Though often described as a native of Lewis, Crichton Smith was in fact born in Glasgow. His family moved to Lewis when he was two; his father died shortly afterwards and Iain was brought up by his mother.
As a child he was conscious of his natural surroundings and of the struggle against poverty. He reacted against the influence of the Free Church which he saw as restrictive and joyless.
After attending secondary school in Stornoway he studied at Aberdeen University and became a teacher of English. Drawing on the culture of his island background, he was a prolific writer of prose and poetry in both English and Gaelic and in 1977 retired early in order to devote himself to his writings. In an interview he once said that his obsessive fear was ‘to stop writing altogether – I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. That would be the most devastating thing that could happen.’
Public recognition for his work included the award of honorary degrees and an OBE in 1980. He died of cancer in 1998. In his obituary in The Independent, Angus Calder described Crichton Smith as “a witty companion, completely unassuming, muttering briskly in the drily enigmatic accent of his native isle of Lewis, suspended somewhere between censure and send-up, kirk and comedy.”
He wrote quickly and Consider the Lilies, his first novel published in 1968, was completed in ten days. The novel is not, however, his only exploration of the ‘old woman’ theme, which can be found in several poems. For example, the poem which follows portrays an old woman who shares many of the characteristics of Mrs Scott: life has been a hard struggle; she has found it difficult to love and forgive; she is left isolated and embittered.
Your thorned back
heavily under the creel
you steadily stamped the rising daffodil.
Your set mouth
forgives no-one, not even God’s justice
perpetually drowning law with grace.
Your cold eyes
watched your drunken husband come
unsteadily from Sodom home.
Your grained hands
dandled full and sinful cradles.
You built for your children stone walls.
Your yellow hair
burned slowly in a scarf of grey
wildly falling like mountain spray.
Finally you’re alone
among the unforgiving brass,
the slow silences, the sinful glass.
Who never learned,
not even ageing, to forgive
our poor journey and our common grave,
while the free daffodils
wave in the valleys and on the hills
the deer look down with their instinctive skills,
and the huge sea
in which your brothers drowned sings slow
over the headland and the peevish crow.
Metaphors, similes, personification... test yourself on these and many more English terms with this hazardous game!
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