George Robert Bruce was born on 10 March 1909 in Fraserburgh, eldest son of Henry George Bruce, the owner of a firm of herring curers, and his wife Jeannie Roberta Gray, daughter of a timber merchant. Although he was to spend most of his life away from Fraserburgh, the town and the north-east coast of Aberdeenshire were in his blood, as his poetry attested, and he remained a ‘Brocher’.
Bruce attended Fraserburgh Academy and then Aberdeen University, from where he graduated with first-class honours in English in 1932. From 1933 to 1946 he taught English and History at Dundee High School and for the following decade he was producer of programmes for BBC Radio at Aberdeen. It was a post for which his deep understanding of the North-East made him ideally suited; the programme ‘Scottish Life and Letters’ ran for over twenty years. In 1956 he moved to Edinburgh to work as a features producer for BBC television until his retirement in 1970; his production ‘Counterpoint’ was the first television arts programme in Scotland.
Retirement from the BBC seemed to spur an even more creative phase in Bruce’s life: he was theatre and literary critic for the Sunday Times until 1976; he became the first Creative Writing Fellow for Glasgow University in 1971, and took visiting professorships at several universities in the Unites States and Australia. He was an active member of council in the Saltire Society, and wrote histories of that body, of the Edinburgh International Festival and of the Cockburn Society. But above all he continued to write poetry, with an energy belying his years.
Bruce started to write poetry while still at school, but his writing had to compete with his other great interest – football. He was good enough at the game to have an offer from Arsenal, which his father vetoed. His talent for poetry was allowed to develop, however, and his first collection, Sea Talk, appeared in 1944. Iain Crichton Smith in his collection of essays Towards the Human (1986) states: ‘The virtue of Bruce’s poetry as shown in Sea Talk (1944) is that he allows the North-East to speak for itself in a harsh clipped speech.’
The sea binds the village,
Its salt constricts the pasture behind,
Its gale fastens the bent grass before,
Its fog is in the nostrils of the boy.
(from ‘Sea Talk’)
Iain Crichton Smith goes on to argue that the style of poetry suits the people of the North-East, ‘for whom in their struggle with their elements an aureate language would be superfluous and false.’ In an interview published in Artful Dodge, an Ohio-based literary magazine, Bruce talks of his efforts to find a language suited to what he was trying to write: ‘you were hardly aware of it being poetry. You would be very close to prose except there was passion involved. No adjectives.’
Bruce was fluent in the Doric of his native county but in his early desire to cut through irrelevancies and find an essential way to write, he dismissed Scots. He did use it later where it seemed to him appropriate, and he perhaps had the last word on its survival in his ‘Urn Burial (R.I.P. Scots Tongue)’, where the ashes of the language are about to be buried but are snatched up by ‘a fuff o’ win’ and blown away –
‘She’s jinkit again,
said the man with the spade.
In her obituary of Bruce for The Independent, Joy Hendry theorises that he had not been able to pursue his writing with complete freedom up until his retirement:
He seemed to grow ever younger, becoming more and more the poet he had always been, with a talent which had no doubt been inhibited by the burden of promoting the work of others, and having the impossible task of transmitting the fruits of an incredibly talented generation … to a largely ignorant public through a largely hostile medium.
Nevertheless, the nature of Bruce’s work for the BBC meant that he developed a network of acquaintances with many figures in the arts world, including poets, painters and actors. His place may have been in the ‘second wave’ of the Scottish literary renaissance, that flowering of poetic talent nourished frequently by the pubs in Edinburgh’s Rose Street, but he was not really of that coterie, being a less bohemian personality, and his poetry being independent of any movement. In an interview in Chapman 100-101(2002) he said: ‘I worked in a different way. I felt that my vision was universal and didn’t belong to cause or creed.’ His friendships with artists bore fruit in several collaborations: Woman of the North Sea, an artist’s book produced in 2001 with John Bellany, and a volume of haiku – a late enthusiasm – illustrated by the watercolours of Elizabeth Blackadder.
As his poetry reached out in later years to explore the wider world and more emotive themes, the language remained pared down, and the sea-scapes of Scotland were revisited; Bruce considered ‘Cliff Face Erosion’ of 1988 to be a key poem. The enduring timelessness of stones and rocks is a frequent theme. ‘Elizabeth Polishing an Agate’ is one of several poems to his beloved wife; the Bruces were married for fifty-nine years, and he wrote many poems for and about his family.
Bruce was awarded an OBE in 1984, and in 1999, at the age of 90, won the Saltire Society’s Scottish Book of the Year award for Pursuit. Those who knew Bruce in his later years were aware of his vitality, his enthusiasm for the arts, his constant delight in whatever he found around him – he seemed indeed to be ‘a child disguised / as an old, old man’. An old man who had remained true to his poetic vision, and who had endured, like the cliff face in his poem:
Ravaged, penetrated, scuffed,
deep-graven – your face is witness,
as is the human face, to the years.
I look upon your face and it is mine.
I look upon you and marvel.