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Women and Scotland

Marie-Odile Pittin-Hedon

Contemporary Scottish Women’s literature

Redescovering the currency of Scottish women’s voices in Ali Smith’s Shire

Jess Orr


The 2013 publication Shire by contemporary Scottish writer Ali Smith is an inspiring tribute to the lives of two fellow Scotswomen: literary scholar Helena Mennie Shire (1912-1991) and poet Olive Fraser (1909-1977). All three writers formed strong attachments to their origins in the Scottish Highlands and excelled academically to follow parallel paths from Aberdeen to Cambridge. Mrs Shire, as Smith affectionately calls her, dedicated the last decade of her career to recovering and publishing the unacknowledged talent of her old college friend Olive Fraser, resulting in two collections: The Pure Account (1981) and The Wrong Music (1989). She also provided valuable support to Smith during her own studies. The testimony Smith skilfully weaves about both women’s lives tells an ambiguous and inimitable tale of what it means to be a woman writer from Scotland, and her creative re-imagining brings the enigmatic Fraser in particular to life once again for a contemporary readership. It is the intention of this short essay to review Shire’s project in conjunction with Smith’s more recent publication, to demonstrate how these writers contribute to an important and ongoing “currency” of exchange between women writers, through which space is created for Fraser’s voice to finally be heard.

Texte intégral

1 The 2013 publication Shire by contemporary Scottish writer Ali Smith is a heart-warming tribute to the lives of two fellow Scotswomen: literary scholar Helena Mennie Shire, born in 1912 and originally from Aberdeen, and poet Olive Fraser, born in 1909 and originally from Nairn. Mrs Shire, as Smith affectionately calls her, and whose name also takes the title of the book, provided valuable support to Smith during her own university studies, and passed on to her knowledge of an old college friend and poet named Olive Fraser. Helena Shire dedicated the last decade of her career to recovering and publishing Fraser’s poetry, working through some four-hundred unpublished poems, most of which had not been recognised during her lifetime. Two publications resulted from these efforts, The Pure Account: Poems of Olive Fraser published in 1981, followed by a more substantial collection The Wrong Music: The Poems of Olive Fraser 1909-1977 in 1989. It is the intention of this short essay to review Shire’s project in conjunction with Smith’s more recent publication, to demonstrate how these writers contribute to an important and ongoing “currency” of exchange between women writers, through which space is created for Fraser’s voice to finally be heard.

  • 1 See a more detailed description of Helena Shire’s work in Ali Smith, Shire (Suffolk: Full Circle Ed (...)

2Alongside an esteemed publication dedicated to the English poet Edmund Spenser, this project on Olive Fraser was one of the few that diverted Helena Shire’s attention away from her research on Medieval and Renaissance literature and music, with its particular focus on the cultural traditions of the Scottish Court under Stuart reign.1 Nevertheless, Shire felt passionately that Fraser’s poetry should be brought into greater public circulation, and her illuminating introductions to the collections draw attention to an extraordinary poetic talent. An old friend from Aberdeen comments:

  • 2 Dina Garden, ‘Helena Mennie Shire: Portrait by a Friend’ in A Day Estivall: Essays on the Music, Po (...)

I was impressed again and again by the patient thoroughness, the sheer amount of detective work, involving many journeys and contacts and correspondence, the perceptiveness that led from inspired guesses to solid fact to give an understanding of Olive’s life, personality and difficulties.2

3It is evident that Shire worked with great dedication to accurately represent Fraser’s life and work, drawing on decades of experience in historical and literary research to fulfil this final pursuit of her career. It is due to Shire’s careful attention to detail and pioneering work that Smith was inspired to write her own publication on the same subject almost three decades later.

4 Before considering the depiction of Fraser’s life in these posthumous publications in further detail, it is worth noting the extraordinary parallels between all three women writers’ lives. Fraser, Shire and Smith all originated from the Scottish Highlands and formed strong attachments to its landscapes and cultures. Smith, in particular, is fascinated by these similarities, revelling in the proximity between their childhood homes:

Inverness: capital of the Highlands... Aberdeen: just over a hundred miles from Inverness... Nairn: sixteen miles from Inverness
Shire, 79-82.

