Naomi Mitchison is best known as a novelist and social commentator, but she also wrote and published poetry, much of which is rooted in her Scottish background. She was born in Edinburgh on 1 November 1897 to Scottish parents, Louisa Kathleen Trotter and John Scott Haldane, a distinguished scientist based in Oxford, where Naomi Haldane grew up. The Scottish connection remained important throughout her childhood, and she spent many summers at Cloan in Perthshire, the Haldanes’ family home. Although her formal education was limited, she was steeped in an environment of scientific and creative enquiry which influenced her entire life.
In 1916 she married Gilbert Richard (Dick) Mitchison, then serving in the army and later a lawyer and Labour MP. Both Dick and her much-loved elder brother Jack were seriously wounded in World War I, and this and the loss of many friends had a profound effect on Mitchison’s subsequent career. After the war the Mitchisons’ London home became the meeting place for many writers, artists and political activists.
As a teenager, Mitchison wrote plays and poems, but her writing career took off in the 1920s with the publication of her first novel The Conquered (1923), which was rapidly followed by several more volumes of fiction. Her reputation as a leading novelist of the time was confirmed with The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931). Her first volume of poems, The Laburnum Branch (1926) was a collection of direct, colloquial and highly charged poems reflecting a spontaneous and restless personality and an impatience with convention. They also express her concern with social and political issues. Although recognising that she was leading a very privileged existence, she felt frustrated by the restrictions imposed on women’s lives and outraged by social injustice.
By the early 1930s Mitchison was the mother of five surviving children (her eldest child had died in 1927 and she would later lose a baby) and was deeply involved in socialist politics, an involvement which took her on what she described as ‘mind-stretching adventures’ in the USSR, Vienna and the USA. These experiences influenced her writing, which throughout this period did not abate.
In 1939 she and Dick bought Carradale House in Kintyre. She spent most of the years of World War II at Carradale and became deeply involved in the local community. Her identification of herself as a Scottish writer engaging with Scottish, and in particular Highland, issues is most directly expressed in the poetry she wrote at this time. ‘The Alban Goes Out: 1939’ is a long narrative poem describing a night’s fishing with the Carradale fishermen. Vigorous and arresting, it is a vivid and intimate description of the environment, the fishing boats in Kilbrennan Sound, the personalities and activities of the fishermen, and of a whole community.
While Mitchison’s skills as a novelist were fully realised by the 1930s, it took longer for her to mature as a poet. ‘The Alban Goes Out’ is an important expression of this maturity. It combines a conversational tone with an intensity of rhythm and emotion which strikingly conveys Mitchison’s sense of involvement. It is in effect a statement of her identity, not only as a Scot but as a member of the Carradale community.
We are working all the season, boat near to boat in the nights,
And danger may come on us quick, no time to stand upon rights,
When our hands are as net-cut, and our eyes as sore from the spray,
How can we think of our neighbours except in a neighbourly way?
‘The Alban Goes Out’ was followed by another long poem, ‘The Cleansing of the Knife’, which Mitchison wrote between 1941 and 1947. A more troubled work than the earlier poem, it chronicles a more ambivalent relationship with Carradale and its people, her anger at generations of oppression and neglect – ‘Dark stand the centuries / Of ill days for the Highlands’ – and her hope for post-war regeneration. In it she conveys the minutiae of daily life, the narrow-mindedness of a small community and the negative effects of a romantic past – ‘Must we be less than alive, / Must we lurk in a half light?’ But at its heart is an upbeat call to action. Like all her poetry, it is direct, forthright and spontaneously personal. Many of the shorter poems written after 1939 also convey her close and deeply felt observation of Highland life and landscape.
In ‘The Alban Goes Out’ she confidently expresses her identity as ‘one of the lads’ in a situation where it was unusual, if not unheard of, for a woman to participate in the fishing. In ‘The Cleansing of the Knife’ her role is more equivocal, with a greater awareness of the obstacles to her message and the uneasiness of her position as incoming ‘laird’ who was also a socialist. However, there are few twentieth-century writers who combine the personal and the political with such vivid commitment.
She would go on to become a local councillor and member of the Highland Panel, which began the process of Highland regeneration, but in both roles she was frustrated by bureaucracy and apathy. In the 1960s Mitchison turned her attention elsewhere, in particular to Botswana where she was led by friendship with Linchwe, a young chief of the Bagkatla, who visited Carradale in 1960. Africa would also inspire her poetry, but Mitchison’s best poetry comes out of Scotland and her efforts to make a difference to life in the Highlands, to Scotland’s political future, and to Scottish cultural life. In the latter area she was also frustrated, and to the end of her life felt embattled in a male preserve where little attention was paid to a woman’s voice.
Mitchison continued to write until well into her nineties, and was publishing fiction as late as 1991. At the tenth anniversary of the Scottish Poetry Library she was guest of honour and read unpublished work. Her poetry can be wayward and uneven, but at its best it combines integrity and authenticity with striking effectiveness. It also sums up the ethical foundations of Mitchison’s life and work, as in these lines from ‘The Cleansing of the Knife’, where she describes the efforts of Carradale folk to help victims of the Clydebank blitz of 1941:
I know there is one thing true:
Even at most alone
We are more than merely ourselves;
Our souls are not our own.
Naomi Mitchison spent the last years of her life at Carradale, where she died in January 1999.