Nationality: Scottish. Born: Valerie Simmons, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, 4 June 1948. Career: Writer-in-residence, Boroughmuir High School, Edinburgh, 1978, Edinburgh Academy, 1983, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee, 1988–90, Dundee District Libraries, 1988–90, Mid and East Lothian, 1991–93, and University of Edinburgh, 1995–97. Address: 67 Braid Avenue, Edinburgh EH10 6ED, Scotland.
Trio: New Poets from Edinburgh, with Roderick Watson and Paul Mills. New York, New Rivers, 1971.
Each Bright Eye: Selected Poems. Edinburgh, Canongate, 1977.
Notes on Kim. New York, Longman, 1981.
Bed of Stone. Edinburgh, Canongate, 1984.
Leopardi: A Scottis Quair. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1987.
Tweed Journey. Edinburgh, Canongate, 1989.
The Chanter's Tune. Edinburgh, Canongate, 1990.
The Jordanstone Folio. N.p., Tay Press, 1990.
The Ringing Rock. Edinburgh, Scottish Cultural Press, 1995.
St. Kilda Waulking Song. N.p., Morning Star, 1998.* * *
Although Valerie Gillies was born in Canada, where her father was a Royal Air Force officer, the family moved to Scotland when she was six months old. She began writing when she was fourteen, but none of her early efforts are included in her later collections. A major influence on her development was Norman MacCaig, who lectured at Edinburgh University, where she was educated, and who organized lunchtime readings by other poets. (He is reported to have advised her to "mind her punctuation.") She has represented Scotland at international festivals in Ireland and Wales (the Beaumaris Arts Festival) and has given poetry readings throughout Scotland. She is represented in many anthologies.
Iain Crichton Smith hailed Each Bright Eye, which was published in 1977 and which was Gillies's first collection, as "the most interesting and fresh book of poems to come out of Scotland for a very long time." In it she staked out her territory—birds and other animals, exotic places, and weather—in words set down with vivid, zestful imagery. These qualities are even more accomplished in her volume Bed of Stone (1984). There is, for example, a remarkable sequence titled "Rabbit Voices" that seems to capture the very essence of rabbitness. Consider, for example, these lines from the fifth section:
The wind blows, the rain pelts,
It patters the earth.
It is good to sleep underground,
To sleep and sleep.
But at the dry hour,
The hard trail before us,
We will take our fill:
Corn, parsley, furze,
Stems, carrots, berries.
We look all around
And see the world,
Glad to taste so many things.
Not one of us can see
When his life will give way,
Teeth marks upon it.
There are touching human portraits, too, as in "We Meet Again," in which "Your son says to my daughter/'I hate girls—go away.'" The girl seeks the boy out nonetheless, and the speaker asks,
Who will remember to-day
when they discover
their own surprising eden?
As, in the pretty far back,
once it was you and me.
Gillies has become best known in Scotland as a poet of the country's rivers. As she followed two great rivers, the Tweed and the Tay, on their journeys from their sources to the sea, she invented her own form of "Strath poetics." The river poems are found in two collections, Tweed Journey (1989) and The Ringing Rock (1995). The latter is in two sequences, one carrying the title of the volume and the other "Tay Journey." Again, the poems show fresh, searching imagery, as in "Estuary," the penultimate poem in The Ringing Rock:
The tide's on the turn here,
opening the pilot's chart
a man is steering out to sea,
the tiller and the light hand on it
that smells of seawater:
his hand confirms the stars.
Gillies is also interested in multimedia activities and works with musicians and visual artists. In 1996–97 a selection of her poems accompanied the paintings in the exhibition Two Scottish Artists on a tour of cities in Texas. With the photographer Rebecca Marr she was awarded a cross-media grant to create text and images for an exhibition on "the wild men and domestic animals of Scotland" and entitled Men and Beasts. She has written both for films and television, notably the five-part documentary Caledonians and Romans. She also has served as a writer-in-residence at libraries and schools in Scotland, including Edinburgh University, and she has worked with Artlink, which facilitates the production of hospital patients' work in books and exhibitions.