DEBORAH Orr, the journalist and author, died of cancer last week at the age of 57. Her friend Catherine Bennett, the Observer columnist, described her as “one of the cleverest, most unconventional, most fearless people on the planet”.

Like so much of her writing, Deborah Orr’s death will have a lasting purpose. She has bequeathed to Scotland her eagerly anticipated book Motherwell: A Girlhood, destined to become one of our nation’s greatest pieces of autobiographical writing.

Her book will be published posthumously in the New Year. Orr completed her autobiography when she knew she was dying and it has already been hailed by those who have read an advance-proof copy as being a work of brutal honesty and searing self-analysis.

The cover alone is redolent of a Scotland of the not-so-distant past. Deborah is photographed in the early 70s, as a young girl, in saturated colour and a powder-blue frock, standing alone outside the entrance to the council house where she grew up in Motherwell.

What is innovative about her memoir is that it works against expectation. Her upbringing was working-class but within a settled family home with none of the drunkenness, abuse and violence that has dominated much of the literature and television drama of west central Scotland.

According to the industry bible The Bookseller, it is “memorably framed through a series of long-retained objects from her childhood which Orr discovers in a bureau she inherits from her parents — among them a lock of her baby hair, her parents’ wedding photograph, her school reports. The result is an utterly riveting, often blackly comic and astonishingly honest debut memoir, striking in its understanding of how the places and people we come from make us who we are.”

Like myself, Orr’s mother was English, and her relationship with her mother dominates the book. Orr describes her as a “brilliant housewife” who was accomplished, resourceful, vivacious, terrifyingly well-organised and copiously talented as an artist and craftswoman. “When I was little, I worshipped her,” she said. The title of the book teases away at their relationship, as it reflects on social ambition and local expectations about the place of women in industrial Scotland.

Like many of her generation, the more she herself succeeded the more aware she became of her parents’ generation and their self-sacrifice, suppressing ambition and educational opportunity to rear children in post-war Scotland.

Her mother was adamant that her daughter would conform to convention and become an exceptional housewife but, determined to break away, Orr left home to study at St Andrews University. She then moved to London to what became an outstanding media career as a writer and an editor.

The photograph of Deborah on the cover is taken on the eve of a very restless nation.

She is standing in front of the family’s council house, with enough green trees jutting up from a shared garden. It is hopeful and charming, which breaks with the Scottish writing and photography that reflected the teaming slums of the Gorbals and Glasgow’s huddled back courts.

It was nonetheless an era of profound social change. She grew up in the days when telephones were scarce but when kids from council schemes were given full grants to study and when The Open University offered education to the thwarted opportunities of the Scottish working class.

It was the early days of a different Scotland. Deborah was a newly born baby when, in 1954, local green fields were excavated for the first stages of the Ravenscraig steel plants with their raging coke plants, giant blast furnace and open-hearth melting shops.

Winnie Ewing would capture the neighbouring constituency of Hamilton in one of the most significant by-elections in Scottish political history, and the miners’ strike, followed by the three-day week, rationed electricity and turned the dark-end of Motherwell pitch black.

By the time Thatcherism betrayed Ravenscraig, Orr was already in London and a well-established writer.

Therein lies another hidden part of her story. Ravenscraig is now a towering symbol of post-industrial decline, but Deborah Orr’s departure is an individual story in the incalculable drift of talented Scots to London.

It was the early years of what became the creative industries – writing, fashion, music and the performing arts – and the haemorrhaging of talent, in many cases lost to Scotland forever.

I FIRST met Deborah Orr in the offices of City Limits, the radical listings magazine based on Upper Street in Islington, in the heart of Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency. We were never personally close but, as Scots working on the same magazine, it was inevitable that we would fall into those conversations common to our culture: the yearning for a morning roll, how to eat a macaroon bar on a new carpet and the oddness we spotted in the rituals and language of the posh people that dominated London’s publishing world.

For several months the magazine shone a light on London’s immigrant communities and I remember us talking animatedly about the burgeoning communities in London, and why the Scots had never ghettoised.

The Irish had congregated in Kilburn and Cricklewood, Jamaicans had settled in Brixton and Notting Hill and the Portuguese in North Lambeth, and Sri Lankan Tamils were in Tooting and East Ham. Yes there were Scottish bars, like the Rob Roy in Paddington, where the Tartan Army met whether there was football or not, and the Boisdale of Belgravia, a traditional Scottish restaurant where old money met to discuss the Conservative Party and defending the Union.

But there was no neighbourhood or community where Scots – supposedly a clannish nation – actually met and congregated.

There are many reasons why a Scottish enclave never fully materialised in London. One obvious reason was the economic benefits of Empire, where Scots were not only beneficiaries but frequently at the forefront of innovation and exploitation.

As a consequence, many Scots found themselves as courtiers to power in London and so integrated easily within the system.

Another reason was the once settled nature of the Union, which meant that many Scots saw London as a place of opportunity and even prestige.

Scots were also migrants of drift, not of exodus. In the 20th century, there were no “big-bang” moments such as the Irish famine or the epochal arrival of West Indians aboard the SS Windrush. Scots did not arrive as generation or community, they moved south over decades as opportunities shrunk at home and London’s power sucked them in.

Sharing the same language, if not always the same bank notes, the Scot did not trouble the London mindset nor its vanguard of sclerotic taxi-drivers in quite the way that other immigrants did.

Although Orr and I often joked about living in exile in London, it was an intellectual dalliance and our yearning for home could be easily satisfied with a cheap weekend return on the inter-city out of Euston.

In an obituary in The Independent, where she worked for 10 years, Simon O’Hagan wrote: “She moved in elevated journalistic circles but looked down on no one except the pompous, the snobbish, the bogus, the cruel and the humourless.”

Deborah Orr died on October 19, 2019, and Scotland lost one of its finest writers. Something about the flint-like socialism of her hometown and the everyday feminism of her mother remained until the very end.

Although she would rage against me for saying this, Deborah Orr died in exile, writing to the bittersweet end. She was one of the shining stars of a generation that Scotland has lost forever.