True Heretic

Willie Neill

5 September 2022
Book cover of 'The Leaves of the years'.

Willie Neill is widely thought of as southern Scotland’s most outstanding poet since Burns. To mark his centenary two of the region’s poets, Hugh McMillan and Stuart Paterson, edited The Leaves of the Years – an anthology of writing inspired by Neill’s words. At Wigtown, contributors including Tom Pow, Liz Niven and Rab Wilson will share their reminiscences. Here Hugh McMillan tells us more about this great Galloway figure.

Neill was fluent in all three languages of the country, learning Gaelic and winning the Bardic Crown at the 1969 National Mod. “I couldna see hou I culd possibly be a Scotsman an no ken Gaelic,” he said. His work reflected his concern with the marginalised tongues of Scotland, Scots and Gaelic, the protection of which he saw as a cultural and political imperative, but his poetry, erudite, accomplished and humane, ranged far and wide, from translations of Horace and Homer to eviscerations of the cult of Burns. It is among the best the century has produced.

Neill, originally from Prestwick, but living most of his life in rural Galloway, is sadly neglected. Perhaps his output in all three languages made him hard to pigeonhole but there are other reasons. The Scots poet Willie Hershaw says

“Willie Neill was aye the outsider, whase attacks on the establishment o the day meant there was nae chance o him being gien his due by the University academics and literati. This is the case aye yet.’

Being thrawn and occasionally difficult was no drawback to his better known contemporaries like Norman MacCaig, but Willie, in politics (a strident independent nationalist) and literature, ruffled a lot of feathers.

Neill took the side of the disenfranchised, and his targets were the establishment, whether Edinburgh critics or Galloway landlords. He was a founding figures of the Heretics, a literary group set up in Edinburgh in opposition to the Arts Council-supported elites of the day. His visits to the group and to Edinburgh usually resulted in much flyting and drinking.

As a younger poet in Dumfries I knew little of his times in the big city. To me he was the father of Dumfries and Galloway literature and a man who generously gave his advice and support away to beginners like myself.

Neill felt that it should be possible for a poet to write in a rural setting, using local publishers, and still get recognition. A lot of Willie’s publishing output was in locally produced booklets, pamphlets and chapbooks, and was ignored by reviewers although his selected poems were published by Canongate in 1994. While pouring contempt on the need to go to the big city to network, Neill was aware of the disadvantages of the local, satirising himself.

'But here in the spuds and pumkins

may write whatever he will;

the Laureate of the Bumkins

in Parnassus -under- the -Hill'

It’s telling that, coming hot on the heels of the much-celebrated centenaries of Hamish Henderson and George MacKay Brown, the only publication so far to celebrate Willie Neill’s centenary issues from his own Dumfries and Galloway and a brand new publisher from the north east; Drunk Muse Press. Doubtless that would have delighted and enraged Willie. The Leaves of the Years features memoirs, essays and poems from distinguished writers including Christine de Luca, Bill Herbert, Liz Niven, Gerda Stevenson, Joy Hendry, Iain Stephen, Donald Murray, Derrick McClure, Willie Hershaw and Tom Pow.

Toast Willie Neill's work with Hugh McMillan and Stuart Paterson at this years Wigtown Book Festival, taking place 6pm Saturday 24 September. Book your tickets here.