Archives for posts with tag: Autobiography

Agnes headshot

Agnes Owens

24th May 1926- 13 October 2014

Agnes Owens nee McLearie the Vale of Leven’s own “writer in residence” has died at the age of 88 near her home in Balloch. Born in Milngavie, Agnes’ writing was steeped in what has been described as a “tough, social realism” which reflected the woman she was and the life she led.

Described by teachers as ” a hopeless case”, her parents, determined to educate Agnes who was equally determined to work in the local paper mill, sent her off to learn shorthand and typing – a skill she later admitted was very helpful when she started writing many years later.

Agnes married her first husband Sam Crosbie in 1949. Due to the acute post-war housing shortage, the couple travelled to Garve in the Highlands with their two month old baby daughter Ann, looking for work and somewhere to live. Travelling around the Highlands, sometimes living in tents or squatting, they settled for a short time in a condemned building in Keith in 1950 where their son Bill was born. Agnes and Sam went on to have two more children, Irene and John. Sam died from thrombosis in 1963 and Agnes later remarried.  Agnes and her second husband Pat Owens settled in the Vale of Leven in 1964 and had three children, Catherine, Margaret and Patrick.

Life was tough for Agnes as a young married woman. Bringing up seven children with Pat working in the building trade, she worked as a cleaner, typist and in the Westclox factory to make ends meet. Her children remember her rushing in from work and cooking the dinner with her coat still on.

Agnes began attending a Vale of Leven writing group organised by the University of Glasgow Extra-Mural Department in 1978, “just to get out the house”. What went on around her began to be reflected in Agnes’ writing.   To her tutors, Liz Lochead, Jim Kelman and Alistair Gray her talent was obvious from her very first short story ‘Arabella’ based on a character she met back in that condemned building in Keith. When asked what made her write that story, she answered, “Spite”.                                                                                                                                                gentlemen of the west

Agnes published her first novel ‘Gentlemen of the West’ in 1984 when she was 58. Writing about the lives of hard drinking west of Scotland building workers came easily to Agnes – both her husband and son John were brickies. ‘Lean Tales’, co-written with James Kelman and Alasdair Gray, followed in 1985 but at that time she was still cleaning houses because ‘writing books didn’t pay the rent”.

Agnes Owens young picture                                                       ‘writing books didn’t pay the rent”

A week before Christmas in 1987 Agnes’ youngest son Patrick was stabbed to death outside her home. She was at his side trying to resuscitate him as he lay dying on the street. Only a few days later, her family remember her shopping at the local co-operative, still resolutely doing what had to be done.   In an interview later in life, Agnes described herself during that period ‘You weren’t ill, no, and you never became ill, but you would have loved to have died.”.   This was a devastating time for the whole family who recall her strength throughout the murder trial. Patrick’s attackers were indicted on a reduced charge and served a reduced sentence.   A furious Agnes challenged the judicial system and wrote to Margaret Thatcher seeking justice for her son. Writing “went out of the window” for a while after Patrick was killed but Agnes eventually returned to writing as a way of coping with the tragedy. A play co-written with Liz Lochead – a comedy called ‘Them Through the Wall’ –  was performed by Cumbernauld Theatre Company. One of the characters in the play was based on her son Patrick.

Agnes was never too impressed by academics analysing her work. When one critic described her novel – A Working Mother published in 1994 – as “the most important book about alcoholism that he had ever read”, Agnes remarked dryly that she didn’t know she had written a book about alcoholism! On another occasion, at a reading, she was asked how she structured her day around writing. “Probably between doing the washings and making dinners!” she replied. As her family grew up and left home, and with more time for writing, Agnes published another novel For the Love of Willie, which was shortlisted for the Stakis Prize 1998, and continued with a number of short story collections and novellas . Agnes seemed finally to believe her own value as a writer when her Complete Short Stories were published in one volume in 2008. She remarked, “This is the kind of book that writers have, not like the wee skinny books I do,” she says. “It’s what I’ve been striving for: a thick book!”

complete novellas       “This is the kind of book that writers have, not like the wee skinny books I do,” she says. “It’s what I’ve been striving for: a thick book!”

