Former Shetland Life columnist, hotelier and ‘legendary’ cook Ann Prior died recently, aged 66. Her friend Norah Rogers writes that Ann was an exceptional person whose sense of originality, fun and wide range of skills made her an inspiration to many people.
On 27th October 1997 on a remote island in the South Atlantic, Ann Prior wrote in her diary: “I am now – wait for it – writing from my tent on Grand Jason. Pity it’s rather cold and there’ve been a few showers in the night – however, I have my cup of tea and I’m rather cosy. How could I possibly complain when I’m doing the most exciting thing in my life, ever?”
Ann was driven to live a simple and impressively resourceful life. She was fiercely independent, had strong principles and cared deeply about the destructive impact of man on the environment, long before it arrived in the national consciousness.
She was a maverick.
After living a somewhat itinerant life, Ann chose to make Shetland her home. She had begun life in the southern hemisphere, on 9th December 1949 in Christchurch, New Zealand, daughter of Mary and Arthur Prior.
In 1959 the family emigrated to the UK and in 1966 Ann joined Oxford High School, where I met her. Her arrival in our sixth form was heralded by the rumour that the new girl had a published novel – The Sky Cage. This was soon followed by a sequel, Mirror Image.
From the proceeds of her books Ann bought a narrowboat, Medusa, which was moored near Oxford and in which she lived while studying English at St Hugh’s College.
Ann shunned any employment that might lead to her feeling trapped and allowed her desire to live near the sea to influence the ways in which she made her living.
In 1988 with her friend Bo Simmons, Ann bought and ran Burrastow House, overlooking Vaila Sound, which was almost immediately recommended in The Good Food Guide.
Then the job of seasonal cook for the Fair Isle Bird Observatory became available. She would work there for much of the following 30 years, to the delight of staff and visitors.
Ann inherited a love and knowledge of food from her mother and further refined her skills to become an excellent cook. Over the years Ann cooked for many people and organisations – some posh, some not – preferring jobs in isolated places.
The role of cook suited her well and left her free to walk, birdwatch, paint, spin, knit, write and read.
From a very early age, books were the great love and mainstay of Ann’s life. She had hundreds of them, almost exclusively stories of adventure and exploration both true and fictional, which she read and reread. Her collection of cook books was fascinating.
Over the many years she returned to the observatory for the birding season, she gained considerable fame for the high quality of her cooking and for being one of the founding members and acclaimed royalty of The Glorious Sisterhood of Observatory Cooks.
Perhaps most famous of all, her cheese scones were legendary.
Few folk will know that she also loved to sing, especially folk ballads, and had a lovely voice.
One time in the “Obs” kitchen Ann was persuaded to sing a little opera, something from Dido and Aeneas, and everyone was surprised by her unexpectedly powerful voice.
Many will know Ann for her cookery articles in Shetland Life which, with its wonderful mixture of recipes and personal stories, she wrote for many years. In more recent times Ann was the school cook for Walls Primary School where it’s been said that the children enjoyed cuisine of stupendous quality.
Shetland was the place Ann lived the longest – in Happyhansel, Walls. When she was first diagnosed with cancer she stayed with friends Helen and Peter in Aberdeenshire, who looked after her. She was an easy patient and on leaving said, “It’s been nice being ill with you guys”.
However, in 2011 Ann regretfully made the decision to leave Shetland. She moved to Torry, Aberdeen.
Here she could watch the ships in the harbour and walk to the Torry Battery to watch the birds and dolphins.
Ann loved boats and was a good sailor – whether it was steering a Zodiac round a school of Minke whales off Fair Isle, sailing yachts in the South Atlantic, or racing in a yoal regatta, boats always held a fascination for her and she loved to slip their names into conversation while recounting her adventures, Golden Fleece, Penelope, Wild Pigeon.
She jumped at the opportunity to join me on a four-day canoe trip down the river Tweed to the sea.
Aberdeen also offered her a place where her diverse friends were likely to be passing through. She had frequent visitors with whom she spent happy evenings sharing her stories, accompanied by a glass or two of sloe gin and the odd whisky.
From here she could also easily take the ferry to Orkney.
Ann was drawn to islands. Her family had sailed to Britain via the islands of Pitcairn and Curacao and she later, en route to the Falkland Islands to cook in hotels and on ships, set foot on Ascension and St Helena. For many years Ann chose to live in perpetual summer, alternating her employment between the northern and southern hemispheres – between Shetland and the islands of the South Atlantic.
It was during this time that Ann met Ken, a marine officer. Together they sailed to remote islands while assisting with bird-related projects and during her time as postmistress for South Georgia they explored deserted whaling stations against a background of battling elephant seals and nesting albatross.
In Leith Harbour, South Georgia they found several items dating back to the life and work of whalers, which Ann donated to the Shetland Museum.
Ann was broadly creative and hugely enjoyed designing and screen-printing the annual T-shirt for the Shetland Women’s Festival.
As a student she painted florid frescoes of voluptuous men and women on ceilings in Oxford and became adept at reproducing the roses and castles of traditional narrowboat decoration. She made pen and watercolour landscapes throughout her life, including views across St Kilda while working as cook for the National Trust conservation team. Even in her last few months Ann gained much pleasure from learning new painting techniques from the artists in residence at Roxburghe House.
In May 2015 cancer returned. During her treatment, borne with great fortitude, Ann moved to Peterculter where she lived independently for several months.
Then determinedly in March this year with the support of friends, she found the strength to make two visits to Orkney. Sadly, soon after this last adventure she died, on 27th April.
Ann’s funeral was held in Aberdeen with a parallel service in Fair Isle. She is survived by her older brother Martin.