She taught Helena Bonham Carter how to do a Scottish accent and swam in Elton John’s pool.
She helped Sarah Brown behind the famous black door of No. 10 Downing Street.
She was a successful, prolific and much-loved author and screenwriter.
And she was also one half of an extraordinary couple: Bob and Isla.
Speaking – during a series of conversations – for the first time since the death of his wife, Bob Dewar shares heartfelt memories of the woman he’s held hands with for 55 years.
She’s the one for me
With her feet on a DC Thomson desk in the offices of teen mag Romeo, Isla Dewar was in full swing imitating the Queen – being imitated by Ked Dodd – when he popped in from the art team.
It was 1965 and celebrated illustrator and artist Bob Dewar was smitten.
“I thought she was just wonderful. Within days we went out.
“We just talked and talked. And we got on so well.
“So well, in fact, and because we were always talking so much, we would end up in the wrong cinema.
“That’s how I saw Von Ryan’s Express!”
Born to write
Isla Dewar was born in Leith, on June 29, 1946.
She was the second of two daughters for Ian White, an Income Tax inspector, and Marjory (nee Roberts).
Opting for a salary over a university education she stayed at home with her parents and sister, Sandra, and started her working life in the lab of an Edinburgh yogurt factory.
But writing was always her passion.
A job as a journalist penning column inches for teen girl magazine ‘Romeo’, in Dundee, was too good to refuse.
No feminism then
A comic depicting ‘real life’ scenarios for adolescent females, Romeo ran from 1957 until 1974 when it merged with Diana magazine.
Bob said: “It was all ‘how to find your hunky fella’… and she even did some agony aunt stuff. I’m afraid there was no feminism then. Only hunky fellas.”
While she would also work for My Weekly Isla’s time with the Dundee publishers wouldn’t last forever.
A career as a freelance writer would go on to see her amass a portfolio of 20 novels – one of which – Women Talking Dirty, was picked up by Elton John’s Rocket Pictures and made into a movie starring Helena Bonham Carter and Gina McKee.
“Isla wasn’t faux humble, she really was humble. She really didn’t think too much of herself at all.”
But from the moment he met her, Bob did.
And while words flowed easily for the chatty couple, when it mattered most they needn’t say much at all.
“We were in the Breadalbane Pub in Dundee, on a Friday night with all the other editorial team from the paper, squeezed up against a wall with half pints.
“She just looked at me and I said, ‘Well… if you want?’ and she said, ‘yeah, okay.’ And that was the proposal.
“That’s how we knew each other; so well.”
They later married in Leith in 1966.
Pheasants in the garden for £3 a week
Both early in their careers, the couple skipped a honeymoon moving straight into a rented cottage in Angus.
“We got married in Edinburgh and we moved right away because I was working quite hard, to a cottage in Westmuir, outside Kirriemuir in Angus. And this had five rooms.
“It had a garden with a big hedge round it. It had a sizeable field. It had a barn – with hay in it. And a wood full of pheasants and we got all this for £3 a week.
“And it was sunny all time. Of course it wasn’t, but it felt like it was.
“It was a magical time.”
Best friends for half a century
“Sometimes there’s no line to be drawn,” added Bob. “Isla and I were best friends as well as married people. We laughed a lot.
“I can’t remember a time when we didn’t laugh hysterically to tears. We were extremely compatible and extremely lucky to have found each other so early.”
Even as the years advanced the pair would set up their own workspaces at home and do their own thing – together.
Isla would write, later being published by Birlinn Books, and Bob would go on to draw for the Scotsman among others, and would illustrate more than 40 books for Oxford University Press and Birlinn also.
Starting a family wasn’t an easy road for Bob and Isla but two sons, Nicholas Crichton Dewar, and Adam Roberts Dewar, would add to their family.
“We got there in the end and the boys only added to our happiness.”
Tragically, 12 years ago Nic – who took after his dad and became a successful illustrator in America – tragically died of cancer age 37.
Adam and Lexy – his ‘not wife’ as Isla called her, live in Hertfordshire with Bob and Isla’s grandchildren, two-year-old Ida and Sonny, five, who Bob says may well take over the world.
“And Adam is just like his mum. He’s an amazing cook, as she was.”
Cooking and thinking
At her peak Isla was releasing a book a year, having her work translated into 17 languages and topping best-seller lists.
She was even known to draw bigger crowds at book festivals in Edinburgh than Garrison Keillor.
But at home – she was also stunning family and friends with cordon bleu cooking.
“What people don’t know about Isla is that she was an incredible cook, following people like Julia Childs and Elizabeth David.
“She would stand in the kitchen for hours, thinking of her next chapter. It was a holy time for her, not to be disturbed.”
Oh you want fish fingers?
When Isla and Bob’s children were still young the family moved to Anstruther in Fife.
The boys would come home looking for an after-school snack and Isla would do what she always did – the very best imaginable.
