Valerie Gillies was born in Canada in 1948 but grew up in Southern Scotland. She has an MA and an MLitt from the University of Edinburgh, where she wrote her thesis on William Drummond’s Flowres of Sion. She was also a Commonwealth Scholar at the University of Mysore in India, which has continued to have an important impact on her poetry. She is married to William Gillies, Professor Emeritus of Celtic Languages and Literature at Edinburgh University, with whom she has three children, and they live in Edinburgh. Along with Will Maclean, William and Valerie Gillies collaborated on St Kilda Waulking Song (1998), which features the poem by the same name in its original Gaelic and in a contemporary translation. In another family collaboration, she has contributed poems to the jewelry catalogues of her daughter Maeve, a Manhattan-based designer.
In an interview with Rebecca E. Wilson, when she was asked about the difficulties of juggling domestic life with young children and her work as a writer, Gillies responded:
I had a lot of peace in the first part of my life. I was an only child with busy parents and stayed a lot of time with my grandparents in a very lonely place. …I had a kind of adult life in miniature. I had a contemplative nature. I read books and did drawings and roamed around the moors. So in a way I’ve moved back. I’m suddenly going through the playfulness of childhood and enjoying my own children.
She began writing when she was fourteen, and was particularly encouraged by Norman MacCaig, whose first year as Writer in Residence at the University of Edinburgh coincided with Gillies’s starting there. Her poetry reflects a diversity of interests, but three of the most significant are Scottish history and identity, the environment, and human health. These three themes resurface and often intersect in both her print-page work and public art installations in collaboration with visual artists.
Many of Gillies’s poems represent an attempt to broaden traditional definitions of Scottish identity and history. Her viewpoint is that of a borderer who sees Scotland as a complex, heterogeneous society, shaped by many peoples and influences. She has written a number of poems about Scotland’s Roman past, many of which are included in Tweed Journey (1989). For this work, she has been named the poet laureate ad vitam of the Trimontium Trust, which curates the extensive Roman site and the museum at Melrose.
Her poems about Scotland’s involvement in the colonization of India, and specifically the Mysore wars, are more politically charged in that they challenge the uni-directional narrative of Scotland’s oppression by England, tracing Scotland’s role in British imperialism. Though the India poems reappear across Gillies’s collections, starting with her first, Each Bright Eye (1977), her exhibition Close Closer Closest (2007-8), with textile artist Anna King, is perhaps her most direct statement on this topic. Her poem ‘Tipu’s Amulet’, affixed to one of the art objects in the exhibition, chides the British for taking the amulet, a significant religious object, from the dying Tipu’s body, and keeping it as a national symbol of victory.
Gillies’s poetry is also focused on reclaiming the complexity of Scotland’s literary past by recovering its past women poets. In addition to the translation of ‘St Kilda Waulking Song’ mentioned above, Gillies’s The Chanter’s Tune (1990) includes several translations from the Gaelic of 17th-century poet Sileas na Ceapaich. In a later poem in The Lightning Tree (2002), ‘Beldorney Castle’, Gillies casts the poet as a muse whose voice is always with her.
The sound of Gillies’s poetry reflects this emphasis on diverse influences. She is clearly influenced by Scottish traditions and writes ballads, reels, and songs. One of the most striking of these poems is ‘Walter Elliot’s Reel’, from Tweed Journey. Asked by Rebecca E. Wilson why she did not write in Scots, Gillies answered:
At the time I ceased to speak in Scots I ceased to think in Scots. Then, at secondary school, Scots was definitely not acceptable, not even a Scots accent. The Scots I had been exposed to was very strong in vocabulary. It wasn’t just an accent. It was a whole language, dealing with the countryside, and work and daily tasks. That had to be excluded from life in Edinburgh, so it never really occurred to me to write in Scots.
Working with the harpist Savourna Stevenson, in particular, alerted Gillies to the musicality and memorability of language, ‘I have gradually moved away from looking at the words [when giving readings]. It comes alive somehow if you are not hanging on to that piece of paper.’ But she is also influenced by the cantos of Dante, most beautifully in ‘The Canto of Tweed’s Mouth’, also from Tweed Journey, and by the English sonnet, which she uses often in public installation work because of its familiarity and accessibility. Her poem ‘A Place Apart’, on display at the Marie Curie hospice in Edinburgh, is a modified sonnet, intended to offer comfort to patients and their families.
Gillies’s interests in Scottish identity and history are necessarily connected to her preoccupation with nature and the environment, since the nature that Gillies portrays is almost always that of Scotland. Like Norman MacCaig, one of her strongest influences, she identifies Scotland with its nature, but her nature poetry is never bereft of people. Gillies has been called the ‘river poet’ because of her poetry cycles on the Tay and Tweed, but there are always fishermen in her river and people living on the banks. She sees the environment as inclusive of humanity; its survival is also our survival. Though her nature poems present a calm surface, beneath there is often a sense of impending threat to the environment’s survival, and a sense of urgency about teaching the young to protect their heritage. For example, ‘Monk’s Well, St. Andrews’, from The Spring Teller (2008), seeks to connect the young students of the poem to their Celtic past, with its particular respect for water. Various civilizations come and go, but nature, for Gillies, is the connective thread of Scottish history. Her collaborations with various sculptors along the length of the Tweed River, at the source, at Leaderfoot, and at Coldstream, are a reminder of the interplay between human history and nature.
Given her understanding of the connectivity between nature and humanity, Gillies is also, not surprisingly, concerned with human health and healing. Her poetry often seeks to locate in past rituals the intangible spiritual presence that promotes healing. Her Strathfillan Sequence, from The Ringing Rock (1995), depicts with unflinching honesty both the violence and the power of the rituals associated with Saint Fillan, whose bell and holy pool were supposed to cure madness. Modern medicine is similarly a mixture of magic and violence, as is portrayed in the cancer poems, section two, of The Lightning Tree, about Gillies’s own battle with cancer. She received a prestigious Creative Scotland award to travel around Scotland and Ireland exploring springs and wells renowned for their healing properties, and The Spring Teller (2008) maps this territory with grace and insight.
A spring teller is a diviner, someone skilled in finding where water is, usually by dowsing. The word ‘teller’ contains the feeling of telling the story, communicating the rhythm and the individual voice of each spring. At the outset I knew that these poems would all be different rhythmically; it was almost as if the springs themselves were suggesting a whole new idea of poetics or metrics. (Interview in Textualities)
As with her work in other areas, Gillies’s commitment to human health often extends beyond the page. She has had a long history of using poetry in the caring and healing of others, first through working with psychiatric patients for the Royal Edinburgh Hospital who wished to develop their own writing skills, perhaps most significantly in her 1996 and 1998 Artlink project with photographer Rebecca Marr. She is currently a sessional member of staff at Maggie’s Cancer Centre, Edinburgh, where she promotes healing and personal growth through writing workshops and journaling.
But finally, Gillies’s deepest commitment is to poetry itself, to its survival as a genre in the modern world. She has worked to disseminate poetry in many forms – written, oral, and visual – so that it is a presence in the everyday life of the Scottish people.
Professor Laura Severin
North Carolina State University