5Each woman excelled at the University of Aberdeen before travelling “abroad” to take up scholarships at the University of Cambridge; nevertheless, each maintained a strong connection to their Northern spiritual home. Helena Shire has suggested that Olive Fraser “belonged to Nairn” (The Wrong Music, 2), whilst Shire herself has been described as “a Scot, whose life was devoted to the literature and music of her lands” (Shire, 89). Smith’s book, meanwhile, draws together fragments from both women’s lives and parallels them with her own knowledge of Highland life, imbuing their real-life narratives with playful speculation.

6Consisting of four sections altogether, Smith’s publication introduces and concludes its two biographical accounts – “The poet” and “The commission” – with two seemingly unrelated stories – “The beholder” and “The wound”. These tales, one about a woman who mysteriously grows a rose tree from her chest, and the other about a man who wounds himself with cupid’s arrow, explore the importance of nurturing a creative spirit in the face of hardened reality. Although it is not my intention to examine these stories here at length, it is worth highlighting that both their protagonists overcome suffering through the use of their imaginations, and this unexpected creativity becomes revelatory and transformational in their lives. As such, these tales both echo and foreshadow the biographical sections of Smith’s text; Fraser in particular was fraught with the struggle between her creative spirit and downtrodden circumstances.


7In “the poet”, Smith describes Fraser as a “a headlong kind of a girl, a force of energy and adventure” (50-1), conjuring an image that is indicative of Smith’s own nostalgia for a boisterous childhood spent in the hills. In concordance with this, the narrative opens with young Fraser pushing a stuffy English boy into the river, as Smith re-imagines a piece of testimony which was found in one of her letters:

I was running about climbing trees and pushing (schoolboy) classical scholars into rivers at an age when girls in the south would be painting their faces and having boyfriends. We – the Hendries, the Bowies, the Cruickshanks, the Mackintoshes – were dangling from the parapets of bridges, flying from pursuing gamekeepers, having glorious hair-breadth escapes
The Wrong Music, 3.

8This extract captures Fraser’s energetic spirit, her unwillingness to conform to ideals of feminine domesticity, and her fierce loyalty to the landscapes of her childhood. It also highlights the differences between Fraser’s peers and the English boys and girls who came holidaying in Nairn, for whose airs and graces she clearly had little patience. The characteristically Scottish surnames of these playmates are relished with delight, emphasising Fraser’s special interest in Scottish etymologies and the languages of her homeland.

9Despite such “glorious” adventures however, Fraser’s childhood in Nairn was also characterised by a culture of restraint, whereby difficult family situations were often silenced. She was haunted by parental abandonment – her mother and father left her in the care of a great-aunt before emigrating to Australia in her infancy – and Fraser’s relationship with both parents, who eventually returned to Scotland separately, remained strained. Indeed, her father’s name was something of a taboo in the household following her parents’ separation. As such, Smith’s presentation of Fraser’s childhood suggests that growing up in the Highlands was “a great education in what’s not said, in how not to say” (Shire, 79); a sentiment which is echoed by Shire, who remembers from first-hand experience a culture in which: “What is never mentioned does not exist” (The Wrong Music, 4). Interestingly therefore, the confidence and audacity expressed by young Fraser in the outdoor environment contrasts the repressive domestic space in which her voice is repeatedly ignored. Largely estranged from her elders, Fraser struggled with her identity and despite early comradery with her peers was also something of a social misfit. Shire suggests:

she grew up with a deep schism in her personality - love and hate, a discord of life matched only by the concord of her poetry (1).

