The Leaves of the Years

Celebrating the poetry and voices of working-class Scotland: the centenary of Willie Neill. The Leaves of the Years, edited by Hugh McMillan and Stuart A. Paterson, Drunk Muse Press £10.00. Reviewed by Tom Murray

Willie Neill was a poet born in Ayrshire and later living in Dumfries and Galloway. 

He was a Warrant Officer in the RAF, serving as a Master Navigator during the Second World War, serving in the RAF till the 1960’s and later a teacher in Dumfries and Galloway.

It was while teaching at Castle Douglas High School during the 1970s that the poet Magi Gibson met Willie Neill, where she says: ‘While I was teaching French, he was teaching me about my own language…’  Over chats in the staffroom, she became re-acquainted with Scots. 

2022 was the centenary of Willie Neill’s birth. A centenary which as one of editors, Hugh McMillan comments in his introduction about why he and fellow editor Stuart Paterson put together this anthology: ‘because we knew Willie and loved his work, and partly because we had the fair sense that, if we didn’t, no-one else would.’

Willie Neill was a poet equally effective in the three languages of Scotland—Scots, English and Gaelic.  As Hugh McMillan comments he was ‘an enormously versatile poet, a satirist, a formalist, a translator.’  

He was a translator of Horace and Homer.   

This from his translation of Homer’s Odyssey into Scots that brim with life and action.

‘…She brocht thaim ben, sate thaim on binks an chairs

wi kebbuck, bere, gowd hinnie, Pramnian wine;

syne in the mait she melled sic baneful drogs

as mak thaim aye forleit thair native laund.

Whan she’d gien thaim the dram an thay hed taen it aff

she skelpt thaim wi her wand and keppit thaim in styes…’

This is quoted by Hugh McMillan in his introduction.

This is not an anthology of Willie’s Neill’s poetry but essays, thoughts and responses to Willie Neill’s work from an impressive array of poets, writers, and editors, some who knew Willie very well, or briefly, others who worked with him. Contributors include Liz Niven; George Gunn; Hugh Bryden; Tom Pow; Christine De Luca; Gerda Stevenson; John Herdman and many more. In most cases the poets contributing poetic work of their own in response to a favourite work of Willie’s Neill’s.

The scope and wide perspective of the contributors is one of the numerous pluses of the anthology.  You see the man and poet from various angles and through his lifetime.   

I never knew Willie Neill, and until recently I was unaware of his work. If this anthology’s remit was to raise awareness of the poet and poems it worked with me. As I write this a volume of Willie Neill’s Selected Poems 1969-1992 sits beside me.

There are too many contributors to quote in depth. I will leave that for the reader to discover themselves. A flavour below is offered of the man and poet from this rich collection of poetic thoughts.

In editor Stuart Paterson’s essay, we hear of the poet’s generosity with his time and expertise in supporting and encouraged Stuart as a young poet. How he welcomed him into his home, his gregarious nature and humour evident. He also supported and submitted work to the magazine Spectrum which Stuart edited during the 1990s.  

Joy Hendry’s memories of Willie draws on the famous Heretics which met in Edinburgh, frequented by the likes of Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley MacLean and Norman MacCaig amongst others.   

He wasn’t though one for the literary establishment, cliques, and as Joy Hendry says, ‘not one to be sooking in with the ‘in-crowd.’’

Betty Tindal introduction to Willie Neill’s poetry was through Kathleen Raine. Betty quotes from one of her favourite poems of Willie Neill’s.

Taliesin: a Strathclyde Winter

Extracts from ‘Taliesin’

The autumn purple is gone from the hill slope;

beyond the trees veined on the pale sky,

clouds feather.


Trees on the bare ridge, bare veins of their summer selves.

White crown of winter once again

On the eternal mountain.

For Betty, Willie’s poetry led her onto George Campbell Hay’s poetry.   

Donald Murray writes about his affinity to Willie Neill’s poetry through the use of his own native tongue Gaelic, as well as Scots and English, and in its sense of place.  

‘There was also much of his subject matter. Again, from ferry journeys to stone circles, I could identify with a great deal of it. Finally, there was a strong sense of rhythm and rhyme to be found in his verse, the apparent simplicity that is one of the most complex skills for any writer to master.’ 

