Introducing the evening and our guest, the host said that it was a very special event for the Monthly Book Group. It was the first time a book of poetry had been discussed, and the first meeting where we had been honoured to have the author of the book present – in this case an internationally known and highly regarded poet.
Valerie Gillies was a longstanding friend of the host. She was born in Canada, grew up in Scotland, and studied at Edinburgh University. A Commonwealth Scholarship had allowed her to continue her studies at Mysore University in India. She had been writing poetry since she was fourteen and had been a freelance writer since 1971. She was well known as the River Poet who followed the Tweed and the Tay from source to sea. She was the winner of several prestigious awards and had held several writing fellowships across Scotland.
Valerie had written several books of poetry including Each Bright Eye, Bed of Stone, Tweed Journey, The Chanters Tune, The Ringing Rock and The Lightning Tree and a book of non-fiction Men and Beasts with photographer Rebecca Marr. Her subjects were wide and varied. She had written about cities, towns, castles, houses, people, rivers, animals, fish, birds, insects, guns, medical matters, her family, natural phenomena and, of course, springs and wells. Her poetry was to be found etched onto plaques and stones throughout Scotland.
She had been appointed the poet laureate for Edinburgh, the first female Edinburgh “Makar”, in 2005 and her official poems include The Balm Well, A Place Apart about the quiet room at Marie Curie Centre and To Edinburgh for the official opening of the new Council’s Headquarters. She taught creative writing in schools, colleges and hospitals. Valerie was also well known for her collaborative achievements in the visual arts and music’, and was editor of the interactive Poetry Map of Scotland.
Valerie was married to Professor William Gillies, Professor of Celtic Studies at Edinburgh University, and two of their children were pursuing careers in the decorative arts. The “Spring Teller”, the subject of discussion with the Group, was written over a period of three years from 2005 and was Valerie’s most recent work. Her beautiful poems covered wells and springs throughout Scotland, plus one or two in Ireland and even in Wales, India and Crete. Her descriptions were of the locations of the wells and springs, and their topography, history, traditions, healing properties, and wildlife. Also discussed were visitors to the wells, local people and efforts to unblock ancient wells.
Valerie had been a neighbour for many years, and indeed had composed many of her poems in a summer-house adjoining his garden, which he hoped indicated they had proved good neighbours.
Indeed so, agreed the lady herself (who could perhaps say little else about the state of neighbourly relations, thought your eagle-eyed correspondent, whose suspicions were aroused when it later transpired she had penned a poem entitled “Berserk in Morningside”…).
Mrs Gillies said she traced her fascination with wells and springs back to her grandfather, who had taken her as a child on a mystery tour to an Angus glen. There he had filled a lemonade bottle from a spring and said “there, that’s the water I dreamt of every night in the trenches…”
It was particularly apt that the Book Group was meeting on the last day of April, because there was a tradition of visiting wells to celebrate them on the first day of May, or on the first Sunday of May. We speculated on why such traditions and our fascination with water might exist. The month of May associated with the Virgin? The fact that we were ourselves largely composed of water? The positive ions produced by flowing water – but wells did not flow (ah not so, we were told, a well is an enclosed spring in which the water moves – not a stagnant pool). Our uterine beginnings in water? Water as part of fertility rituals?
A clue, suggested Valerie, was given by archaeologists, who had not found remains earlier than Roman in Scottish wells. Such Roman remains had included whole breastplates of armour. So perhaps the tradition of honouring wells had started with the Roman tradition of equipping the deceased for their journey to the next world.
Whatever the origins, it had become customary to “silver the well”. This was of course done with silver coin, and – if that could not be afforded – a small white pebble was used (an example was shown to us by the poet). This tradition had been debased both literally and metaphorically these days by the throwing in of one or two pence coins.
But not everything was developing for the worse. There was a growth of interest in well-visiting in some parts of Scotland, for example in the Black Isle. This applied particularly to “clootie wells” (rag wells) where a piece of clothing from a sick person was hung up by the well, with the hope that as the cloot decayed so would the illness. (We were advised against placing the sort of non-decaying garments known to be favoured by Monthly Book Group members, such as shell-suits, polythene bags etc, as they might prolong the illness).
This growth in interest might reflect the general growth of interest in Scotland in archaic traditions, as well as in alternative medicine. And there was certainly evidence that the favouring of certain wells for particular illnesses was soundly based scientifically on their particular chemical properties, such as the chalybeate wells for anaemia, a well that was a cure for “dry–eye”… and so on. The Balm-Well at Liberton was famous for producing a tarry oil that was good for the complexion and skin complaints, and had been much used by everyone in Scotland including royalty in past centuries.
And the poet took particular pride in the fact that some of her poems had helped to revivify interest in historic wells or springs that had been blocked off, perhaps for health and safety reasons. One example was St Anthony’s Well on Arthur’s Seat, where there was now a chance it would be restored.
How did she go about writing her poems? The Ordnance Survey “Explorer” maps, large enough to show wells and springs, were an important part of her kit. Also important – for finding wells and springs that had been covered up – was a set of dowsing rods. Dowsing rods definitely worked, and could easily be bought via the web (or indeed made from coathangers).
A sceptical scientist in the group picked up her set of dowsing rods, held them out, and was astounded when they twitched towards a large pool of brown liquid in front of him, contained in a pint glass. And he continued this experiment – with the same results – periodically throughout the evening.
Her normal method was to record her impressions in some notes and sketches, then later write a poem in pencil, and finally type it up. She wrote little prose, as prose offered an infinity of choice of word, whereas the rhythmic structure of poetry forced the writer towards the right word.
Poetic influences? Some favourites were Michael Longley, Sorley MacLean, and John Clare.
We then moved on to inviting Valerie to read – and discuss – our favourite poems from the book. These included:
“Munlochy”, a sinister poem about a spooky clootie well;
“Queen Mary’s Bath-house” and “Spring, Tinto Hill” – where the traditional rhyme and metrical structure found favour;
“The Wellhead”, a political poem addressed to the Scottish Parliament about the lack of history teaching in Scottish schools;
“Samuel Rutherford”, which recounted the tale of a famous divine who, when a boy, had fallen into a deep well. When those who had gone for help returned they found him safe by the side of the well. He told them he had been rescued by an Angel.
The poet herself put forward the poem “The Butter Well” in the Lowthers, about a well which had been used in butter-making.
We noted how interesting it was to hear the rhythms conveyed by the poet herself reading aloud, and discussed the impact of unconventional metrical structures.
We then ranged more widely, discussing the use of poetry in cancer care, and hearing from the proposer two particularly poignant poems from the collection “The Lightning Tree”. We heard of an indentation in a bank manager’s lawn which had turned out to cover the gaping chasm of a thirty foot well – was this a portent of the credit crunch?
We established that the poet was next undertaking a poetry-writing project in America, listening to their birds in their woods; and we then insisted she signed our copies of “The Spring Teller”.
Then at last she was free from the clutches of the Monthly Book Group, and could retreat. Perhaps to the safety of her summer-house, to pen “Berserk in Morningside Revisited”.
Meanwhile the members of the Group spilled out into the street, led by the no longer sceptical scientist, convinced that his dowsing rods would soon lead us to a public house…