Obituary: Valerie Irvine-Fortescue, Wren, librarian and poet

Born: 28 May, 1925 in Aberdeen. Died: 2 May, 2016, in Peterculter, Aberdeen, aged 90

Poet was a creative force whose life switched from colonial India to Scotland. Picture: Contributed
Poet was a creative force whose life switched from colonial India to Scotland. Picture: Contributed

Valerie Irvine-Fortescue was a creative force whose life ran the gamut from colonial India to idyllic Scottish childhood, wartime service as a Wren and later as a librarian turned poet

The daughter of a Great War hero, Colonel William Irvine Fortescue of the Royal Engineers, who was decorated with the Military Cross and Bar, she spent her earliest years in Quetta where her mother Joan Powell lived.

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On her parents’ divorce, when she was still pre-school age, she was sent back to Scotland by boat, with her Indian nanny and her elder brother Harry, to live with their grandparents, Dr William and Edith Irvine-Fortescue, at Kingcausie, Maryculter, just west of Aberdeen.

Though separated from her mother, she enjoyed a happy upbringing, free to explore the wooded policies and with the run of beautiful gardens.

Until the age of 13 she was educated at St Margaret’s School for Girls in Aberdeen. She then completed her education at St Elphin’s School in Darley Dale near Matlock, Derbyshire before returning to the Granite City and Webster’s Secretarial College.

By that time the Second World War was more than halfway through and her father was serving his country once again.

Young Valerie, having trained as a secretary, also made her contribution to the war effort, working with the Women’s Royal Naval Service. She was stationed at Liphook, Hampshire, where she used her secretarial skills in the Pay Office.

After the war she went to Germany where her father, who had re-married, was stationed. However she had already developed schizophrenia by then and her psychiatric difficulties became more evident there. After returning to England she went home to Aberdeen and, though she would continue to struggle with aspects of her mental health, she ultimately became more settled and for the most part conquered her problems.

She worked at Aberdeen University’s King’s College Library, for the renowned academic Dr W Douglas Simpson who was librarian there for 40 years.

Then, restless in the north-east of Scotland, she moved south to London where she also worked as a librarian, this time in Hammersmith. It was during this period that she met the author John Cunliffe, who would go on to create the Postman Pat and Rosie add Jim characters.

They remained good friends for the rest of her life, keeping up correspondence and sharing poetry.

After returning once more to Aberdeen she spent some time at Royal Cornhill Hospital, a centre for the treatment of mental health problems, but went on to channel her energies into creative work. She also lived near the hospital and enjoyed being responsible for its library.

An enthusiastic writer who concentrated on poetry, she was a long-standing member of an Aberdeen poetry group and published two books of her poems which illustrated her quirky use of words and outlook on life, usually viewed from the point of her strong Christian faith – possibly a throwback to her youth when her grandfather used to gather the children and staff each evening to read from the family bible.

One of her books, Love from Valerie, was an anthology of 47 poems. She was also published in the Church of Scotland’s magazine Life and Work and in Scottish Field and during the war one of her pieces of work had appeared in the Royal Marine’s journal Globe & Laurel. She wrote poetry right up until the end and her work was recently submitted for a competition.

Only a few weeks before she died a friend gave her a notebook on which to jot her observations from the nursing home where she lived latterly, after hanging on to her independence for as long as she could. Prophetically the single line on the front page read “The concert was over”.

Amusing, generous and kind-hearted, often beyond her means, her final act was to donate her body to medical research.

She never married and is survived by her extended family.