His choice of Willie Neill’s poetry to respond to was Celtic Chapel – an excerpt of which follows: 

I often used to picture them

these afternoons I strolled towards the shore,

the ghosts of pilgrims,

how they limped to Eoropie in search of cures

for whatever ailed them, trusting both penitence

and prayer would ensure

forgiveness and healing, granting them

strength and spirit that might persist and endure.

There is much more to explore arising from the anthology. As indicated his lack of profile in his lifetime and since being one of the prominent discussion points.  It has prompted a question in my own mind. If Willie Neill was writing now would social media have enhanced his profile, and appreciation of his poetry with its wider and instant access?  

Let’s take positives out of the situation.  This anthology happened with the support of Drunk Muse Press – a publisher with a well-deserved reputation for publishing poetic voices that do not necessarily swim in the mainstream.  This anthology happened and hopefully will spread the word. Willie Neill’s profile will rise, and readers will be sent back to the poems, or like myself discover them afresh.  Willie Neill will latterly and not before time gain the appreciation he thoroughly deserves. 

Above all else what is abundantly clear from this anthology is the high appreciation the contemporary contributors hold of the man and poet.       

I recommend it for the insights and the informative conversations about Willie Neill. Also, for the poetic responses to his work by the contributors. 

It is clear from the anthology that Willie Neill was a poet whose work mattered and continues to matter and be relevant in the contemporary world.  


Comments (8)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    Not only can modern AI be trained on a poet’s corpus to produce new work in their style, it is entirely possible that a newly-fabricated oeuvre could be passed off as the produce of a real or imaginary human. I don’t suppose that a volume dedicated to a poet will be free of significant bias. Having just watched the final episode of BBC documentary Art That Made Us, which reveals some of poet Philip Larkin’s posthumously-published letters, there are potential reputational (and commercial) costs in objectivity. Every time I discover a new poet, there is always the likelihood of some horror emerging, like Duncan Campbell Scott:
    We may shortly be finding out that “sense of rhythm and rhyme [and] apparent simplicity” are easy pickings for AI, which improves on human poets as it comes without the baggage of an ill-led life.

    1. Niemand says:

      Could you not say that about all creative artists? And the logical end conclusion is that anything humans do can be tainted by their imperfections and thus, everything should be done by machines. Our existence becomes irrelevant.

      AI poetry is utterly pointless anyway as poetry is about the human experience so even if it fakes well, it is useless. I am baffled why people even bother trying to get machines to fake human creativity. Actually, I’m not – it is for money. And guess what? The motivation for getting AI to do it is human avarice, so there is no escape anyway until the time comes when machines simply rule the earth and all humans are dead. The big question than is would they care about the remainder of the natural living world?

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Niemand, to what extent does people’s projection of their own inner self onto the poetry they read contribute to their enjoyment of it? To what extent does the Cult of the Poet enhance the reader’s enjoyment? These are serious questions, though I was not being entirely serious in my initial remarks: machine learning picks up baggage as it goes, which is why human-originated biases appear in the output (for example). I really don’t think mere monetary gain is driving this kind of AI research, which has often focused on demystifying human intelligence and creativity. If the mystique of poets is your thing, sure, that’s unwelcome. People will abuse AI tools, for example to produce cheat essays. But surely commercial poets are much more liable to the charge of avarice than AI coders? Why not just give their poetry away? Perhaps then it wouldn’t be valued so highly… I am pretty sure poets fake stuff all the time, “It is the more like to be feigned” indeed.

