Obituary: William Neill

Poet of Scots, Gaelic and English among few non-Gaels to win Mod's bardic crown

Born: 22 February, 1922, in Prestwick.

Died: 5 April, 2010, in Dalbeattie, aged 88.

WILLIAM Neill was a larger than life figure who defended his cultural heritage with a fervour that inspired many and alienated a few. He was an extraordinary tradition bearer with an appreciation of what it meant to be Scottish and he maintained that stance throughout his life.

Willie was born in Prestwick in 1922. His father was from Ballantrae and his mother from Kilmarnock.

He often talked about his formative years in Ayrshire and how he had heard fishermen from the Western Isles speaking this strange language called "Gaelic" as they tended their boats in the harbour. He was curious enough to find out more and applied himself to learn the language and become a fluent Gaelic speaker and writer.

Willie joined the RAF at the age of 16 and rose to the rank of master navigator. Although he had published a few short stories during his years in the RAF, he was a late starter in regards to poetry.

On leaving the service, he received a grant and studied Celtic and English language and literature at Edinburgh University, graduating with an honours degree in Celtic studies in 1971.

In 1969 he won the bardic crown at the National Mod in Aviemore with his poem Hope on the Shore, an honour very few non-Gaels had achieved.

Following this triumph and all the attendant publicity, Willie approached me with a proposition. Now acclaimed as a poet, he had nothing to offer the public in book form and would I help him to produce a booklet of poetry at his expense?

I readily agreed, and published Scotland's Castle, a long poem written in Scots. This effectively launched me on a publishing career that lasted 32 years.

During this period I published more of his poems in Four Points of a Saltire (1971), Despatches Home (1972) and Making Tracks (1988) adding up to a total of more than a dozen publications, the last being Caledonian Cramboclink (Luath Press).

In early 1970 Willie, with his friend "Dodo" Gilmour, Sylvia Fraser and Dr Stuart MacGregor, met in Milne's Bar in Edinburgh's Hanover Street and decided to provide a platform where writers could read their work to an audience in convivial surroundings. The group they formed met monthly in the New Town Hotel and was called "The Heretics". Over the next few years, many of the best writers in Scotland appeared as guests and many new writers got their first chance to make their mark there.

Willie detested centralist government, regarding it as a harness on Scots' aspirations, and campaigned against it through his poems, prose and letters to the press.

"The world gleams from its diamonds of individuality," he said. "Since the union we have been brainwashing our children with an alien culture."

Willie had a sharp sense of humour and could turn his pen to satirical verse with great effect if someone or something displeased him.

When a Church of Scotland minister reviewed his work unfavourably in a party political broadsheet, Willie took his revenge in Art and Salvation, which appeared in Catalyst magazine. The first verse reads:

The Meenister o Heich Drumclartie (Mock-tudor villas, chromium pub … Whaur big-wamed baillies hale and herty Discuss the local yachting club)… He's no content tae ding doon sinners In dowie sairmons in the kirk… Maun pit puir scrievers aff their dinners An dae a poetry critics work.

Willie was the editor of two Scottish literary magazines, Catalyst and Lallans, and was a frequent contributor to most of the others. His poems appeared in many anthologies and were broadcast on radio and television.

He won both the Grierson Verse Prize and the Sloan Prize in 1970. He received a Scottish Arts Council bursary in 1984 and a Book Award in 1985 and was sponsored by the Scottish Arts Council and the British Council for readings in Ireland and Germany respectively.

Willie was unique in many ways, not least being the fact that, following in the footsteps of George Campbell Hay, he was the only other recognised poet who could write fluently in the three languages of Scotland: Gaelic, Scots and English. "Poets like to play with words," he once remarked, "and there's nothing wrong with having a bigger toy box than the man next door."

Willie had a great love of the countryside and in an interview with Tom Pow on Scottish Television's In Verse series he said: "I live by Loch Ken side and have a wide expanse of water on one side and moorland above me on the other so it's not surprising that the wildlife gives rise to some verses."

In his poem On Loch Ken Side he writes:

Up frae the rashes, heich abune the trees, Intil the lift wi eldrich skraich an cletter, In thair ticht squadrons tovin, the wild geese I watch in joy wing frae the braid lown watter.

On the revival of the 200 Burns Club in 1992 he was installed as one of the three club bards to join Norman MacCaig and Iain Crichton Smith, who both gave his appointment their warm approval.

After ten years teaching at Castle Douglas High School, Willie retired and spent much of his time at his home in Crossmichael, where he continued to write until his health started to deteriorate a few years ago

Friends, relatives and fellow writers saw him laid to rest in the cemetery at Crossmichael, close to Loch Ken, in the beautiful Galloway countryside that inspired many of his poems.

He is survived by his wife, Dodo, and his daughters from a former marriage, Alisoun and Deborah.

GORDON WRIGHT