Article published in Independence Magazine Nov/Dec 2013
I’ve known homeless people, and interviewed homeless women about their experiences, so was well aware that people who are homeless rarely match the stereotype. Nevertheless, a few years ago, it came as quite a shock to me to find out that the Scottish poet I was researching – Marion Angus (1865-1946) – had been homeless, at one point in her life. For almost fifteen years she flitted between family members and friends, took short lets of cottages and flats, stayed in ‘lodgings’ and private hotels.
The second child of seven, from a prosperous, educated and cultured background, she grew up in an affluent household – a daughter of the manse. As a child, one of her great pleasures was to wander the braes and beaches of Angus with a book in her pocket, looking for a quiet place to read. As a young adult, she wandered the nearby hills and glens, then strode further afield into the Grampians – and beyond. She loved her land, her heritage and ‘her guid Scots tongue’ with a passion.
The Wee Sma Glen
The water dreeped frae stane tae stane
The wild rose bloomed and dee’d its lane
But lip tae praise it there was nane
Til Mary cam tae the Wee Sma Glen.
It wasna when she pu’ed the briar,
Nor lauched tae see the rowan’s fire,
But when her een grew saft and weet,
At sichts ower fair and soonds ower sweet,
The whisper gaed frae hill tae hill,
The very herps o Heaven grew still;
God minded on the Wee Sma Glen,
And kenned it wasna wrocht in vain.
Aye, she loved Scotland, and if she was alive now, I guarantee she’d be signing up to the Yes Campaign, even though – I must admit – she didn’t support the SNP when it started up.
So what went wrong in her life?
Her homelessness can be traced back to circumstances which were out of her control – as is very often the case. Her two sisters fell in love with the same man – another minister in Arbroath. He chose one. The other developed mental health problems and was admitted to a private hospital. Marion’s father died, possibly as a result of stress caused by the scandal. The family had to leave the manse and the mother decided she could no longer pay the hospital fees. Marion had to give up her writing career, which had barely started, to become carer for her mother – by now also an invalid, and her sister, whose mental health problems persisted for many years.
In April 1930, when Marion was sixty-five years old, her sister was admitted as a private patient to Gartnavel Hospital, where she eventually died. Marion had to sell their house in Aberdeen and, from then on, had no home of her own. She moved to the Glasgow area to be near her sister though she longed to be back in the northeast.
Foxgloves and Snow
Two things have set the world a-twist
And spoiled the music of the spheres;
One is a lovely secret missed,
And one a wrong beyond all tears.
Sweet secret — I shall never know,
Though seas run dry, and suns turn cold,
How many purple foxgloves grow
This summer by the ruined fold.
And — sorry wrong — though roses red
By western waters bloom and fall,
No more I watch the last snow fade
On a dark hill above Glen Doll.
‘I feel like a leaf before the wind’, Marion wrote to a friend, ‘only – a leaf has no business worries, nor sleepless nights, nor human feelings of anxiety or grief’.
Little wonder her writing career stalled again. She was elderly and infirm. Her income had been reduced in the 1930s stock exchange crash. It was difficult to keep in touch with friends as she was constantly on the move. Both of the sisters were ill by this time. Knowing that the predominantly male literary elite patronised her as ‘an elderly spinster who communed with fairies’ won’t have boosted her confidence. It must have been a struggle to exist, never mind to ‘create’. ‘My soul has gone silent,’ she wrote. ‘You will see that like a pigeon with a broken wing I have perched here half-heartedly waiting in a hopeless kind of way for what will happen next.’
No, I’m not going to tell you what did happen next…
Ach well, but dinnae fash yersel. It’s nae like ye’ve tae puzzle it oot yersel. Whit I will say is that I’ve written twa books aboot Marion. Ane – The Singin Lass, Selected Works of Marion Angus, is a book o her ‘diaries’ and poems, wi a wee biography o her in it. It was published nae that lang syne. The t’ither is a wee bookie – a novel, Blackthorn, wi her ither life story…
Ither? How come?
Weel, I didnae just scrieve aboot whit we ken. If I’d done that, she’d hae been stuck wi the wey she’s aye been seen – a poor auld sowel. Sae I kept the banes o her story, but listened tae the hert o her, that speaks through whit she wrote. There’s plenty wee hints she kent mair aboot life than she was gien credit for. Sae my novel daes her mair justice than the wee biography in The Singin Lass… shows her gumption, shows the wey she was wi fowk… and mair.
I dinnae think she’d mind me writin aboot her. My guess is she’d be glad. She wasnae just a puir auld wifie. She was feisty, gallus and a bonnie fechter, richt tae the end o her days. And she was used tae makkin up things hersel oniewey, and was gey guid at it. In her ‘diary’ that was published ilka week i the ‘Arbroath Guide’, ye cannae hardly tell wha’s real and wha isnae. This here proves she wouldnae be bothered her bum:
March 3rd 1899
And, if some curious searcher after things forgotten lights on this old Diary of mine, and smiles at the thoughts and doings and mistakes of a dead woman, will they write in pencil on the margin – as I found today alongside ‘The Burial of Sir John Moore’ at ‘and the moonbeams fitful gleaming’ –
‘Calculated that there could have been no moonlight on the date of these events.’
Ach, her poems is fu o the moonlicht!
The Singin Lass: Selected Work of Marion Angus (Polygon, 2006) is available at a bargain price of £4.99 plus postage and packing.
Blackthorn (Lumphanan Press, 2013) available (November) at £9.99, plus postage and packing.
The two books together £12.00, plus postage and packing (make a fine present for somebody!)
Available from my website www.aimeechalmers.com. All profits to the independence campaign.
Marion Angus deserved a better life, homeless people everywhere deserve a better future. The people of Scotland deserve a better future. Independence – let’s make it happen.