Agnes Owens’ hallmarks as a writer have been described as ‘a frank irony, a deadpan gothic quality and a down-to-earth insistence on the surreality of most people’s normality.’ These also accurately reflect Agnes Owens the woman. She has been described by many critics and peers as a neglected and under-celebrated writer. Her close friend Alasdair Gray once described her as the “most unfairly neglected of all living Scottish authors. However, her modesty, pragmatism, humanity strength and dry wit will endure in people’s memory alongside her written legacy.

  “the most unfairly neglected of all living Scottish authors”

Alasdair Gray

Her children describe Agnes as a mother who was always there for them, not a ‘touchy feely’ Mother, but a strong and resolute individual,  who allowed them to make their own mistakes but who was protective at the right time. A survivor of tough times, Agnes was, on the surface, like many working class women of her generation.   Unlike them she broke through the everyday demands on her energy, attention and emotions and found time to write and to write very, very well. Alistair Gray described Agnes’ talent as ‘too tough to be killed by learning that writing was not a full, free life but another sort of working life that she had known since childhood.”

Agnes Owens

Agnes will be remembered for all that she was as a woman, as a strong socialist, and as a writer. Focussing on the lives of ordinary people she gave them life through the art of her imagination and her clean, razor sharp way with words.   Agnes leaves a lasting legacy as a pioneer of the new wave of late twentieth century Scottish women’s writing. Her large and loving extended family are immensely proud of her.  Agnes’ daughter Irene sadly died in 2013 but she is survived by her remaining children Ann, Bill, John, Catherine and Margaret, husband Pat, and by her many grandchildren and great grandchildren.


If we were a’ sensible, there would be nae fools

Traveller’s Life – The Autobiography of Sheila Stewart

Published April 2011

Birlinn £9.99

Maybe this book is not like other people’s biographies.  But it has to be different…because a travellers’ life is different from anyone else’s.’   And so it is.  A Traveller’s Life by Sheila Stewart is a life’s story we should know about.  The joys, tensions and traditions of a member of one of Scotland’s best known Scottish Traveller families provides a welcome antidote to the negative press reports of Traveller conflicts with settled or ‘scaldie’ communities such as the long running Dale Farm dispute and of the extravagances displayed in Channel 4’s My Big Fat Gypsy Weddings.

Born in a stable in Blairgowrie ‘into a world of poems and stories and songs’, described as ‘the voice of Blairgowrie… a raven-haired beauty, envy of many traveller lassies and the dream girl of the laddies…with a perfect voice’, Sheila’s spirit as a tradition bearer for travelling people was recognised by her uncle Donald when she was only five years old.  Sheila’s autobiography is also full of songs and tales from her Traveller community and is the next best thing to hearing these tales told with the smell of wood smoke in the air.  The transience of the Traveller way of life with its deeply felt communality is held together by the long bonds of this shared lore and spoken in Cant.   Sheila also provides a glossary of Perthshire Travellers’ Cant.

Sheila and her family moved around a great deal, earning money by raking dumps, gathering rags and selling them, seasonal farm labour, lifting potatoes, berry picking, making, hawking and repairing tinware,  basins and pea strainers.   Despite living with the deeply ingrained prejudice and casual violence of people in settled communities and the sheer grind of making a living, there is no resentment, not a trace of self-pity and a great deal of black humour in this book.   ‘Although we were persecuted in Blair, and got beaten up for being travellers, my mother loved Blairgowrie, and I would like the people of Blair to remember that.’  Travellers were sustained by loyalty, a shared oral culture and language.   Storytelling and ballad singing, woven into the fabric of Traveller life, carried the values of a nomadic community living on the margins of settled society.  Sheila recounts many of these tales in her book: morality tales about how to be human and what sort of human to be, songs and stories celebrating the close relationship Travellers have with nature and its mysteries, fantastic tales full of spirits and demons, lighthearted fables full of fun and high jinks.  Tales told to instruct and to entertain or given as gifts, created a welcoming hearth shared by a seemingly endless stream of characters flowing with the seasons and the harvests.

