Violet Augusta Mary Frederica Kennedy-Erskine was born at the House of Dun near Montrose, on 1 September 1863, eldest daughter of William Henry Kennedy-Erskine, 18th laird of Dun, and his wife Catherine Jones, a Welsh landowner’s daughter. She was educated at home, but the House of Dun’s large library was open to her, and she showed an early interest in art and literature. In later writings she hinted at the ‘suffocating respectability’ of the life she and her siblings were meant to lead, though since it has been quoted about her (in Helen Cruickshank’s Octobiography) that she was ‘aye in and oot amo’ the ploomen’s feet at the Mains o’ Dun’, the children cannot have been entirely remote from ordinary life.
In 1894 Jacob married Arthur Otway Jacob, an Irishman serving as a lieutenant with the 20th Royal Hussars in 1894; the marriage was a long and happy one, and the couple had one son, Harry. If as a girl Jacob had yearned to see life afar from the ordinary, she was given a chance to do so when in 1895 the regiment was posted to India. Her Diaries and Letters from India, 1895-1900 indicate that she enjoyed life there, showing a great interest in Indian culture and society, learning some Hindustani, nursing in the local military hospital. She painted five volumes of illustrations of Indian flowers which are now in the library of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
It was as well that Jacob relished the nomadic army life, for postings to South Africa and Egypt followed, and thereafter the family lived in various garrison towns in England, though with a base for long leave periods at Llantomas in Herefordshire. After Major Jacob retired, they moved to Ludlow, and following her husband’s death, Jacob returned to Angus for the last years of her life, living in Kirriemuir until her death in September 1946. She is buried with her husband in the churchyard at Dun.
Jacob was a very private person, revealing little of herself even in her diaries, and perhaps less in her poetry. This must have been due to personal preference, but perhaps also to a certain extent to her position as officer’s wife. Susan Tweedsmuir, later the wife of John Buchan, recalled in her autobiography:
Violet had published a small book of poetry, which made her a little suspect to the military society of Cairo. But her charm and beauty and aptitude for getting on with people helped her to live down even poetry.
Jacob’s first excursion into published poetry had been in her twenties, with a humorous narrative poem written in collaboration with Walter Douglas Campbell, in 1888. The poems in Verses, which came out in 1905, were all in English, and a long way from the much more direct, grounded language and themes in her next book of poetry, Songs of Angus (1915). In her introduction to Voices from their ain countrie: the poems of Marion Angus and Violet Jacob, Katherine Gordon points out the great differences between the two publications:
The poems in Songs of Angus are, for the most part, simple in their language and imagery and, unlike the poems of Verses, spoken almost exclusively by poor rural people, some of whom are exiles.
Jacob’s two Scottish historical novels had been written just before and during the decade between the two books of poetry, (The Interloper in 1904 and Flemington in 1911), both containing excellent Scots dialogue. Jacob was obviously interested in using the dramatic monologue form; Katherine Gordon argues that speaking through different personae in her poetry also gave Jacob the means to preserve the anonymity she desired.
The great tragedy of Jacob’s life, her only son’s death in the Battle of the Somme, is directly addressed in a single poem in English, ‘To A. H. J.’, which opens More Songs of Angus and others (1918), but the continuing grief cries through many subsequent poems, grief often personified in the voice of a bereaved farm woman, as in ‘The Field by the Lirk o’ the Hill’:
Prood maun ye lie,
Prood did ye gang;
Auld, auld am I,
But O! Life’s lang!
Ghaists i’ the air,
Whaups cryin’ shrill,
An’ you nae mair
I’ the field by the lirk o’ the hill –
Aye, bairn, nae mair, nae mair,
I’ the field by the lirk o’ the hill!
Never really recovering from her son’s death, Jacob wrote no more novels, but continued writing poetry, much of it first published in Country Life, but also in the emerging publications of the Scottish Renaissance: Scottish Chapbook and Northern Numbers. Hugh MacDiarmid wrote a piece on her in the Scottish Educational Journal in 1925; though not uncritical, he admired her grip of the vernacular and commended her contribution to writing in Scots. To Jacob, though, using Scots was a natural result of her desire to write of and through the lives of the people of her native Angus; as John Buchan put it in his introduction to Songs of Angus: ‘She writes Scots because what she has to say could not be written otherwise’.
Jacob had great sympathy with the lives of others, especially those who were not blessed in their lot – the poor, the put-upon, the vagrants. She had a keen eye, too, for the age-old inequalities in the relationships between men and women, giving a voice to the abandoned pregnant girl in ‘The End O’t’:
Oh, wha tak’s tent for a fadin’ cheek?
No him, I’se warrant, that gar’d it fade!
There’s little love for a lass to seek
When the coortin’s through an’ the price is paid.
Jacob captures young love best in her famous poem ‘Tam i’ the Kirk’ where the lovesickness of the lad burns off the page:
He canna sing for the sang that his ain he’rt raises,
He canna see for the mist that’s ‘afore his een,
And a voice drouns the hale o’ the psalms an’ the paraphrases,
Cryin’ ‘Jean, Jean, Jean!’
Violet Jacob received an honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1936. Scotland has taken her poetry to heart – her poem ‘The Wild Geese’ was shortlisted in BBC Radio Scotland’s poll of the nation’s favourite poems in 2006. It has been set to music, becoming a very popular song, suffused with the exile’s longing for home: ‘There’s muckle lyin’ ‘yont the Tay that’s mair to me nor life.’