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Writing the ‘Spirit of Place’

Katherine Gordon
ScotLit 34, Spring 2006

In a speech given to members of the Scottish Association for the Speaking of Verse in the late 1920s, Scottish poet Marion Angus (1865–1946) surveyed the state of modern Scottish poetry and then spelled out a challenge for herself as a writer:

I myself would like to be the one (unfortunately I am not) to write a great poem on the spirit of place, producing something born of myself and of the place, which would be neither the one nor the other, but something very strange and beautiful. I should like to write [...] of the elusive glamour of the universe; and, above all, I would fain give voice to Scotland’s great adventure of the soul.

Voices From Their
Ain Countrie
This suggests that ‘Scotland’s great adventure of the soul’ had not yet been expressed. Angus was being modest; she and fellow poet Violet Jacob (1863–1946) produced numerous poems that explored the ‘spirit’ of North East Scotland, revealing the ‘elusive glamour’ of its landscape. Their poetry, read together, reveals the richness of their individual poetic careers and sheds light upon an important period of Scottish literary history. Writing mainly in the interwar years in both Scots and English, they looked forwards in their psychological portraits of people in conflict; they also were keenly aware of the rich tradition of Scots-language literature, integrating folk traditions and the language and imagery of the Scottish ballads into their poems.

Angus and Jacob’s poems on ‘the spirit of place’ first drew me to their writing when I was still an undergraduate at Stanford University. When I began researching their life and work in the mid-1990s, I could find few resources: scattered publications by Hugh MacDiarmid, some anthologies of Scots-language literature, and an occasional edition of Neil Gunn or Edwin Muir’s work. Stanford’s library held a copy of Helen Cruickshank’s Up The Noran Water (1934) but the pages were still uncut – I had to ask reference librarians to separate the pages so I could read the book. When I arrived in Glasgow to begin my Ph.D. in Scottish Literature, I had better luck; I discovered that a handful of scholars had written perceptive articles about Angus and Jacob’s work. Despite these, however, there were still obstacles: no full-length study of their work was available; in addition, neither poet had a collected poetry volume, neither has extensive correspondence available in public libraries, neither kept particularly careful records of their publications, whereabouts, or even addresses. Even tracking down the poets’ individual publications could be a challenge. None of their volumes are still in print.

But the poems I could find compelled me with their beauty and their strangeness. Angus’s ‘The Eerie Hoose’, with its ‘chaumers braid and blue’, its locked door, and secret, forbidden word intrigued me. What was that word her speaker ‘daurna say’? What could be behind the ‘steekit’ door? So too does her poem ‘Waater o’ Dye’, with its depiction of the ‘lang-deid wumman’ who haunts the speaker, granting her a terrible kind of second sight:

The sea-gaun bird forebodes me grief,
I moorn at sicht o’ fa’in’ leaf;
Intil the clood I luik, bricht-e’ed,
For wings o’ Deith abune ma heid.

Jacob’s poems, similarly, ring through one’s head with their powerful rhythms and descriptions of rural women. In ‘The End O’t’, for example, she describes the quandary of a poor, rural woman who realises she is pregnant:

There’s little love for a lass to seek
When the coortin’s through an’ the price is paid.
Oh, aince forgotten’s forgotten fairly,
An’ heavy endit what’s licht begun.

Her exile poem ‘The Wild Geese’ also stays with one. Her description of the ‘lang, lang skein o’ beatin’ wings, wi’ their heids towards the sea’ captures in its language and sound the evocative noise of the migrating birds and all their symbolic freight for the exile longing for home. An excerpt of this poem is engraved on a stone in Edinburgh’s Makar’s Court, located outside the Writers’ Museum.

These poems and many others have stayed with me throughout the research process. Often, collecting the poems for the book felt like something out of a detective novel: armed with a few references from books, a sandwich, and a laptop computer, I would arrive at a library – usually the National Library of Scotland, but many others, as well – and spend the day looking through letters, poem drafts, and journals from the 1930s, searching for publications by Angus and Jacob or reading through letters in their crabbed, cryptic handwriting for information. In the process there were red herrings (missing papers, references to no-longer-extant volumes) but there were also plenty of leads. I would stay as long as I could, slipping out only to down cups of tea so stout my teeth would ache. The research strengthened my original conviction that both poets have indeed ‘give[n] voice’ to the ‘great adventure of the soul.’

What both poets have in common, in addition to their roughly similar life span and their connection to the North East, is their varied writing careers. They wrote across genres: Angus began her publishing career as a short story writer and journalist, and when not writing poetry also published travel writing (Round About Geneva), family history (Sheriff Watson of Aberdeen: The Story of His Life, and His Work for the Young), and essays. In addition, she recorded radio broadcasts on a range of writing-related topics for the BBC in the 1930s. Jacob is perhaps more commonly remembered as a novelist, author of many great works such as Flemington (republished by ASLS and Canongate, both in the mid-1990s), but she also wrote family history (The Lairds of Dun), fairy tales (The Golden Heart and Other Fairy Stories), and essays (mainly published in Country Life and as yet uncollected). Both writers wrote out a deep engagement with traditional Scottish literature; both wrote passionately about landscape and a feeling of connectedness to the natural world. Most significantly, both were part of the Scottish Literary Renaissance, contributing poems to important interwar publications such as Scottish Chapbook.

