The vintage pamphlet was one in a batch donated to the Scottish Poetry Library. It intrigued me: its author was unknown to me, and when I asked around even those who had been familiar with her in the past weren't sure what had become of her. I had a sense that the mystery would remain. What I didn't know then was that her work had been warmly praised by no less a mandarin of Scottish poetry than Hugh MacDiarmid, and that she was still working away quietly in Fife; the real harvest was yet to come.
I first met her in Kirkcaldy in 1998, by which time she was a spirited near-octogenarian, and a contributor to Ian Nimmo White's new magazine Fife Lines
. Friendship developed on both poetic and musical fronts: I learned that she was the daughter of the composer Francis George Scott (1880-1958) and the wife of another composer, Erik Chisholm (1904-65). FG Scott had been the mentor of Hugh MacDiarmid and had made song settings of Scottish poems; his son-in-law acted likewise, including his wife's poems (in Scots) in the corpus of his collaborations with writers.
Lillias's poetry possesses many qualities that we'd associate more with music: her Brown's Piece Barn
has the inevitability of a folk-song – 'Was it Katie I kissed or brown-eyed, low-browed Bess?' – and I found myself hearing something not unlike Patrick Kavanagh's On Raglan Road
, and its speaker's fateful encounter with a dark-haired Dublin lass; as someone who is part-Irish, I could hear a lilt of Hibernian English in Lillias's poem:
Till the day 'twas ordained by flick of the master's finger
That the door be barred: the horses put out to new pasture
And our longed-for laughter would rise to the rafters no more
Oh, bring back the dancing, the stumbling, the tumbling,
The fearful fumbling
At back of old Brown's Peace Barn as it was before!
Lillias and I discovered a common interest in French literature and culture. In her case, it goes back to childhood and regular visits to France, which in many ways was a musical spiritual home to her father. Some of the most moving pieces in her only book-length collection, Views from the Bench: My Life in Poetry
(Grace Note Publications, 2011) are evocations of the South, and of Paris around the Boul' St-Mich', as she reaches across time and space to that which had been lost. It's tougher, this, than mere nostalgia. You wouldn't catch her being sentimental about the Auld Alliance; true, she liked sitting in the 'French' cafés of St Andrews, but you got the sense that she was only too aware that it wasn't the real thing.
During her final years, and well into her 90s, she'd call me with the cry 'Give me work! I need work!' – by which she meant that she wanted me to keep on sending her selections of translatable francophone poetry from my (chaotic) library at home. I say 'francophone' because her interests ventured beyond the bounds of the Hexagon. She took quickly to the work of the 19th-century Swiss poet Alice de Chambrier, who died young but who had been praised by the ageing Victor Hugo. Her version of one of Alice's poems has something of the eldritch ballad-like quality that she knew so well from her roots in the Scottish Borders: here are the first two stanzas from her translation of C'était dans un cimetiѐre
as titled Butterie
In darksome crannies o yon auld kirkyaird
Here lurk the yirdit hooses o the deid,
Shy-like, coorin doon neath the tangle o gerse
Frae the claw-haund o the moul, smoorin a thing aheid.
Frae oot the gloam there leams a gauntin stane
Abune the lave, storm-blasted, riven in twa –
An – croon o aa – doon flichtrin frae the hicht
A butterie, richt donsie in its faa.
(From Lallans magazine
, Nummer 59, Hairst 2001)
Latterly, she was tackling Québec's poète maudit
Emile Nelligan. She worked her way through other texts – I often chose for her poems about music – and her collected translations could well form her first posthumous volume, unless her memoirs, extant in typescript, get there first.
There's a reference in one of the poems reprinted in View from the Bench
, to Sully-André Peyre's literary magazine Marsyas
, which published work in both French and Provençal. During my last-ever research days for BOSLIT (the online Bibliography of Scottish Literature in Translation), I was in the Bibliothèque Nationale (BN), attempting to fulfil a promise I'd made to Lillias – to track down a French translation of one of her poems. It had been in Marsyas
, sometime in the early 1950s, but she hadn't been sure of the exact date. I called up all the issues, went through them, and was about to give up when – there it was! The BN's holding was too fragile for a photocopy but we were able to obtain one from another library.
We've come a long way from the 1980s, when documentation of the poetry of Lillias Scott was hard to come by, and indeed when it seemed she'd been forgotten by the Scottish literati. The complete œuvre has still to appear. Almost of a sudden, though, she made her 'comeback' – she'd never been away! – in the late 1990s and beyond: it was an Indian summer for the poet whom we now know as Lillias Scott Forbes (1918-2013) after her second husband John Forbes, who had taught at Madras College in St Andrews.
Two further poetry pamphlets were published: Duncan Glen of Akros brought out Turning a Fresh Eye
(1998), and from Colin Will of the Calder Wood Press there appeared A Hesitant Opening of Parasols
(2009), the title reflecting her sense of the quirkiness of this life. She was appearing in anthologies and she recorded her poetry for the Scotstoun label (Skreich o Day
, SSCD 134). A further CD, Songs for a Year and a Day
, including a selection of her poems as set by Erik Chisholm, was recorded by Brad Liebl (baritone) at the University of Cape Town in 2000. This has been followed up (2021) by more Lillias-Erik settings on the disc Chisholm: Songs
(Delphian DCD 34259), sung by Mhairi Lawson, Nicky Spence and Michael Mofidian, accompanied on the piano by Iain Burnside, and with booklet notes by the composer and poet John Purser.
In the summer of 2013, View from the Bench
was due to be celebrated by Grace Note Publications at a reading and recital – introduced by Professor Margaret Bennett – at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Lillias was too ill to attend. My wife and I visited her at a care home in St Andrews on the last Sunday in September that year, and she reminisced about her friends Edwin and Willa Muir who, among so much else, were the first translators of Franz Kafka into English and as working travellers knew both the light and the dark of European sensibility. On the following Wednesday morning, her nephew rang me to tell me that Lillias had made her last flitting overnight.
In The Herald's
obituary, Professor Alan Riach wrote of how Lillias's 'lyric grace and wicked sense of humour are there... reminding us how to chuckle and take pleasure in the everyday, see through all shams and pretentions, reach deep into memories, delight in subtle and flamboyant colours, to take on the difficult things, and always be open to love'.
Dr Tom Hubbard is a Scottish poet, novelist and retired professor who has worked in France, the USA, Hungary and Ireland