Helen Cruickshank was one of that group of writers which flourished in Scotland in the middle years of the 20th century and was credited with the Scottish Literary Renaissance, though she herself was wary of using the term. She has been described as a sort of ‘handmaid’ to the group and its predominantly male members, and while the term doesn’t do her justice, she probably did more to promote, popularise, and chronicle the movement than any of the other figures involved in it.
Helen Burness Cruickshank (Nell) was born on 15 May 1886 in Hillside, Angus, the daughter of George Cruickshank, the respected house steward at Sunnyside Mental Hospital, and his wife Sarah Wood. Cruickshank and her two brothers had a happy childhood; the best time of the year was July, when the whole family decamped to Glenesk, holidaying in cottages there, the children roaming the hills all day. Love of the freedom of the hills, and the keen interest in nature learnt from her father stayed with Cruickshank throughout her life.
She was a bright child, going to Montrose Academy with her brothers when she was ten. Although she came home on 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 with which working women like herself had to contend. She joined the Women’s Social and Political Union, and marched and chalked pavements. In 1912 she was offered a vacancy in a government office in Edinburgh, working in health insurance, which she accepted. She immediately fell under the spell of the capital, enjoying its history, its bookshops, and the proximity of the Pentland Hills for walking.
During and after the war years, Cruickshank began to write poetry; it was about this time, too, 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, give her pen its poetry. By 1920 she was having some success with getting work in 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 it). 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 they 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 everyone. 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 much modernisation, but Cruickshank lived in it for over fifty years, 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 weekend 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, always generous with time and practical help.
Through all the years of unremitting work at her Civil Service job, all the activity involved in the PEN connection, and looking after her mother and the house, Cruickshank’s relaxation came from solitary rambles on the hills and in the islands of Scotland. Arguably her most successful poems are those inspired by the countryside, 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 to use. It was in her case, as with her fellow Angus poets Violet Jacob and Marion Angus, an early and unselfconscious use of the 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 more philosophical, universal plane. In ‘Sea Buckthorn’ – about the drab plant which bears vivid orange berries – surely the final lines express her own determined optimism:
Bide the storm ye canna hinder,
Mindin’ through the strife,
Hoo the luntin’ lowe o’ beauty
Lichts the grey o’ life.’
The Second World War brought with it an even heavier workload – Cruickshank worked on the short-lived scheme to evacuate children abroad – and volunteered as well for night-time fire-watching duties. Her mother died in 1940, and recurring duodenal ulcers prompted a slightly 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 players on that particular stage made her an invaluable source of information 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 comfort; retirement reduced Cruickshank’s circumstances even further, but her attitude to lack of wealth had always been 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 was recognised in various ways: in May 1966 the BBC broadcast a programme to celebrate her 80th birthday; in 1969 friends commissioned a bust to be done by Vincent Butler; and in 1971 the University of Edinburgh awarded her an Honorary degree of MA. 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. In 1986 a group of friends placed a plaque beside the front door of Dinnieduff.
Ill health eventually necessitated leaving her house for a room in Queensberry Lodge in the Canongate, where Cruickshank died on 2 March 1975. She was writing up until the end, leaving an unfinished poem – about a woman who cannot stop for death because she has so much to do.
Read the poems
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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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