10Writing became a useful outlet for this emotional turmoil; a way of speaking about things that had been silenced as well as creating the ‘concord’ or harmony that was lacking in her reality. Fraser was at times reserved about continuing to use her father’s surname, and clung passionately to her forename instead, playfully turning it into a sequence of anagrams: “Olive. O LIVE. I LOVE. O VILE. EVILO” (Shire, 47). Here, Fraser takes advantage of her ability to play with language as a source of agency, and to give voice to the tumultuous paradox of good and evil within her. One of the most interesting episodes of Smith’s re-imagining of Fraser’s childhood is an account of the frustrated girl tearing open the spines of Walter Scott’s Waverley novels, which were sent to her by her estranged father’s family. These books, pillars of the Scottish literary canon and a staple feature of family bookshelves, reside in the austere front room of the house, which is usually kept out of bounds: “It was kept for the good. It wasn’t used” (49). Fraser’s sacrilegious handling of Scott’s text, and the volatile manner with which “[s] he didn’t even look at it, she threw the book. She just threw it” (48), before retrieving a gutting knife from the kitchen to slice it open, provides a cathartic release for the resentment she harbours towards her family. Fraser’s behaviour also fulfils her desire to destroy the careful order of the bookshelves, which are covered from wall-to-wall with male authored volumes, and which she must break through to assert her own female presence. Smith imagines that Fraser can discover new treasures in these volumes, as she finds hidden sheet music within the spines. This feature of book binding, which was common at the time of Scott’s original publications, also gestures towards Helena Shire and her interest in traditional Scottish music. Fraser’s discovery reveals the hidden vulnerability and beauty of the books, which she fantasises have become “sliced back and open and the music inside them visible” (61). Fraser’s exhilaration at how the sheet music has been brought to the surface in this way gestures towards the idea that she too dreams of exposing hidden secrets from within herself.

11It is worth noting that Fraser’s childhood insecurities did emerge later in poems such as “The Unwanted Child” and “To a Parent”, which reveal her continued anger towards her parents. Lines such as “I was the wrong music/ the wrong guest for you” (The Pure Account, 6) and “I fast knew that I should ne’er have been/ And was thy life’s burden and thy decay” (The Wrong Music, 50) suggest Fraser’s internalised sense of inadequacy as well as guilt for her own existence. Fraser also implies in these and other poems that her mother was more interested in money than caring for her daughter. In “Song of the Bad Hat” for example, she asserts “I don’t want money until I’m dead/ I’ve a mother with money clinking in her head” (119). The speaker of this poem prefers the pleasures of a humble and even impoverished existence in favour of one preoccupied by financial resource, which very much reflects the circumstances of Fraser’s own adulthood. Her resentment towards her mother is again expressed much later in “To my mother”, which is a testament to the long-lasting effects of early neglect. This poem opens with the blunt accusation: “You called me evil, and I grew/ To think that I was evil too’, and is swiftly followed by the angry lines: ‘what you sowed runs stark/ Like a hell’s river in the dark” (193). The rage expressed by this poem provides a striking contrast to Fraser’s gentle affection for the Scottish landscapes, which preoccupied so much of her writing, and reveals a more ominous side to her personality.


  • 3 Ali Smith, ‘Fraser, Olive (1909–1977)’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, David Cannadine (...)

12Left largely to her own devices, young Olive Fraser had a lively imagination and a personality which friends have described as exuberant and occasionally exasperating. Shire, for example, describes friendship with Fraser as “keyed halfa-tone above normal” (4) and reminisces about various entertaining moments from their university days in Aberdeen. This was a sociable and happy time for Fraser, as the female students supported each other and took group holidays in the countryside (7). Fraser’s poetry was also progressing rapidly during these years, and she published in the University’s student magazine, Alma Mater. Later, at Girton College in Cambridge, she became the first woman to win the Chancellor’s medal for poetry for “The Vikings”, and was also twice winner of the Calder prize for English verse.3 She studied languages from Anglo-Saxon to Old Norse, and her affluent use of Scots later led to prize-winning poetry, as her Scottish identification grew ever stronger. As Shire recalls:

Olive began to spell her name Olave, which she reckoned could render Celtic-bardic overtones with a suggestion of a feminine form of Olaf, expressing the Nord and Celt in her(
The Wrong Music, 9.

13This affectionate recollection reveals the eccentricity of Fraser’s character and her continual need to reinvent her own identity through re-naming. This is also further evidence of her desire to distance from her father’s side of the family, and the patriarchal naming system that they represent. Nevertheless, Shire also suggests that her unusual manner and behaviour increasingly tested the patience of those around her. Despite her successes, Girton College is said to have found Fraser a somewhat “troublesome charge” (8); and Smith adds that she “seems to have charmed or alarmed everybody she came in contact with” (‘Fraser, Olive’).