“She would make them crab crepes!
“They were very lucky boys, really,” Bob said, “but one day they came home and said they were fed up of crab and wanted fish fingers like their friends.
“‘Away you go then… go and have some’, she said.
“So away they went and when they came back they said, ‘we don’t want fish fingers, we want mum’s crab crepes!”
Women Talking Dirty
Isla’s second novel, a book about female friendship set in Scotland, was picked up by Sir Elton John and David Furnish.
The pair – under the banner of Rocket Pictures – turned the book into a movie with the title catching the attention of everyone who heard it.
Audio: Husband Bob opens his heart on his and Isla’s love story
“Women Talking Dirty has actually nothing to do with anything dirty,” Bob laughed.
“Although I do remember a story of someone who worked for Isla’s agents taking it to a porn shop in Soho and selling it for a few quid to buy her lunch!”
Elton John’s Swimming Pool
The writing of a screenplay was not something she had ambition for, but like always Isla threw herself in to her work.
This meant a move into Sir Elton’s Windsor mansion.
“She would recall things like the fact he had an oval pool with a wood surround, and a juke box so you could choose your own music if you went for a swim.”
The cast were also appreciative of Isla being on hand.
Helena Bonham Carter and Gina McKee
“I would answer the phone at the house and it would be one of the stars of the film. Both Helena Bonham Carter and Gina McKee would ring up wanting to test their Scottish accents out on Isla.
“Although there were plenty of other Scottish actors in the movie they wanted to sound like Isla. And I have to say they were quite good.
“I met them in Leith and you sometimes hear a load of naff Scottish accents from foreign and English actors but they did a good job.”
Limo rides and paparazzi
With films come film premiers and Isla and Bob were treated a white-gloved chauffeur service from their home in Crail to Glasgow.
Although, being part of Helena Bonam Carter’s world meant Isla had already seen first hand what it’s like to be chased around by the paparazzi.
“She found it both funny and scary,” Bob said. “She just didn’t see herself as of that world.”
So much so that when the couple arrived to a swarming crowd at the Women Talking Dirty opening night she didn’t think she’s get in.
“There were people all around – and the press – and she said, ‘Oh no, I don’t think we will get in.’ At which point the limo driver looked over his shoulder and said, ‘They’re here to see you!”
Margaret Thatcher’s bath clock
Isla was also a humanitarian, lending her support to charitable causes.
Of these she worked particularly closely with Sarah Brown, during her husband’s tenure as Prime Minister.
“She’s probably one of very few people who’s been inside both Elton John’s house and No. 10,” joked Bob.
And on these visits Isla would regale Bob with the detail afterwards.
“She was fascinated by the bathroom in Downing Street. Above this big bath was a huge clock. It had been Margaret Thatcher’s because she wanted to only take a few minutes to bathe before heading back to the House.”
Sarah Brown said: “Isla was so generous with her wonderful stories that she contributed to a number of charity fundraising anthologies I edited in the early 2000s – she seemed to be so full of original stories just overflowing out of her.
“When I was fundraising for the Jennifer Brown Research Fund in Fife and Edinburgh (to support new research and community efforts to help premature babies and vulnerable mums), Isla was quick to support my requests as though she had a drawer full of stories ready to go.
“I approached her as I loved her books about women’s friendships set in the parts of Scotland I also knew.
“When it came to book launch time, we hosted a gathering of all the authors and illustrators at Downing Street, and it was wonderful to meet her there. She was so full of life, but also surprisingly shy in the surroundings.
“I think she loved being there but was equally keen to get home to her Fife village.”
Missing her family
As a mother and grandmother, because of the pandemic and latterly, worsening arthritis, Isla wasn’t able to be as hands-on with her family as would have liked.
“She missed them all terribly, and because of ill health over the last two years she really wasn’t able to do all the things she would want to have done.”
But what time she did have with her son Adam, his partner Lexy, and their children, she made the most of.
Lexy Topping said: “She would create the most fanciful stories whether it was about the feminist robin perched outside her window or her past career as a rock star – the children loved her.
“After her stories Sonny would look a bit thoughtful and say, ‘Mama, was Isla really a stunt car driver? She was a wonder to be around and we all feel very privileged to have had Isla in our lives.
“I loved that she talked to me like a friend, whose ideas she was interested in, not just the woman who produced her grandchildren. And she made the best poached pears and chocolate.”
Just Bob and Isla
To their children, their partners, and even their grandchildren, no other titles were needed: simply ‘Bob and Isla’.
“When you walk into a room you don’t say ‘oh hello grandchild.’ So as our own children did before them, Sonny and Ida call us ‘Bob and Isla.’ Because that’s who we are.”
Isla passed away on June 20, from a heart attack.
It was sudden, and devastating.
“I’m still very, very upset,” Bob added. “We held hands for 55 years from 1966 until 2021. And I loved her very much.”