GRADUATING from the University of Sunderland this week, Ashton McNamara not only fulfilled her own ambition but also that of her father who died in the final year of her Master’s degree.

For as long as she can remember, Miss McNamara's father Graham inspired and supported her ambitions to be the first in her family to study a degree in English and go on to achieve a distinction in her MA English studies.

Despite the pressure of dealing with his ill health– from the first year of her undergraduate English language and literature degree until his death from pneumonia earlier this year, aged 47– she wanted to make him proud and never gave up.

With support from lecturers Dr Alison Younger and Colin Younger and fellow students, Miss McNamara achieved more than she imagined– winning two his year’s John Buchan Prize for the Best Overall Student as well as the Walter Scott prize for best dissertation by an MA English student at the winter academic awards ceremonies.

After stepping on stage at the Stadium of Light to collect her prize, she said: “I know dad would be so proud today. He was the one who taught me to believe in myself and have confidence, for years I didn’t, but he always believed in me, he was just wonderful.

“My mum Julie is here today and is bursting with pride too, as she was the one who inspired my love of English, reading to me from an early age. I am still in shock to have achieved these prizes, as my dad’s ill health really took its toll, but the university and my lectures have been absolutely fantastic. I couldn’t have gotten through this without them.”

Dr Alison Younger, senior lecturer in English Literature and creative writing, said: “Ashton's a wonderfully resilient, bright and committed student, with an absolute 'can do' attitude, and we are immensely proud of her achievements. What is most astonishing is that Ashton achieved all this this despite losing her father quite suddenly and very tragically during her studies with us. More astonishingly, she still managed to take on the directorship of the University’s Spectral Visions Society and organised some tremendous events for other students.”

The 24-year-old's winning dissertation was entitled Gothicism in Middle Earth.

Alex Buchan, John Buchan's grandson, presented the award to Ashton.

He said: "Ashton has written a fascinating dissertation on Tolkien and thoroughly deserves this award.

"She's obviously worked incredibly hard and it's nice to give something extra that recognises that Ashton has gone above and beyond in her studies."

The University of Sunderland has been working closely with the John Buchan Society and Museum on a number of collaborative projects. These have included the digitisation of the Society's Journal and the redevelopment of the Museum's website. In 2018 the Museum, in Peebles, Scotland, held a centenary exhibition on John Buchan, as Minister of Information in the final year of World War One.

Miss McNamara, from Middlesbrough, plans to take some time out before embarking on a PhD continuing the theme of MA dissertation exploring Gothicism in J.R.R Tolkien’s works.

She explained: “I have always been into Gothic literature since I was young. During my course I was looking at the Dark Romanticism Period, which has a much darker and Gothic side and I related it to Tolkien’s work after spotting a gap. Gothicism is not usually used within the framework of Tolkien’s work, and is something quite new and of interest academically.”