14Consequently, the testimony that both Shire and Smith skilfully weave about Fraser’s adult life remains ambiguous. Despite her natural intelligence and creativity, she struggled to adjust to the conservative expectations of her Cambridge peers and tutors, and Shire describes an unsettling memory from these days, which again demonstrates Fraser’s unusual relationship with her own sense of heritage and identity:

(she was) wearing her old but valid Harris-tweed suit and had a long shepherd’s crook in her hand. She had dressed her hair so that by each cheek hung a short thick plait - after the fashion of a Viking warrior
The Wrong Music, 9.

15Reminiscent of the image of the Scottish writer Nan Shepherd reproduced on the five-pound bank note in 2016, this hairstyle may have been a fashion amongst young Scottish women during this period. Nevertheless, Fraser’s eccentric dress also indicates a certain degree of social vulnerability, and Shire’s comment suggests a genuine concern for her friend’s wellbeing as she increasingly isolates herself from those around her. Despite the insubordinate spirit of Fraser’s youth therefore, much of her adulthood was blighted by illness and long-term poverty. Fraser had already undergone psychoanalysis before arriving at Cambridge, partly to ease her anxieties about moving away, and mental and physical affliction continued to affect her. She moved around frequently, working as a watch officer in Liverpool during the war, followed by a period at the Bodleian library in Oxford and several impoverished years in Greenwich. The contrast between living in London and her beloved Highlands are spoken about much later in the 1971 poem ‘To London’, in which she attributes mythological status to the moon-lit glens and hills, whilst of the city she says: “Though hast nought but a lean cat/ Below a neon light” (147). This poem also describes the “hearthless room” and “shaking window frame” of her Greenwich abode, where her life was comfortless and her health declined rapidly. During this period, Fraser also converted to Catholicism following her beloved aunt’s death in 1944, and wrote devotional poems for a time for the Scots Catholic magazine The Mercat Cross (Ewan 29). Her religious poems are particularly interesting; “Birth of Our Lady” for example, centres on the celebrated birth of the Virgin Mary, drawing an implicit contrast with Fraser’s own unwanted arrival into the world. The refrain “A little girl/ A little girl/ A little girl was born” (The Wrong Music, 118), is suggestive of Fraser’s own yearning for significance in a world where she felt persistently rejected.

16A mental breakdown in 1956 left Fraser hospitalized for a year, after which she was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. Two of the most striking poems from Fraser’s corpus following this difficult time are “Lines written after a nervous breakdown I” and “II” written in the autumn of 1964, which describe long-standing mental health difficulties. The opening stanza of the first poem reads:

I have forgotten how to be
A bird upon a dawn-lit tree,
A happy bird that has no care
Beyond the leaf, the golden air.

I have forgotten the moon and sun,
And songs concluded and undone,
And hope and truth and all things save
The broken wit, the waiting grave
The Pure Account, 14 .

17Fraser’s desire for a simple but happy life, represented by the regular rhyme and rhythm of this stanza and her preoccupation with harmonious natural imagery, is set in contrast to the sense of fragmentation and loss suggested by her words. Later in the poem, she builds on this sense that what was once whole and complete has now been broken, and describes how her “dead sense” and “dull eyes” can no longer appreciate the beauty around her. The regular and reassuring movement of time itself has also been disrupted by her illness, as the clock of “common time” is rendered hauntingly still. These images suggest a kind of stagnancy and impotence which sharply contrasts the lively energy described of her youth.

18Nevertheless, throughout this difficult time, Fraser remained committed to her vocation as a poet, arguing that a quiet and humble life as a writer was still preferable to one filled by luxuries:

It is not possible to turn away. The very thought of never experiencing again that strange visitation of a power unknown which precedes the writing of poetry is something to make one willing to accept all things. Not that I have ever liked being hungry or poor. But if that’s the way it has got to be, I would rather have it that way than not at all...
The Wrong Music, 41.

19Fraser was eventually correctly diagnosed with myxoedema by a female medic, Dr Helen Maclean, and this finally led to some good years of health, and some excellent poetry. She had by then saved up to return to Scotland, first to Inverness and then to Aberdeen, where she lived largely in hospital for the remainder of her life. Despite being contentedly surrounded by the landscapes of her youth once again, Fraser did also nurture a few friendships during this time, such as Helena Shire’s sister Elma R. Mennie, who was a great support to her from 1968 until the end of her life.


