Elizabeth Fleming was born around the turn of the 20th century at Carmuirs Farm, just outside Falkirk. She had Highland ancestry; her paternal grandfather was Donald McKechnie, known as the Bard of Jura. Elsie, as Elizabeth was known, contracted diphtheria as a child, followed by polio when she was six, which left her without the full use of her left arm and leg, and she used crutches for the rest of her life. The family moved to a farm at Hainey in Cambridgeshire when she was about seven, and she and her brothers were educated at a local private school. By the age of fourteen Elsie had started sending letters to the children’s corner of the Weekly Scotsman, and her first published poem appeared in The Girl’s Own Paper. In her family memoir she mentions writing a poem about a local character, and having it published in Country Life when she was still in her teens. During the First World War her elder brothers joined up (one was commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps, and would occasionally land on the field near the house to pay a visit).
After the war Elsie spent many holidays with relatives in Gourock. They were fluent Gaelic speakers; she says that from that time she stored up a great fund of Highland lore and tales for future use, and believes that she must have inherited from her grandfather her love of poetry and folk-lore, and Gaelic language and culture. Another Highland cousin used to take Elsie and several other relatives on trips along the West Coast on his yacht, where she gamely managed to adapt her crutches to being on board. They also visited Jura.
Gammon and Spinach, her first collection of poems for children, was published in 1927, with illustrations by Hugh Chesterman, though as Elsie says – ‘Alas, it came out at the same time as A.A. Milne’s masterpieces, and though it was quite well reviewed … it was a short-lived effort.’ But in the 1920s and into the ‘30s she had several poems published in Punch, some illustrated by Ernest Shepherd, and had pieces included in many other periodicals and anthologies. She also wrote ‘grown-up verses’ for magazines, but said (in 1974) that she had never collected them for publication and felt they would no longer have any appeal for present-day readers.
Elsie and her sister never married, and stayed with their mother on the farm at Hainey until during the Second World War, when it was sold, and Elsie went to be a companion to an elderly friend in the Midlands. It was an occupation that allowed her time to do quite a lot of writing, and she had poems included in anthologies, and a number of lyrics set to music. But her chief interest at that time was writing verse-plays based on playground games which were published and used by the Education departments of New Zealand and Australia. She remained in the Midlands during her later years, and died in 1979.
Some of Elsie’s poems for children have stood the test of time and still charm little ones – many are to be found on the internet, with recorded and animated versions.
With thanks to Elizabeth Fleming’s family for access to the family history and information for this article.