Classics Collection: “The River Calls Us Home”

The River Calls Us Home

When I first joined “The People’s Friend” team, more years ago than I care to remember, lots of my new colleagues kept mentioning a story.

It was called “The River Calls Us Home”, and was specially written for the “Dundee 800” celebrations in 1991. The readers loved it, and it soon earned a special place in “Friend” history as the most popular serial of all time.

Fast forward to 2019, and “River” is back! I am delighted that we are republishing this epic story as the first book in our Classics Collection.

To celebrate its publication, here is a fascinating article about how it all began. It appeared in the Argus, DC Thomson’s much-missed staff magazine, in 1991.

The River Calls Us Home: The Story Behind The Story

“I think we should have a serial to tie in with Dundee’s 800 celebrations,” said the editor.

“Yes, sir.” We sprang to attention. “Great idea, sir! Just the thing for ‘People’s Friend’, sir.”

“Right then,” he responded. “Get on with it. Let me have a synopsis.”

And that’s how it all started.

But where could the story start? What part of Dundee’s fascinating history could we use? Jam? Jute? Journalism (no, perhaps not!) Whaling? Ship-building? So much to choose from . . .

Suppose . . . our main character had seen it all? Or at least, a lot of it? Enter Christina Kennedy, born in the last century, the daughter of one of the last whaling captains. She lives to be a hundred and the story of her life – from affluence to poverty and back again – soon began to take shape.

Luckily we had a first-rate author living locally. And just as luckily Betty McInnes wasn’t in the least daunted by being asked to tackle such a spread of a story. Looking on it as a challenge, she settled down to tackle all the research.

As the chapters rolled off her typewriter we knew we had something special. Staff were queuing up to read about the Kennedy family. Not just the early instalments either – number twenty caught many wiping away the odd tear!

Who should illustrate it? Staff artist Norman Lee entered into the spirit of the venture, producing some brilliant paintings of Auld Dundee.

Then the problems started. Layouts took twice as long as usual – because the artist was reading every word. And proof reading was an anxious time because subs confessed they were so engrossed in the story they didn’t notice the odd spelling mistake! And typists were demanding to know what happened next . . .

The readers loved it!

At last it hit the streets. The readers loved it. The mail began almost immediately – no serial has had such a response before. Not just from Dundonians near and far, but from people who have never set foot in Scotland and were just looking for “a good read”.

Many readers have asked if “The River Calls Us Home” is available in book form. Not only that, there have been phone calls from libraries, and bookshops and trade papers, too. Some people are so desperate they’re taking scissors and glue and making their own compilation of the story.

And complete sets of the issues from April 13 to August 24 are being carried abroad to places as far apart as Canada and Australia.

One lady threatened her husband with physical violence because he threw out her “Friends” (instead of her pile of “Woman’s Weeklys”) – she was studying “The River Calls Us Home” for her “O” level English exam! And what about the lady who came to the door to thank “My Weekly” for such an inspirational story?

The supreme accolade came with a phone call from the Argus. They wanted us to tell them all about it . . .

It’s nice to have such a success. It’s also nice to be able to say thank you to all those involved. From Betty and Norman, through all the subs, typists, setters and artists, to the gentleman who phoned to tell us we’d spelt “Blackscroft” wrong. (Did we get it right this time?)

So what next? Just wait and see!

Click here for more great 150th anniversary content.

Click here to buy your very own copy of “The River Calls Us Home”.

Angela Gilchrist

Angela is Former Editor-in-Chief of “The People’s Friend” magazine. Her passions include cats, Highland ponies, good books, vegetarian food and long walks in the Scottish countryside. Her favourite place to get away from it all is the magical Isle of Skye.