        1. Niemand says:

          I think projection is a huge part of it yes. It can be argued that the more that happens the more universal the appeal is. The cult of the poet is like many things I suppose – we are interested in the person as much as their work, perhaps more so in some cases. Ironically this can be less so in obviously flawed types. You mention Larkin who clearly had some unpleasant views making it hard to want to identify with the man, but for me this is irrelevant as the best of his work is not tainted by his prejudices (or very little). And of course he worked a full time job outside of poetry. But I can’t see what the problem in principle is in creativity being a source of income any more than anything else that people want. Faking stuff is an interesting idea as that begs the whole question of authenticity and I tend to go with the idea that it is ascribed rather than inscribed so it is we that give it authenticity, or not, not the originator. But is about emotion / feeling more than anything and is very different to deliberately materially faking something, whether that be by a machine or human artistic forgery.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Niemand, that seems reasonable, but if poetry is a market, then non-marketable voices may be shut out. Well-known poetry may effectively come from a very small section of society. If we step aside for a moment and look at theatrical plays in Britain, in the episode I mentioned 19-year-old Shelagh Delaney’s play A Taste of Honey was said to be one of those voices practically never heard on stage before.
            In terms of how artists learn their art, it is not dissimilar to machine learning: they tend to bulk-consume the work of other artists. This applies in graphic arts (see EH Gombrich) as well as literary arts (which is why we have conventions, genres and intertextuality, a term which I picked up studying a modern online literature course). And many of those older forms (which supplied a foundation for more modern art) can hardly be considered authentic. I doubt many pastoral poets were shepherds, nor epic poet heroes or gods come to that.

            I agree that machine AI lacks the biologically-embodied inner life of human poets, but those emotions/feelings need to be translated in artificial ways. Perhaps many poets faked their representations of romantic love or religious faith. What is, after all, ever ‘eternal’ about human biological feelings and emotions? The flip side is, that perhaps if a machine emotes convincing enough, we will ascribe the states of sentience and self-consciousness to it.

          2. Niemand says:

            Poets, musicians etc are actually not dissimilar to actors. There is nothing that says a poem about shepherding, even one written from the perspective of the shepherd, needs to be written by a shepherd, or a love song by someone in love, though in the latter case we would assume the singer actually knew the feeling of being in love. I would never describe this as faking it, rather it is the craft of the art. It is based on underlying truths (hopefully) but not necessarily directly ‘authentic’.

            I would draw the line with, say, Adele crying at every concert and saying at the end it is the most emotional she has ever been etc as that really is a fake act if she does it every show. The AI thing reminds me of something like autotune: ask yourself this question – you see a concert, let’s say an opera and it is great and you love it, especially the beauty of the soprano. You find out later that autotune was used live on the singer to correct he poor intonation that would otherwise have spoiled it. Do you feel cheated or think, doesn’t matter? If the latter then you would have no problem with being fooled into thinking AI art was made by a human, and the your ‘second person’ ascribed authenticity would trump all.

          3. SleepingDog says:

            @Niemand, I guess that, subjectively at least, some personas adopted by human artists are going to be more objectionable than others. How does this work for AI? When Google Duplex was first demonstrated, some critics strongly objected to an artificial telephone voice duping humans into thinking they were talking to a human:
            Some people are interested in the ‘making of’ artefacts of art, like David Baddiel on the quoted episode self-reportedly on the verge of tears at seeing a first draft of Philip Larkin’s poem Going, Going. What if human poets use AI as phrase generators these days? I often wonder if many poets traditionally simply eavesdrop and scour in a similar way from human sources.

            I get your comparison of poets to actors and singers (and the earliest poets presumably performed like bards, certainly in pre-literate societies). Poets are the public-relations officers in their own personality cults. I suppose I could use less a less loaded word like ‘fabricated’ rather than ‘faked’ for non-authentic poetry, although what I really mean is creating a fictitious (false) representation of, say, rural life in pastoral poetry, a bit like Marie Antoinette’s play-farm at Versailles. There may be truthful elements (the presence of sheep, albeit unusually clean ones) but the overall effect is dangerously false (the elimination of rural poverty and hunger from the picture, say).

            The less representative of wider society the famous poets are, the greater likelihood that many similar important elements of life will be eliminated, suppressed, distorted, misrepresented, ignored in the milieu. And these can have evil consequences, as in the case of Duncan Campbell Scott, a garlanded Canadian poet apparently romanticising indigenous people whilst committing the cruelest genocide on their children in the living hells and slaughterhouses of his residential schools. In that case, the truth was delivered in prose, by Doctor Peter Henderson Bryce in his self-published report The story of a national crime (1922); yet in foul play, prose lost to poetry.

  2. Stuart Paterson says:

    A really informative & detailed appreciation of the book from Tom. As he says, and why we formed and edited the book and loved having so many great folk and writers contribute to it – the more Scotland knows about culturally vital people like Willie Neill, the better for our culture and those learning from its many aspects, forms and languages about many things.

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