20Even having won critical acclaim for her poetry and published in a variety of magazines – including a shared national award for Scots verse, which led to the publication of seven poems in Scots – much of Fraser’s work remained unpublished during her lifetime. Shire’s publication of this poetry following her death in 1977 has been by far the largest and most thorough examination of her creative output, and these collections have brought many of these works into public circulation for the first time. Smith’s publication of Shire meanwhile draws attention to Fraser’s poetry once again, playfully reimagining her energetic spirit as well as highlighting the difficult circumstances of her life for a contemporary readership. As Smith reimagines Fraser’s struggles and successes, she also weaves in memories of her own years at Newnham College in Cambridge, when she too was ‘warned repeatedly about being too creative’ (Shire, 78). When receiving the Chancellor’s Medal, a “quasi-academic dress” had to be devised for Fraser, as there was no such thing for women to wear at the time (53). Smith meanwhile remembers her complacency towards the notion of an all-female college when she arrived in the 1980s:

A stupid idea, unnecessary, I’d thought with that arrogance we all have when we’ve done well and we’re young and we think we’ve done it by ourselves and that any history and politics that went before us had nothing to do with it (76).

21In retrospect, and with an increased understanding of the challenges faced by those who had preceded her, Smith reflects on her own naivety.

22Smith’s reflections in Shire are also informed by other writers who attended the university when women’s place within the institution was limited, such as Virginia Woolf, whose seminal text A Room of One’s Own is cited frequently in the book. Woolf’s demand for practical, material provision for women to achieve creative and intellectual freedom, especially within a university which Smith points out had excluded them for “the first seven and a quarter centuries of its existence” (91), has a significant influence on her narrative. Indeed, a quotation from this text is included alongside one from Fraser in her epigraph:

For great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh.
Woolf 4)

23This provocation is positioned as a starting point for Smith’s text and one which motivated her, like many other writers since Woolf’s time, to highlight the achievements of her literary predecessors in the way she achieves here. Smith adopts a term coined by Shire to describe the book as part of a “currency” of exchange between women writers; an expression of comradery and support whereby new texts are created for each other’s voices to be heard:

[Shire] uses it to mean money and worth; she uses it to mean time. She uses it to mean a flow of energy. Rediscovered works, released from obscurity back into circulation, are a currency (Shire, 104).

24This quotation resonates with Woolf’s sentiment, regarding the importance of resurrecting writers from the past into the present for their voices to be heard once more. The financial connotations of the word “currency” also link to Woolf’s insistence on the practical necessities for writers to flourish, which poets like Fraser were too often lacking.

25In the chapter titled “The commission”, Smith also describes in more detail Helena Shire’s life and work, including some fresh reflections on this academic’s pioneering research into the Scottish court traditions of music and poetry, which culminated in the Carnegie-Trust funded 1969 publication Song, Dance and Poetry of the Court of Scotland under King James VI . Shire was renowned for having a kind and generous spirit, which she likely inherited from the warm and friendly family she grew up in; certainly one old school friend notes that, in contrast to Fraser’s upbringing, the Mennie household ‘was warm, comforting, filled with laughter and wide-ranging chat’ (A Day Estivall, 5). Shire’s brother Duncan Mennie has suggested that she was ‘predestined for literary studies’, having been born in the midsummer and named accordingly after Shakespeare’s infamous protagonist, and that she developed a sharp wit from a young age (3). Excelling through school and university, as an academic she always welcomed new students and colleagues into her faculty, and built particularly close relationships with Polish students during the Second World War. Over time, Shire became a highly respected fellow at Cambridge, directing studies at Kings and Fitzwilliam Colleges before being elected foundation fellow of Robinson College in 1974, and was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Aberdeen in 1988. In 1990, the year before she died, a festschrift was produced in her honour with contributions from colleagues and friends and co-edited by her daughter. This includes a poem called “My Grandmama” by Helen Bromwich, whose words ‘She teaches me/ the little patterns, the maps/ of poetry’ (169), testify to her enduring influence on those who came behind her, and her generosity to family, colleagues and friends. When Smith herself became a student at Cambridge, Shire made two unexpected financial donations to her, which Smith subsequently interpreted as an open commission for the writing of Shire. Through the giving of these gifts, Shire again demonstrated her understanding of Woolf’s sentiment; that women require financial as well as intellectual and emotional support to flourish in their careers.

