Poet, novelist and activist for the Scots language

Born: January 12, 1948;

Died: November 9, 2018

JANET Paisley, who has died aged 70, was a poet, novelist, playwright and scriptwriter, writing for film, television and radio, an author of short stories, non-fiction, and work for children. She wrote in Scots and English and was a life-long activist for social justice and the Scots language.

She was born of Scottish parents in Ilford, Essex and grew up in Avonbridge, a small village in central Scotland. Some of the best values of such a community sustained her, while marriage, the birth of seven sons and the death of one, divorce and life as a single working mother presented her with more than a normal set of challenges. After Avonbridge, she moved to Livingston, Blackridge, Bothkennar, Skinflats, and Standburn, then moved to Glen village in January 1984, living there as a single mother with six sons.

She had married just after graduation in June 1969, age 21, as she said herself, "a seven and a half stone weakling probationer teacher. My husband was 29, a divorced father of two girls. He’d gone to live near Exeter a year before, in a residential caravan site, working for the gas board – that was where we started our married life, almost as far from home as it was possible to get and still be in the UK."

Unable to find a teaching job, she has written of enduring a near-death experience following her son David’s birth in February 1979, after which she decided to begin writing. She published for the first time the same year and was later prominent in national and international festivals, had her work widely anthologised and taught on curricula from primary schools to universities. Six poetry collections, two award-winning works of fiction, 11 plays for theatre and radio and seven radio history drama series are only a selection of her output.

Her committee work extended across many years and she was active in various formal organisations. She was a member of the Working Party for a Scottish National Theatre, and championed the Scots language tirelessly in the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) and as a member of the Cross Party Parliamentary Group for the Scots Language. She held three Creative Writing Fellowships, received two SAC Writer’ Bursaries and a Playwright’s Bursary, edited the annual anthology New Writing Scotland for the Association for Scottish Literary Studies and co-ordinated the first Scottish PEN Women Writers Committee.

All of these commitments were energised by political conviction but more than that, they rose from her experience as a writer in different genres, with a facility for Scots as sharp, distinctive and fluent as that for English.

Her first play Refuge won the Peggy Ramsay Award in 1996 and later plays included Deep Rising (1998), Winding String (1999), straightjackets (1999), Double Yella (2005) and The Lassies, O (2009 and 2010), which centres on the phenomenon of Robert Burns through the views of five women who knew him. Described as a subtle act of subversion, it was directed by Paisley’s son, the actor David Paisley.

She was awarded a Creative Scotland Award to write Not for Glory (2000), a collection of interlinked short stories in Scots set in a small village in Central Scotland, which was among the ten Scottish finalists voted for by the public in the 2003 World Book Day survey.

She wrote the script for the short film Long Haul, which received a BAFTA nomination in 2001 and she was a scriptwriter for the BBC TV series River City and the STV series High Road. In other words, Paisley was one of the most versatile Scottish writers of recent decades, whose priorities were founded in matters of social value, linguistic veracity and dramatic immediacy.

She was also a performer, impressively capable of capturing and holding an audience of different ages and expectations. She read to acclaim and delight at literary festivals in Scotland, Ireland, England and throughout Europe.

Her poetry appeared in Pegasus in Flight (1989), Alien Crop (1996; repr. 2004), Reading the Bones (1999), Ye Cannae Win (2000, repr. 2004) and Sang fur the Wandert (2014). This last book of poems, completed after a serious stroke in 2010, is a major achievement. As the precision of Janet Paisley’s focus in her poems was always getting sharper, the scope of her imagination was always opening out.

In an interview with Linda Jackson, published in Janet Paisley: Growing and Dying (2018), she gives candid accounts of her childhood, marriage, motherhood and her growing commitment to writing.

She wrote that as a child, her Uncle Andrew, a miner, introduced her to the poetry of Robert Burns, its country lore and politics, his eyes filling with tears as he recited. She had started writing in primary school with stories and at home with poems. She showed her poems to her teacher but years later was told that nobody believed they could be ‘the unaided work of a child that age.’ She felt her first success at writing was when, as a student, her English tutor set the task of writing a first chapter of a novel. He suggested she continue writing the novel, but she gave it up because ‘life's for living and I was 19.’

She started again, in 1979, beginning with a novel based on her childhood, but her husband disapproved, breaking her typewriter in anger. She bought another one, ‘an ancient cast-iron Imperial. Just the business.’ There was no way he would break that. Then there was the problem of earning money from writing. Seeing a short story in The Sunday Post prompted her and it was accepted. "I set about learning my craft, finishing my novel, then writing TV plays which I sent to Anglia television, on which an editor provided feedback."

She joined Falkirk Writers’ Circle in 1984 but describing how violently her husband disapproved, she wrote, "I left him in January 1985" while the group "provided support, information about writing competitions plus the encouragement to submit. So, I wrote the kind of stories I wanted to write and sent them out as competition entries or submissions to literary anthologies." Gratefully acknowledging encouragement from fellow-writers Brian McCabe and Carl MacDougall, Paisley wrote Long Haul about a long-distance lorry-driver, which convinced the judges that it must have been written by a man.

With six children to support, Paisley said, "It was paid time I needed. I was always very busy, writing for radio, TV and publication". She came across the story of Anne Farquharson, the cousin of the Jacobite commander, Lord George Murray, who, when her husband left to command a company of militia for the Hanoverians to oppose the Jacobite rising in 1745, ‘thumbed her nose at him and raised his clan for the Prince. By persuasion or threat, a kiss or a frown, she had called up the men from the glens and given each a white cockade with her own hand. She was twenty years of age, and when she took her husband’s men to the Prince she rode at their head, a man’s blue bonnet on her hair, and her riding habit of tartan.’

Paisley proposed the idea of the novel that became White Rose Rebel to Penguin, bargained for payment she and her children could live on while she wrote the book, and proceeded to do so. White Rose Rebel appeared in 2007. Her plan, she said, "was to write a series of novels about Scotland’s women, because they are absent from Scottish history."

Her next novel, Warrior Daughter, took the argument further back in time and was even more ferocious in its application. The Gaelic poet Aonghas Macneacail told her about the woman from whom the Celtic hero Cuchulainn learnt the arts of war, Skaaha, whose home was on the Isle of Skye. Paisley was intrigued that Scots have our own ‘Warrior Queen’ when the only ancient historical woman warrior she had heard of was Boudicca. Penguin picked it up again, a stone-age ancient Celtic coming-of-age story. Paisley imagined it as ‘the first of what might have been a trilogy’ but never managed to write the following sequels. She had outlined plans but recovering after a major stroke in 2010, her output slowed, she made fewer public appearances and travelled less frequently.

Janet Paisley’s commitment to redress the diminishment of the authority of women was matched by her belief in the validity and value of the Scots language. In 2017 she was inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame, for Services to Scots.

The two poems she contributed to the anthologies I edited, The Hunterian Poems (2015) and The Hunterian Museum Poems (2017) centred characteristically on carefully chosen subjects: one, in Scots, was in response to one of the Glasgow Boys Robert McGregor’s painting The Turnip Field (c.1880s), in which a young woman is depicted with a neep newly dug from the earth: nourishment to come, a "tumshie waled tae dree the weird, / poued frae a cauld yirth."

Janet Paisley will be remembered with love, admiration and affection, as a writer, mother, grandmother, colleague and friend. She was active and enabling, a catalyst and an example, in every good sense those words convey.