The customs and daily habits of Travellers, deeply rooted in history, experience and nature, kept its members healthy and often alive in the absence of medical treatment.  Remedies were derived from generations of accumulated knowledge:  the healing properties of plants and herbs – how to  tempt a  tapeworm from inside someone’s stomach with a piece of meat placed on their tongue – how to mix a simple and highly effective  earth and water poltice held in place with dock leaves to treat someone’s badly scalded legs – the importance of cleanliness and never washing anything in a sink and always using a basin.

Although not always a wholly biddable daughter, independent and highly intelligent, Sheila describes how her life, like other women’s in her community, was mainly defined by others and her expectations clearly proscribed.  Loyalty to parents and family were extended to her husband on marriage.   Marriage and childbirth were not straightforward – although Sheila’s husband Ian was not a Traveller, he was accepted by her family and became a willing convert to the way of life.  Ian’s jealousy and fondness for drink [peeve] were clear even before they married and he often blew his wages in the pub with his friends.   A volatile and occasionally violent man, Sheila describes theirs as a ‘peculiar kind of love…very deep.  We couldn’t agree, yet we couldn’t stay away from each other.’  Iain ‘was not husband material. Although he adored his kids, he wasn’t very family-oriented. But I loved him and I was his wife. I had made my bed, and I would have to lie in it.‘

Acting without her consent, Sheila’s  mother and husband gave permission for her to be sterilised, ‘I had no say in the matter of my own body…I was used to my life’s decisions being made for me and so I just accepted it.’  She had wanted to breast feed her newborn daughter but when she came home from hospital the baby was already being bottle fed and Sheila’s milk had gone. ‘I was so sad about that.’  Sheila was not allowed to choose any of her children’s names.   Women with children still had to do their share of the work – even during potato lifting. Sheila and her husband Ian worked together, dividing the field up between them and keeping a fire at one end to boil kettles for tea and to cook and keep warm when it was cold.  Sheila describes having one child walking about the field, one in a basket and another in a pram while she worked in the field.

Obligations to her husband led to conflict about her performing at home and abroad. Ian’s reluctance to let Sheila travel was usually overcome by the prospect of the money she would earn.  The contradictions in Sheila’s life were well summed up by this conversation with her father, a noted piper, Willie Stewart, ‘You were in America, met royalty, and were made the blood-sister of a Comanche Chief.  Then you come home and go raking a midden, and give your blood to an auld traveller woman to glue her clay cutty [pipe] tegither.  How do you feel about that?  Daddy, I was born a traveller and I will die one, I prefer travellers any day, they are my folk. I will never change.’   

After the death of her mother Belle, instead of becoming a ‘bingo granny’ Sheila started performing again and felt ‘liberated for the first time in her life, and it was a great feeling’.  She could sing where and what she wanted and soon overcame her anxiety about speaking to audiences directly as her mother used to do.   Against the advice of some academics, Sheila wrote her mother Belle’s biography ‘Queen amang the heather’ and has now written her own.

Now in her seventies Sheila is rightly acknowledged as one of Scotland’s great folklorists, teaching and performing all over Scotland and abroad and still speaking out on behalf of Travellers and the continuing prejudice they face. Sheila has found common ground with traditional singers and musicians from other nomadic cultures around the globe, who also experience discrimination at the hands of settled communities.    Sheila has rightly been inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame – an accolade she cherishes – and has been awarded the MBE.

Sheila Stewart continues to thrive on people and life and her singing and story telling are still best experienced in the flesh. Her rich voice, singing unaccompanied, redolent of the countryside, is like a full-throated songbird.  It carries history and tradition and connects us to a time when we lived close to nature and respected its gifts and dangers.  In that listening moment, time is suspended in the presence of our shared humanity and in appreciation of our world. This reader is grateful to her for her gift of this life and its story.  If you have not heard her live then this book will make you want to hear that astonishing voice sing its conyach [heart music] – it really should have an accompanying CD!

Anni Donaldson

Book Review of the Month  Published by Glasgow Women’s Library 2012

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