Poetry and heroism are inevitably associated in any consideration of the life of William Soutar. His poetry was the prize wrested from a battle against death and despair which he fought for half a lifetime. Death defeated him in the end, but in the struggle with despair he was victorious; and even of his conquest by death he made a triumph, for in that last battle he expressed such fortitude and magnanimity as to make one proud of humankind.
– Alexander Scott, Still Life: William Soutar 1898-1943
William Soutar was born to Margaret and John Soutar in Perth on 28 April 1898. His father, the son of a Perthshire farmer, was a master joiner, and his mother the daughter of a Perth police sergeant. They attended the United Original Secession Church, the Auld Lichts; Soutar wrote of being brought up with ‘the services of grace and family worship’. Their faith endowed the family with the unity and strength which were later to be much needed.
Soutar attended Perth Academy, and later wrote of 1916, his last year there:
That was my 18th year, while yet the shadow of the war was unacknowledged. Then I was one of the fleetest at the Academy: one of the strongest: first in my year at most things: I was writing poetry: I was in love …
But the shadow of war was not to be denied and Soutar enlisted in the Royal Navy, spending the next two years with the North Atlantic Fleet on convoy or escort duties. In the autumn of 1918 Soutar’s legs began to trouble him, and he was sent to naval hospitals pending his demobilisation in February 1919. He was determined nevertheless to go to university, and by April had matriculated in medicine at Edinburgh, but changed his mind, and enrolled instead for the honours course in English, saying in a diary entry in October: ‘Career really begun’.
Daily writing was a part of Soutar’s life. He had begun the practice of keeping a diary in April 1919, and his diaries and letters were full of good sense and humour – qualities the poetry he was then writing sadly lacked. Despite the tutelage of Professor Sir Herbert Grierson and his staff, excellence in studies, and in his own poetry, eluded him. Soutar must have deemed his native Perthshire Scots an unsuitable vehicle for the composition of poetry, for, as George Bruce notes in William Soutar: the man and the poet, he continued to write ‘in a high falutin, outdated idiom and language’. Poor health during his final year will have contributed to his gaining only a third class degree.
In October 1923 and again a year later, Soutar had X-rays and consultations with Professor John Fraser, whose final diagnosis of the young man’s trouble was that it was a form of spondylitis, too late to cure. Realising at last that the illness was to be permanent, Soutar recorded that ‘suddenly I halted in the dusk beside the pillars of West St. George’s, Edinburgh, and stood for a moment bareheaded, saying over to myself, “Now I can be a poet.” ‘
From 1924 onwards Soutar lived with his parents in a new house in Wilson Street, Perth, which had been built to the family’s own specifications. Soutar named it ‘Inglelowe’. When his son eventually became completely bedridden in 1930, John Soutar extended the downstairs bedroom with a large bay-window, so that Willie could see as much of the garden and Craigie Hill beyond as was possible from his bed. Devoted care by his parents made the invalid’s life as comfortable as possible and he was always smartly dressed with clean shirt and bow-tie. A constant stream of daily visitors amused, informed or bored Soutar; hundreds of people came each year, among them many of the major figures of the Scottish Renaissance.
While at university Soutar had begun an acquaintance with Christopher Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid), submitting poems for Grieve’s Northern Numbers. Soutar became interested in the cultural renaissance MacDiarmid was promoting, though they did not entirely agree on the use of Scots; Soutar’s own conviction was that rejuvenation of the language was necessary, as he said in a letter to Grieve in 1931, ‘If the Doric is to come back alive, it will come first on a cock-horse … I fancy the best beginning would be in bairn-rhymes of six or eight lines …’. The company of Evelyn, an orphaned cousin adopted by the Soutars in 1927, was already a spur to his writing for children, and by 1933 he was able to fill Seeds in the Wind with bairn-rhymes in rich Scots:
The tattie-bogle wags his airms:
Caw! Caw! Caw!
He hasna onie banes or thairms:
Caw! Caw! Caw!
We corbies wha hae taken tent,
and whamphl’d round, and glower’d asklent,
Noo gang hame lauchin owre the bent:
Caw! Caw! Caw!
It is too simplistic to assert that English gradually gave way to Scots as the medium chosen by Soutar, as he continued to write in both languages until the end. Rather, his move towards Scots came as part of his absorption into Scotland’s literary tradition. Of Soutar’s place in this tradition, Carl MacDougall and Douglas Gifford say in their introduction to Into a Room:
He is not a foot soldier in MacDiarmid’s debatable movement of Scottish Renaissance, but a makar who resolves his personal tragedy in identification with the human predicament as seen through the entire tradition of Scottish poetry.
Soutar wrote in 1932, ‘My life’s purpose is to write poetry – but behind the poetry must be the vision of a fresh revelation for men.’ He had grown into socialist and nationalist ways of thinking, and wanted to show how individuality must learn from communality. Above all he wanted to celebrate what he called ‘the generosity of life’ – a strange belief, it might be thought, for one in his circumstances to cherish. The last lines of ‘Nae Day sae Dark’ show the depth of his spiritual strength: ‘The tenderness o’ life that fleurs / Rock-fast in misery.’
After Soutar’s death in 1943, collections of his poetry were edited by Hugh MacDiarmid (1948), and the librarian W.R. Aitken (1961 and 1988), but none is complete. Alexander Scott’s 1958 biography remains the only one. Aitken wrote that Soutar’s contribution ‘to the wealth of Scottish literature is substantially and undeservedly neglected.’ Towards the end of the century there was more interest in Soutar the man: a television film, The Garden Beyond, was broadcast in 1977; in 1989 a refurbished Inglelowe, which had been gifted by John Soutar to the city of Perth, opened as the Soutar House and it is used as a base for a Writer in Residence scheme. The Friends of William Soutar Society was initiated in 2007 to promote his works. A complete works and a thorough critical appraisal are still awaited, and the letters and other writings are still unpublished. Soutar needs to be read afresh as a major poet and diarist, as well as remembered as one whose moral fortitude was exemplary.
A commemorative flagstone for William Soutar was laid in Makars' Court in Edinburgh in April 2017.