He possessed an extraordinary linguistic versatility in English, Scots, Lowland Scots and Gaelic, and his verse writing is, for some, therefore difficult to categorise or assess.
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But in his poetry there is a genuineness and an authenticity which is at the heart of both Neill, as an individual, and all his work. In The Ayrshire Farmer, a relatively early work, he demonstrates a fine facility with words, and an energy drives the poem forwards from the opening verse:
I remember the black chains that hung
on the swee above the fire, and I remember
the men who sat in the farm kitchen;
they wore stout boots, and their hands were no less rough.
They could not read, or would not read
except what they read in the sky, on the moor and the hills
and the noise of ploughshares ripping the winter turf
was a kind of music to them.
The verbal picture he paints is familiar to many and the colour he adds with the careful use of adjectives adds a musical, almost lyrical quality. This is much heightened as, although the work is in English, Neill uses wonderfully descriptive Scots words that add greatly to the mystery and drama.
William Neill – always Willie – was born in Prestwick and grew up in the farming communities of Ayrshire. It was this rural upbringing and love of the countryside that was to become the backbone of all the poetry he wrote. In 1938 he joined the RAF and served in the Second World War as a fitter, then a navigator. He left the RAF in 1967 with the rank of Warrant Officer. In 1968 he read for a degree in celtic studies as a mature student (“very mature”, in his own words) at Edinburgh University and graduated with an honours degree in 1971.
Neill taught English in Galloway for 10 years, before retiring to the village of Crossmichael, near Castle Douglas. But Neill always wrote poetry and he delighted in writing with the three languages. He was a wonderful wordsmith in each of them and enjoyed speaking the Gaelic. He won the Bardic Crown at the Aviemore Mod in 1969 and was an enthusiastic honorary president of the Scottish Language Society. Recently he had been awarded the coveted Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun Award by the Scottish Saltire Society. It is sad that he will not be able to accept such a prestigious and well-deserved honour in person.
It is his wonderful poems – all pictures in words – that will rightly remain as his lasting legacy. Always down-to-earth and uncompromising in his religious, artistic and political beliefs, Neill was a generous and courteous man with a ready smile that would spread over his face with a kindly warmth. He was a passionate Scot and a great lover of Galloway: in 1982 he celebrated the countryside of the area in Galloway Landscape and Other Poems.
In an interview in 2005 with John Hudson, Neill spoke warmly of both Byron and Wordsmith but rued that satire lacks bite in modern English: “In Scots,” he said with obvious relish, “satire still has a definite bite.”
Neill preserved that bite and enthusiasm throughout all his writing: he celebrated Scotland and the Scottish tongue with a grand, elegant beauty. In a poignant passage in the interview Neill reads part of the poem, Heliant John, about those who died in the First World War. His simple final “Awa’. Awa’” speaks volumes and captures that awesome war with an emotional realism.
Neill was twice married; he divorced his first wife Diane, who died of cancer. He is survived by his second wife “Dodo” and two daughters by his first marriage.
Born February 22, 1922;
Died April 5, 2010
THE great Scots makar Willie Neill was one of the greatest Scots poets of the 20th century. He grew up among the farming communities of Ayrshire, and it was this rural upbringing that informed much of the great poetry of his maturity.
He has left a remarkable poetic legacy. A makar of the highest calibre, he was one of the few Scots poets to truly master the “three leids” of Scotland, writing superbly in English, Scots and Gaelic. As a “learned” Gaelic speaker his achievements were all the more remarkable.
Neill was strident and fearless in his political and artistic views. He believed the linguistic divisions of Scotland had been imposed politically, that Gaelic is a cultural phenomenon accessible to all Scots, and that it makes artistic sense to write in English as well as Scots and Gaelic because “this is the linguistic reality of the Scottish situation”. Always forthright in his views and opinions, Iain Crichton Smith said of him: “He had a robustness that modern critics found themselves uncomfortable with. There are so many Hamlets about that to find a brisk Fortinbras who knows what he thinks and says what he means is strange to them.”
His breadth of poetical and technical skill was breathtaking; sonnets, terza rima, masterly owersettins of the Italian GG Belli’s Romanescu works, a hilarious parody of Burns’s Jolly Beggars (that Neill titled The Jolly Trimmers), and Cramboclink – rhyming poems that transcended utterly that
so inaccurate and undervalued definition.
Neill had no time for the “Burnsamentalist” tendency or those who would array themselves in the trappings of false Scottishness. The late Alan Bold was fulsome in his praise of Neill’s abilities, saying: “Neill has a descriptive flair, a countryman’s appreciation of natural beauty, an eye for pictorially sharp images and an admirable intellectual clarity.” George Campbell Hay said of Neill that there was no side to him: “He is genuine through and through!”
Rab Wilson, Robert Burns Writing Fellow in Reading Scots, Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association.