FOR decades, publishers and readers alike were deceived by an audacious literary hoax.

The Field Of Sighing: A Highland Childhood was originally published by Longmans in 1966. The book’s author and narrator, Donald Cameron, describes his early life in Blarosnich, a remote hill farm in the Western Highlands in the 1930s and early 1940s. The book presents a Brigadoon-like spectacle of an agrarian community seemingly little touched by modernity, populated by pious women, elderly aristocrats and lusty farm lads.

The Field Of Sighing received favourable appraisals, including from the Aberdeen Press and Journal, whose reviewer claimed that the experience of reading it could add the “spiritual riches of the Highland survival to 20th-century industrialised society”.

In 2003, Edinburgh publisher Birlinn, produced a new edition of The Field Of Sighing with a critical introduction by Professor Ronald Black, then senior lecturer in Celtic Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Yet Donald Cameron remained a mysterious personality about whom little was known, his identity an unsolved puzzle disputed by scholars. Black also noted that Cameron disappeared following the completion of a second volume, Sons Of El Dorado.

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Scant biographical details suggested he was a sailor who had left the Highlands to join the Merchant Navy, and who was perhaps to be found “exploring in South America in whose ports he felt most at ease”.

Donald Cameron was, in fact, a pseudonym of Robert Harbinson Bryans, an itinerant bisexual schoolteacher turned travel writer who was born in Belfast in 1928 and died in London in 2005. Also known as Robin Bryans, his name is now largely forgotten apart from among students of plots and conspiratorial claims.

But at one time, it was liable to provoke consternation and alarm. Bryans’s career faded in the late 1960s, following the publication of an edited collection of stories which he had claimed were written by real authors but were in fact all his own work.

He appears to have suffered a psychological breakdown which incapacitated his creativity, and he spent the remaining decades of his life in obscurity, sending scandalous open letters to public figures and former friends, and occasionally emerging for courtroom appearances.

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To identify Bryans as Cameron is straightforward, as the link is made by the Robin Bryans’s literary estate and his biographer, Patrick Maume – who notes that further pseudonyms may yet come to light.

This information had not emerged in the early 2000s when Ronald Black penned his critical introduction. However, Black had doubts over the veracity of the manuscript, pointing out inconsistencies, and concluding that the narrative seemed to be an account of an English boyhood transplanted to a Highland setting.

THE geography of The Field Of Sighing was known to be imaginary. Blarosnich is a fiction and its supposed location deliberately vague. But the plot, too, is a fabrication. It is believed that Bryans had spent time during the 1950s in the Morvern area working on a farm, and this furnished him with material for his Highland fantasy.

“Donald Cameron’s” fictional biography is extremely similar to that presented by Robin Bryans in the 1960s, not least that they are around the same age, and that “Cameron’s” disappearance coincided with Bryans’s legal troubles and mental breakdown.

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They are both urbane explorers, fascinated by South America.

It is far from clear why Robin Bryans, who had no obvious connection to Scotland, decided to embark on his masquerade as “Donald Cameron”.

Bryans, who suffered from mental illness, may have even begun to believe that he really was “Cameron”. A more prosaic explanation is that he simply wished to deceive a publisher.

The Field Of Sighing displays striking similarities with the rest of Robin Bryans’s 1960s literary output. The preoccupation with nature, fascination with aristocrats and perceptive portraits of elderly women are all recurring features of his writing.

‘Cameron” tells of falling in love with a distant and unobtainable inhabitant of the local “big house”, a scenario mirrored by Bryans’s own marital ambitions in the 1940s.

Homoerotic content is a recurring feature of his writing. It might be thought surprising that such material appears in the folksy melange that is The Field Of Sighing.

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Here, queer fantasies centre around the character of Black Fergus, the narrator’s teenage best friend, who is depicted both as a personification of the fecundity of nature and of rugged masculinity.

“Cameron” enjoys “writhing and wrestling on the forest floor” with Fergus, skinny dipping with him in the suggestively named

“Pool of the Stags” and sweatily dancing with him at village ceilidhs, where they “were like two of the young seal bulls we watched at down on the skerries”.

It seems extraordinary that this kind of material should have been overlooked by discussions of provenance and possible authorship.

Ultimately, The Field Of Sighing should be understood not as a depiction of the Highlands, but as a minor example of Queer Irish fiction.

Sources: Patrick Maume, ‘Bryans, Robert Harbinson’ in Dictionary of Irish Biography:

Ronald Black, ‘Introduction’, in Donald Cameron, The Field Of Sighing (Edinburgh: Birlinn, New Edition) 2003)