26Through the writing of Shire therefore, Smith pays tribute not only to Fraser’s poetic contribution to the Scottish literary canon, but to Helena Shire for passing on Fraser’s legacy and for her own multifarious achievements. As such, Smith reinvests the “currency” of these talented and dedicated writers, carving out space – which is the space of the text itself – for their words to resonate once again. This book is also, I would suggest, a provocation for other writers to continue reaching back into the past to recognise those who may have been lost or forgotten, as well as reaching forward to those who are coming in their wake. This, Smith suggests, can even take place between strangers:

When I was a young woman and at a bit of a loss in a new country, an older woman I didn’t know and who didn’t know me gave me this open commission. She paid me handsomely for it at the time. Grace coming, grace returned (Shire, 106-7).

27As such, it remains only to consider what Fraser would have made of these efforts to bring her poetry further into the public domain. The answer seems to lie in a poem which speaks directly to the efforts of Smith and Shire to resurrect her work and bring it to the attention of a wider audience. “To My Manuscripts” represents Fraser’s life-long struggle between the desire to maintain her privacy and also to gain recognition for her writing, and suggests that despite some scepticism, she remained cautiously optimistic about the legacy she left behind:

To My Manuscripts
Shall I take ye with me
From the world
Shall I bury both of us,
Your pages curled
By the kitchen flame while I
Haste silently

Unto my home to grow
Nothing again?
I would not leave ye here to speak
Of our long vain
Struggles in tempests set
But spare ye yet.

Ye are my echoing heart
I see in ye
Nothing I set out with
Or planned to be,
But the poor wraiths that dance
By circumstance.

I should take ye with me
When I die
That we go to bed at last
Both quietly
Lapped in our dusks, no more
Than packman’s lore.

‘Twould be our perfect word
To end as one
That colloquy which we know
Best unbegun.
Why do I hesitate?
The night is late (The Wrong Music, 168).



Ewan, Elizabeth L., Sue Innes, Sian Reynolds and Rose Pipes (eds.), ‘Fraser, Olive’ in The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2006: 29.

Gardner-Medwin, Alisoun and Janet Hadley Williams (eds.), A Day Estivall: Essays on the Music, Poetry and History of Scotland and England and Poems Previously Unpublished in honour of Helena Mennie Shire, Aberdeen: Aberdeen UP, 1990.

Shire, Helena M., Song, Dance & Poetry of the Court of Scotland Under King James VI, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969.

Shire, Helena M. (ed.), The Pure Account: Poems of Olive Fraser, Aberdeen: Aberdeen UP, 1981.

Shire, Helena M. (ed.), The Wrong Music: The Poems of Olive Fraser 1909-1977, Edinburgh: Canongate, 1989.

Smith, Ali, ‘Fraser, Olive (1909–1977)’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, David Cannadine (ed.), Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. <>. Accessed 12 Sept. 2016.

Smith, Ali, Shire, Suffolk: Full Circle Editions, 2013.

Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One’s Own, London: Penguin, 2002.


1 See a more detailed description of Helena Shire’s work in Ali Smith, Shire (Suffolk: Full Circle Editions, 2013), 89.

2 Dina Garden, ‘Helena Mennie Shire: Portrait by a Friend’ in A Day Estivall: Essays on the Music, Poetry and History of Scotland and England and Poems Previously Unpublished in honour of Helena Mennie Shire (Aberdeen: Aberdeen UP, 1990), 7.

3 Ali Smith, ‘Fraser, Olive (1909–1977)’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, David Cannadine (ed.), (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004) <> Accessed 12 September, 2016.


A PhD student at the University of St Andrews, who is currently completing her thesis on the role of the reader in the fiction of Ali Smith. She is also project coordinator of the first festival of Scottish women’s writing at the Glasgow Women’s Library.

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