Their lives and works are distinct, however. An overview of their lives gives some insight into the individual motivations and inspirations behind their poems. Angus was born in Sunderland, England in 1865, the eldest daughter in a large family of that included five siblings: two older brothers and three younger sisters. Her father, and his father before him, were respected clergymen whose sermons are preserved in several libraries in Scotland. Her mother was the daughter of the social reformer William Watson, whose life Angus explored in a biographical study. They moved to Arbroath, Scotland, when Angus was still a child and thereafter she lived in and around the North East; the North-Eastern landscape appears repeatedly in Angus’s poetry. Nan Shepherd, her friend and fellow writer, called the landscape of Angus’s poems ‘a dark land, harsh and haunted; yet with its rare felicities’ that grant it ‘a sort of grace’.

Tracing Angus’s life and her writing about what she later called her ‘lost country’ is difficult, in part because relatively few of her letters and papers are preserved in public archives. Those that do exist can be oblique, offering hints of her life beyond the page but not confirming anything. She never married and many have wondered about the identity of the subject of her numerous love poems. Even discovering where she lived required a bit of detective work. During the late 1990s I gathered up all the references available to Zoar, what she called her ‘house of happiness’ located ‘just on the edge of town’ in Aberdeen. Angus lived there with her sister Ethel for several years during the 1920s and it is there that she completed her finest volumes of poetry: The Tinker’s Road and Other Verses (1924), Sun and Candlelight (1927), and The Singin’ Lass (1929). After hiking for a few miles I found the house, looking just as I had imagined: a small two-storey cottage with a lush back garden. The owner – at that time only the second owner since Angus sold it – kindly gave me a tour; the sunny upstairs room with the circular window, one can imagine, could be where Angus wrote. When Ethel had a breakdown in the early 1930s, Angus had to sell Zoar and in so doing, she dispersed many of her belongings including her books and papers. This makes finding out what happened in the last fifteen years of her life difficult as one has little with which to work. Nevertheless, her final volume, Lost Country and Other Verses (1937), reveals that despite her peripatetic lifestyle she had not lost the ability to craft moving, enigmatic poems. Her dedication to what she called the ‘elusive glamour of the universe’ is evident on every page. Throughout her career, her depictions of this ‘universe’, half-similar to the North-Eastern landscape, half-rooted in the shadowy world of the ballads, are inflected with what Nan Shepherd called her ‘elfin quality’. These poems are often enigmatic, drawing their strength from folk belief and the supernatural tales she so appreciated.

The life and career of Violet Jacob proved easier subjects to research because she hails from a landed family whose long history is not only preserved in her own family biography but also in numerous public records, including the National Records Office. Born Violet Kennedy-Erskine at the House of Dun outside Montrose, Scotland, she grew up balancing between two worlds: the rural Scots-speaking environment of the estate, where she took an active interest in the lives of its hired labourers, and the privileged world of the upper class with all the expectations associated with wealth and family history. A visit to the House of Dun, now property of the National Trust for Scotland, gives one a sense of the scale and breadth of that history. Nevertheless, despite her historical roots, Jacob is still elusive. She was an intensely private woman; her reticence makes discovering a clear timeline of her work more difficult. There are brief moments of insight: her diaries and letters from India, for example, give a fascinating portrait of her life during the last few years of the nineteenth century when she lived with her soldier husband and their child in Mhow, a British military cantonment outside Indore. A few of her personal essays in Country Life, similarly, reveal her sparkling sense of humour and her appreciation for what she called in one essay ‘corners dark enough for mystery’.

Jacob’s interests in the ‘Angus straths’ and those who are ‘dee’in’ to be back home there dominate her poetry, even in her earliest publications. From her first book, a comic poem she co-authored in 1891, The Bailie McPhee, her poetry expresses an interest in the exile’s relationship to ‘hame’. Her poetry volumes came in short succession after Songs of Angus appeared in 1915: More Songs of Angus and Others (1918), Bonnie Joann and Other Poems (1921), The Northern Lights and Other Poems (1927), and finally, her selected edition, The Scottish Poems of Violet Jacob (1944). Her poetry reflects her abiding interest in the Scottish landscape, her grief over the death of her only son in the Great War, and her awareness of the great inequality between men and women in rural Scottish society.

I have spent the past decade researching both Angus and Jacob’s life and work. Their poetry has accompanied me through eight moves, three countries, four years of post-graduate work, and eight years of teaching. Their work continues to offer insights into human behaviour. It challenges and surprises; reading each poet’s individual poems in the context of her entire poetic output reveals a rich network of repeated imagery, motifs, and symbolic language stretching across her collected work. These characteristics keep me returning to these poems and, in turn, make me eager to share them with other people. It was with great excitement, therefore, that I approached editing a volume of the poets’ selected poems. In 2006, the sixtieth anniversary of their deaths, their poetry finally will be available in a joint selected edition. I’ve put together the volume I wish I could have had at the start of my doctoral studies. I hope those who read it will find it useful. Most of all, I hope readers will discover, as I have, the many poems about the ‘great adventure of the soul’ Angus and Jacob crafted in their varied and long careers.

Voices From Their Ain Countrie

Katherine Gordon’s volume, Voices From Their Ain Countrie: the poems of Marion Angus and Violet Jacob, was published by ASLS in August 2006.


Copyright © Katherine Gordon 2006


Last updated 23 August 2010.