Marion Emily Angus was born on 27 March 1865 in Sunderland, the oldest daughter of the Revd Henry Angus and his wife Mary Jessie Watson. Revd Angus was Minister of Trinity Church in Sunderland until he accepted a call to Erskine United Free Church, Arbroath, in 1876, and moved the family back to Scotland. His ministry there was a busy, lively one, as Revd Andrew M. Russell notes in a memoir of 1994: ‘The formative years of Marion’s life were spent in this church with its stimulating environment and companionships.’ After her school days Angus did not pursue further education but undertook the perceived duties of the elder daughter of the manse, while widening her horizons through reading and cultural activities in the town, and travel abroad. In 1897-8 she amused the town with a weekly diary published in the Arbroath Guide under the pen-name Angus Ogilvie.
Around the turn of the century changes occurred in the home life of the Angus family; Ethel, one of the younger girls, suffered a breakdown in mental health, and in 1902 their father died suddenly. Mrs Angus and her remaining daughters had to leave the manse, so rented a house in Cults, Aberdeenshire, where Angus looked after her sister and mother until the latter’s death in 1914. The war brought a spell of war work for Angus near Hawick, at a camp for civilian detainees; then the two sisters eventually settled in Aberdeen in 1921, buying a house in Springfield Road. It was here, in the relative stability of the following decade, that Angus’s poetry began to flourish; she herself said that she didn’t start to write poetry seriously until after the First World War, when she was over fifty. Her apprenticeship in writing had been short stories and poems contributed to various magazines when younger, and a biography of her grandfather, Sheriff Watson of Aberdeen, published in 1913.
Colin Milton sets Angus in her time in his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
It was in the 1920s that Marion began to publish the poems which established her as one of the group of vernacular poets who were forerunners of the ‘Scottish Renaissance’ of the inter-war years. Her Scots verse, along with that of Violet Jacob and Lewis Spence, marked a break with the exhausted post-Burns tradition, and anticipated the work of C.M. Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid).
Those years saw Angus established as a published poet, with three collections to her name, and engaged in related activities – readings, radio broadcasts. She became involved in the Aberdeen branch of Scottish PEN and developed friendships with Alexander Gray and Helen Cruickshank, and she was on the committee of the Scottish Association for the Teaching of Verse. When her sister suffered another breakdown in the late 1920s and was taken into care in Glasgow, Angus sold the house and moved to be near her, living in various places within visiting distance. She tried to continue her life as a writer during those years, battling depression and exhaustion, and continued to return to the North-East for holidays when she could, until the time when she too became too frail, and moved to the care of an old friend in Arbroath, where she died on 18 August 1946. At her own request her ashes were scattered on the sands at Elliot Links.
Helen Cruickshank in her ‘Personal Note’ in Angus’s Selected Poems of 1950 said:
She was steeped in the knowledge and lore of the Ballads, until they seemed part of her life. Lost love, unquiet spirits, barley-breid and elder-wine: they are the very stuff of the Ballads.
as in this extract from ‘The Wild Lass’ :
‘Hameward ye’re traivellin
In the saft hill rain,
The day lang by
That ye wearied o the glen;
Nae ring upon yer han’,
Nae kiss upon yer mou –
Quaiet noo …’
Angus’s poems may not carry the overt story lines of the ballads, but they are suffused with a sense of the outsider, the misfit. Like the ballads, too, they can cause a shiver, as in ‘The Wife’, where a mother sees her daughter-in-law for the first time:
‘Oh, better had ye deid,
A happy lauchin wean,
My son, your comely bride
Has the grey gled’s een.’
To quote Colin Milton again:
Marion Angus is a poet of the social and psychological margins: her poems hint and suggest rather than state, often conveying repressed or unreturned feelings and liminal states; her characters are often the outcast and rejected. Women’s experience is at the centre of her work, and it offers a welcome contrast to the mainly male-dominated poetry of the ‘Renaissance’ movement.
There is no evidence that Angus herself experienced rejection, or a lost love affair, as she did not write her own story. Perhaps because so little was once known of her life, there has been a temptation to simplify her work, as Aimée Chalmers writes in The Singin Lass, 2006:
The pity is that rather than recognising her skill at transforming the particular into the universal, critics have sometimes allowed conjecture about her private life to stereotype and define the poet, thereby influencing their evaluation of her work.
Christopher Whyte, in his exploration of the notion of self in Angus’s work in A History of Scottish Women’s Writing, deems attempts to ‘break the code’ of her poetry inappropriate, both in respect of her privacy and the integrity of the poetry itself.
By the fiftieth anniversary of her death in 1996, John MacRitchie justifiably observed in the Arbroath Herald that Angus’s poetry had become neglected, as there was nothing then in print. Ten years later the situation had improved, with the publication in 2006 of two selections of her work, both giving fresh consideration of the poetry, and with new research into the poet’s life resulting in a substantial biographical introduction in The Singin Lass. Perhaps now that more is known of her life, the way is clear for a fuller understanding and appreciation of the work of Marion Angus.
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University of Aberdeen Library; National Library of Scotland
Image of Marion Angus reproduced by permission of the Estate of Marion Angus