Obituary, Catherine Walker, Curator of the War Poets Collection at Edinburgh Napier University

Catherine Walker, librarian. Born: 17 January, 1957 in Musselburgh. Died: 15 November, 2021 in Edinburgh aged 64

Catherine Walker uncovered stories which brought new insights into the War Poets’ work

Catherine Walker was widely recognised as the keeper of the history of Edinburgh Napier University’s landmark Craiglockhart campus.

As Curator of the War Poets Collection, based in the building where Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon first met more than a century ago, she uncovered stories which brought new insights into the work of the literary greats to audiences in Scotland and across the world.

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On one occasion, the role involved taking a phone call from Hollywood actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who agreed to read poems by Owen for a digital exhibit.

At other times, it meant becoming the slightly reluctant but supremely authoritative media face of the collection when the Sky News or BBC camera crews came calling.

However, whether her audience was visiting school pupils or international academics, her listeners always left better informed about the poets and the history of the Craiglockhart building, and enthused by Catherine’s passion for her subject.

It was with great sadness that her many friends and the Edinburgh Napier University community learned of her passing at the city’s St Columba’s Hospice on November 15 at the age of 64.

Catherine had begun her career as an assistant with the City of Edinburgh Libraries and over the following years she worked in a series of public and academic libraries, including Midlothian District Library, the National Library of Scotland, the Poultry Research Centre, the University of Edinburgh and the National Museum of Scotland.

Then in 1990, she was offered a post as library assistant at the Merchiston campus library at what was then Napier Polytechnic of Edinburgh.

The then University Librarian Rennie McElroy encouraged her to follow up her BA in sociology with the Open University by undertaking a post-graduate diploma in Library and Information Science, a Master’s degree and a professional qualification. She was promoted to the post of campus library manager at Craiglockhart in 1996.

The building had once been the Craiglockhart War Hospital, and part of Catherine’s duties became developing and promoting the War Poets Collection, which had been established there in 1988. Catherine played an important part in the establishing of the permanent War Poets Collection exhibition in the former main entrance of the War Hospital.

The exhibition offers an insight into war through the words and memories of officers, medical staff and relatives, and Catherine’s energy and enthusiasm led the collection to gain international recognition and importance.

Catherine retired from the library in 2016, but her association with the University continued as she stepped into her new role as Curator of the War Poets Collection.

Over the years she worked hard to uncover stories not only of the likes of Owen and Sassoon and the connections they made in Edinburgh, but also of the staff of the War Hospital, from famous doctors such as W.H.R. Rivers, to the mostly forgotten histories of the nursing staff such as the formidable sounding Matron McBean.

A fantastic ambassador for the collection and the university as a whole, Catherine undertook extensive outreach activity, giving tours and well-received talks to numerous groups and organisations, alongside being interviewed on the collection by numerous media outlets. She was always incredibly generous with her time.

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In 2006 Catherine was sponsored to travel to France to visit the Somme battlefields for their 90th anniversary. Catherine was heavily involved in the WW100 commemorations between 2014 and 2019 that resulted in many events in Scotland and elsewhere. Catherine was involved in a project to take a bough of a tree on the Craiglockhart campus which was used to create the Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves violins and two other instruments. These violins were used in many WW100 events, including a very memorable event in Birkenhead, where Owen had briefly lived. In 2018 Catherine was invited to Ors and the Sambre canal where she took part in the retracing of the steps of Wilfred Owen’s last journey before he was killed.

In 2017, Catherine was recognised for her services to education and heritage in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List and was awarded an MBE.

In October this year, she was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by Edinburgh Napier for her outstanding contribution to the university’s library service and for her work with the War Poets Collection, with English lecturer Dr Andrew Frayn writing a wonderful laureation.

Malcolm Jones, head of library services at Edinburgh Napier, said: “Catherine had a gift for sharing her enthusiasm about the War Poets collection with all that came into contact with her. Her tours of the Collection were outstanding, and the rich stories she told really made it come alive.

“From Princess Anne at the opening of Craighouse campus, through international academics, to visitors seeking information about ancestors, and schoolchildren touring the Collection for school projects – all left enlightened and entertained.

“Her deep investment in the history of the Craiglockhart building, and the many lives that it touched, enabled her to grow the Collection into something that all visitors could reach out to and enjoy across the years.

“Catherine was a great networker, with wonderful communication skills. So much of the richness around the War Poets Collection comes from its stories – the intangible history of the campus – and Catherine’s warm personality enabled such sharing to happen very naturally.”

Catherine leaves behind a devoted husband Alan, only son Steven and his wife Jemma, a delightful granddaughter Ella, her mother Irene and her sister Elaine.

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