Under the rose - Stella Cartwright

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Lover and muse of our greatest poets, Stella Cartwright's tragic life is still a mystery

MORE than 20 years after her death, Stella Cartwright still has the power to upset people. In 2006, the writer Maggie Fergusson published an acclaimed biography of Orkney writer George Mackay Brown. It revealed that far from being a celibate recluse, Mackay Brown had a long relationship with Cartwright, the young woman fabled during her lifetime as the Muse of Rose Street.

Fergusson's book touched on Stella's other affairs with some of Scotland's most important men of letters. Shortly after it was published, Fergusson received a letter from a relative of one of Stella's poet lovers objecting that the story had been made public.

Even today, making a programme for Radio 4 about the woman who captivated a whole generation of Scottish writers hasn't been easy. Not all of Stella's love affairs are in the public domain. The writers and their wives may be dead, but there are middle-aged children alive today who don't want their fathers' names to be linked with Stella's.

Cartwright's story offers an extraordinary insight into the cultural ferment which centred on Edinburgh's Rose Street in the 1950s and '60s. Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig, Tom Scott, Sydney Goodsir Smith and the others were a competitive, creative, masculine coterie who between them wrote some of the finest Scottish poetry of the last century.

Around 1953, into the midst of this male world came Stella Cartwright, a 16-year-old from the Edinburgh suburb of Juniper Green. She was young and sexually attractive. She also knew her way around Scottish poetry, which must have flattered the middle-aged poets. Before long she had embarked on a passionate affair with Tom Scott, who was almost twice her age. The relationship was so intense it destroyed his first marriage. Scott was just the first of the Rose Street poets to fall for Stella. In 1957, George Mackay Brown met her in the Abbotsford Bar. Stella was 20, and he was 36. Soon the two fell in love, and were briefly engaged. After the engagement with Mackay Brown was broken off, Stella moved on to Sydney Goodsir Smith, though she corresponded with Mackay Brown until her death.

What did Cartwright have? The few existing photos of her show a laughing, curly-haired young woman. She looks full of life, though in black and white she doesn't seem a great beauty. But half a century on, no one has forgotten her. "An orgasm with Miss Cartwright was metaphysical, transcendental, like nothing else you can ever imagine," the poet Stanley Roger Green told me. "She seemed built for love."

What makes Cartwright's story worth telling is not that she had affairs with some of Scotland's leading poets. It is that she seems to have inspired them to write some of their most impressive work.

Scott's anguished poem of midlife crisis and religious loss, 'The Paschal Candil', describes the woman who led him "Throu midlife's forests, whaur no licht wes leamand." Goodsir Smith celebrated Stella's power in verse, calling her "a lassie frae the mune". MacCaig gave her a witty four-line poem warning her not to put him on a pedestal. Mackay Brown wrote Stella a birthday poem every year for the rest of her life.

"She seems to have been a muse figure for just about every male writer in Scotland," says Joy Hendry, editor of Chapman magazine. "She had a stellar quality – sheer animal sexuality combined with this exquisite soul."

Even during her own lifetime Stella was known as the Muse of Rose Street, but before long the street's bars started to exert a terrible price. By her late twenties alcohol was taking over her life. She had always drunk heavily, but drink made her aggressive and out of control.

Her ongoing correspondence with Mackay Brown records her disintegration. Some letters are little more than fragments, shopping lists splashed with alcohol or tears. In one agonising note she wrote "George, what have I done so wrong to be thrown on the rubbish heap at 32?" Before long she was reduced to selling Mackay Brown's letters to a book dealer in return for money to buy drink.

Until now accounts of Stella have assumed that she inspired poetry but didn't write any. In fact the Muse wrote too. In one poem, 'Why, what happened', broadcast in the radio programme about her, she seems to yearn to settle down. But Anne Leith, a school friend of Stella doubts that: "She had a fear of bourgeois domesticity. I couldn't see her ever settling."

Cartwright died in 1985 at the age of 47. She had been battling alcoholism for 20 years. None of the poets whom she had loved attended her funeral.

"People have such different views of her," says Fergusson. "There are people who will tell you how mesmerising and beautiful she was, and people who will tell you the exact opposite."

How many more poems did Stella inspire? It took the discovery of Stella's letters to Mackay Brown to lift the lid a little on her extraordinary story. In the National Library of Scotland, major literary archives, including MacCaig's, are still under lock and key. Who knows how much they will reveal about the vibrant, damaged woman who left such a mark on the face of Scottish literature?

• The Muse Of Rose Street, Radio 4, today, 4.30pm