Helen Cruickshank was one of the group of writers who flourished in mid-20th century Scotland and were acknowledged with the moniker of the Scottish Literary Renaissance. Though Cruickshank, like others, was wary of the term, she is key to understanding it and was heavily involved in writing and disseminating work about it.
Helen Burness Cruickshank, known as Nell, was born on 15 May 1886 in Hillside, Angus, the daughter of George Cruickshank, a well-respected house steward at Sunnyside Mental Hospital, and his wife Sarah Wood. Cruickshank and her two brothers had a happy childhood; routinely the whole family would decamp to Glenesk in July, holidaying in cottages there, the children roaming the hills all day. Love of roving with such freedom and a keen interest in nature learnt from her father stayed with Cruickshank throughout her life.
She was a bright child, going on to Montrose Academy with her brothers when she was ten. Although she came home after her last day of school with ten prizes strapped to her bicycle, her parents could not follow the Rector’s recommendation that she should go to university, as they simply could not afford to support her. Instead, she sat exams for the Civil Service, and in 1903, set off for London to start work in the Post Office Savings Bank.
During her years in London, Cruickshank became interested in politics and women’s suffrage, as she quickly became aware of the restricted wages and unfair conditions which working women like herself had to contend with. She joined the Women’s Social and Political Union, marching in protests and chalking the pavements. In 1912 she accepted a vacancy in a government office in Edinburgh, working in health insurance. She fell under the spell of the capital, enjoying its history, its bookshops, and its proximity of the Pentland Hills.
It was during and after the 1st World War that Cruickshank began to write poetry, for it was at this time that she first fell in love; in her own words: ‘The affair was all most unsuitable and maddeningly frustrating’ (Octobiography, p. 50), but the heartbreak did, as she said, bring her pen to poetry. By 1920 she was having some success with sending poems in to magazines, sometimes under pseudonyms. The Glasgow Herald frequently selected her work, as it published a poem daily and, unlike The Scotsman, paid a fee for them. Much contemporary poetry appeared there, and the names of the other contributors – Alexander Gray, William Soutar, Marion Angus – began to become familiar to her, as her name was becoming known to them. Reading that C.M. Grieve was calling for contributions to a new anthology, Northern Numbers, she submitted work and developed a lasting friendship. Cruickshank called this period the watershed of her life.
The freedom to live alone and to spend her spare time wandering the hills was curtailed in 1924 when Cruickshank’s father died, and she had to take on the care of her mother, something seemingly taken for granted by all she knew. She gave up her ‘bohemian’ studio flat and bought a semi-detached house on Corstorphine Hill. It was a time of difficult adjustment; in effect she gave up not just her personal freedom, but the chance of marriage, as married women could not continue in local government employ. The mortgage on the villa was onerous and the house needed modernisation, but Cruickshank would make it her home and was able to entertain many literary and artistic friends there – ‘Dinnieduff’ became in effect an informal headquarters for Scottish literary life.
From 1927, Christopher Grieve was a regular guest when he came to Edinburgh once a month to do business for the newly-formed Scottish Centre of the PEN Club. Cruickshank became the Honorary Secretary, which involved her in much correspondence, and she continued to work diligently for the club into the 1930s, her final efforts being to raise funds for the International PEN Congress held in Scotland in 1934. PEN meetings were frequently held at Dinnieduff, continuing with much informal discussion of literary matters. Cruickshank was a catalyst, arranging for writers and publishers to attend the same gatherings, encouraging aspiring poets, she was known as being generous with time and practical help.
Throughout the years of work in her Civil Service job, the activity involved in the PEN connection, and looking after her mother and the house, Cruickshank’s source of relaxation came from solitary rambles on the hills and among the islands of Scotland. Arguably her most successful poems are those inspired by the wilder country, especially her beloved Angus glens.
Methuen published Cruikshank’s first collection, Up the Noran Water, in 1934, most of it written in the Scots she had been brought up with. As with fellow Angus poets Violet Jacob and Marion Angus, it was an unselfconscious use of language. An innate sympathy warms her poems about country people, most notably in the well-loved ‘Shy Geordie’. Descriptions of natural life are taken to a philosophical, universal level. In ‘Sea Buckthorn’ – about the coastal plant which bears vivid orange berries – the final lines express a determined optimism:
Bide the storm ye canna hinder,
Mindin’ through the strife,
Hoo the luntin’ lowe o’ beauty
Lichts the grey o’ life.’
The 2nd World War brought with it an even heavier workload – Cruickshank worked on a short-lived scheme to evacuate children abroad, as well as volunteering for night-time fire-watching duties. Her mother died in 1940, and recurring duodenal ulcers prompted her early retirement in 1944.
Once her strength had built up again, Cruickshank resumed her former hospitality, and began to accept invitations to speak about contemporary Scottish poetry; as she said in Octobiography, ‘furthering an interest in our own language and literature had become a ruling passion of my life.’ Her long involvement in Scottish literary life and the friendships with so many of the figures on that particular stage made her an invaluable source of intrigue and anecdote. Students and academics, often those seeking information about Hugh MacDiarmid, visited her in order to consult her letters and press cuttings.
All this generosity of time and hospitality was not carried out in a life of financial certainty; retirement reduced Cruickshank’s circumstances even further, but her attitude to lacking wealth always proved positive; witness the first verse of ‘Comfort in Puirtith’:
The man that mates wi’ Poverty
An’ clasps her tae his banes,
Will faither lean an’ lively thochts,
A host o’ eident weans –
But wow! they’ll warstle tae the fore
Wi’ hunger-sharpit brains!
Cruickshank’s life’s work has been recognised in various ways: in May 1966 the BBC broadcast a programme to celebrate her 80th birthday; in 1969 friends commissioned a bust by sculptor Vincent Butler, housed at the Scottih Poetry Library; and in 1971 the University of Edinburgh awarded her an Honorary degree. It is hard to resist the thought that Helen might have valued being crowned ‘Queen of the Heather’ at a picnic with a group of Angus schoolchildren which she describes in her autobiography, as highly as all the other honours.
Ill health eventually necessitated Cruickshank’s leaving of the house for a room in Queensberry Lodge on the Canongate, where she died on 2 March 1975. She was still writing, leaving an unfinished poem about a woman who cannot stop for death because she has so much to do.
In 1986 a group of friends put up a plaque in her honour beside the front door of Dinnieduff, where she had lived for more than fifty years.
Read the poems
University of Stirling Library Special Collections: Helen Cruickshank Archive
National Library of Scotland: Lewis Grassic Gibbon papers
University of Edinburgh: Helen Cruickshank papers (includes information about the poet, and details of holdings)
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