhampstead on Dartmoor on 30 September 2002.
Between the funeral this morning and this excellent gathering this afternoon I walked on Corndon Tor, to a special stone where Sylvia Sayer’s ashes are buried. Syl was a great friend, and Bar was too, and they were good friends of each other, so it seemed entirely right to make that connection today.
Tall, slim, imposing, with flaming red hair, Bar was unforgettable. Indeed the sight of her must have struck terror into her opponents’ hearts.
Her life spanned most of the last century: a time when it was difficult for women to make their mark, but not so for Bar. She was a brilliant communicator (perhaps due to her ancestry—her two uncles were Lords Northcliffe and Rothermere, the newspaper barons); she was fearless and she was funny.
Although I did not meet Bar until the early 70s, my story begins when she moved to Sanduck Farm near Lustleigh in the 1950s and became involved in fighting for Dartmoor and its livestock. Two things she could not tolerate were injustice and cruelty, and they came together in the plight of the livestock on Dartmoor: injustice because farmers were being paid to overstock the moor, cruelty because the subsidy money which should have been used for feed was filched for their own pockets, and animals were starving in winter.
The disaster reached its peak in the terrible winter of 1962-3 and Bar with others formed the Dartmoor Livestock Protection Society (DLPS). Over the next few years, as the prodigious newspaper cuttings show, she fought outwintering on the moor, overgrazing, the subsidy system and the export of live animals. She backed calls from government for a management plan for the Dartmoor commons and worked with the Commons Preservation Society (now the Open Spaces Society) to improve the Commons Registration Act 1965. She gathered evidence, called on experts, MPs and ministers, organised petitions and delegations and was tireless in her work.
Her letters, written in her characteristic turquoise ink, were a joy to read because they often had a streak of irony. Take for instance this letter to the Western Morning News in 1964:
It has been a mild winter: no emergencies; no dramatic rescues; no helicopter mercy flights; no outraged letters to the press—and practically no grazing for the outwintered livestock. Everyone sighs with relief and a complacent ‘all’s well’ atmosphere prevails.
But wait a minute! What is that peculiar smell? And what is that dishevelled bundle of wool behind that rock?…The answer is that it is spring time on Dartmoor, and there are sheep carcasses, which can be counted by the dozen…
The RSPCA and the police would have us believe that the first dozen found had succumbed to dogs, although their throats were intact…Another batch of corpses bear no marks at all…Perhaps we shall be told that they took an overdose of sleeping pills.
In about 1965 the DLPS published a booklet The Scandal of Dartmoor written by Bar. It condemned the outwintering and starvation of stock with phrases such as ‘Springtime on Dartmoor: primroses and putrefaction’. It contained stacks of evidence about the state of livestock, and the press was full of futile denials by commoners.
In all this she was harangued constantly by the farmers and the welfare societies who ought to have been on her side, but that did not bother her.
She became involved too in the preservation of Dartmoor and stood alongside Lady Sayer at the major public inquiries. She never forgave those who were responsible for flooding the Meldon Valley (it was completed in 1972). On her own she gathered expert evidence that the valley’s rock was unstable and a landslip could cause the dam to burst, but her evidence was ignored (she sent it to her solicitor for safe keeping as she felt it should be on permanent record).
And it was at a meeting about Meldon with the North Devon Water Board that she drew herself up to her full, impressive height and said ‘You’ve cooked the books’. Roy Slocombe from the board was red-faced with anger: ‘You say that again and I’ll.. I’ll…’ ‘You’ve cooked the books,’ said Bar calmly.
When I met Bar in the 1970s it was usually to attend the monthly meetings of the Dartmoor National Park Committee, sitting in the public gallery where we were, frustratingly, supposed to keep quiet. Bar brightened those occasions with her stage whispers about committee members, many of whom she despised. On one occasion, when they were failing to object to something we felt they should oppose, she said ‘What’s happened to them? Have they died and forgotten to fall over?’
Bar was great at getting press coverage, and you could rely on her to know what was going on and to tell others. Syl was always on the phone to her: ‘I must just tell old Bar that’ she’d say (‘old’ Bar was actually 8 years her junior). She was an active member of many organisations including the Ramblers, Open Spaces Society and Dartmoor Preservation Association. As a Dartmoor farmer she was able to speak with particular authority at Dartmoor inquiries and meetings—for often we were fighting the farmers who wanted development to occur on Dartmoor rather than on (low grade) agricultural land outside the park.
Even in her last few months she was fighting the Betton Way development in Moretonhampstead which she considered an outrage.
That’s Bar the fighter, but I must mention Bar as a family person and friend. I was lucky enough to live in her daughter Jill’s house for six years with all the comings and goings of that lively cosmopolitan family, and her sister Carley and her brood next door. Bar, or Pin as she was known to her grandchildren, was a regular visitor and always there to help when they were in need (which given their way of life was not infrequent!). She was a constant support to them without interfering. And although she spent much of her life in great pain from a back injury, she never grumbled. She was tremendously generous and cared about people.
I hope, as she sat at home during her last few weeks, made mercifully comfortable by her daughters and the carers, that she was able to reflect on her long life and recognise just what she achieved—for Dartmoor, its livestock, her family and her vast circle of friends. It was a life lived to the full. We shall miss the red-haired figure and the powerful turquoise ink.
Barbara MacDonald, 28 August 1912 – 15 September 2002