Margaret Macaulay reveals hidden correspondence between Scottish writer Athole Cameron and her Welsh lover.
As the independence debate lumbers on in Scotland and Wales looks on, unsure whether to feel envious or relieved that it hasn’t reached that stage yet, I am reminded of letters that came into my possession some years ago. Dating from the 1950s, they provide an intriguing insight into the very different political and cultural situations that prevailed then in both countries.
My involvement began when, as the literary executor of the Scottish writer Athole Cameron, I inherited a mass of disorganised papers: lots of poems published and unpublished, and drafts of the many speeches she delivered at SNP conferences. Athole stood three times unsuccessfully for Westminster and was the moving spirit behind the setting up of the party’s Heritage Society. It was her love of her country’s languages (both Gaelic and Scots), its literature, and its music which was at the heart of her nationalism.
Among the paper chaos there was a shallow chocolate box, with a flattened blue ribbon. Inside there was a collection of letters. Love letters? It was not what I would have associated with Athole, but then I had only ever known the retired teacher. I remembered and re-read one of her poems.
I am myself. There is nothing that you can do.
I am myself, and that not one or two
but fifty selves, and each one in its turn
can laugh and love and cry, can hate and hope and yearn,
and have its hour, and pass, and there is nothing more.
I am myself. There is no key to my door.
And so it does not matter that we kiss
and hold each other close on summer nights.
When dawn is come and ending to all this
there will be other joys and soft delights
and other dreams and fears, until the times grow cold
and I am left alone in the dreaming days of the old.
Yet still myself. There is nothing that you can do.
When I’m grown old I will not remember you.
Perhaps the letters were indeed love letters. “Put them in the bin,” said my 80-year-old aunt. “They’re nothing to do with you.” “You could bury them. Make them a time capsule,” said my younger daughter, who was more sympathetic and understood my reluctance to throw the letters out.
But Athole had not wanted to be buried. Years before her death we had gone to Glenlyon together and she had shown me the house where she was brought up by her mother, the local school-mistress. Across the way there was an old walled graveyard, so old that some of the tombstones were inscribed in Gaelic, from the time when Perthshire was still Gaelic-speaking. Without having to mention it, we were both reminded of the MacDiarmid poem, Crowdieknowe. “Will you scatter my ashes here?” said Athole with typical impulsiveness, and when the time came I did.
So the letters were not to be buried. Nor were they to be put out with the household rubbish. Instead I sat down and read them. Think ‘Brief Encounter’. The time is a little later – the letters date from the early 1950s – but this was still a black and white austerity world. The swinging sixties were light years away. Her corrrespondent, a Welshman, lived in digs with a landlady who cooked for him. Athole, the dutiful daughter, stayed at home with her widowed mother. Communication was by phone (on his side from a public kiosk) and by letter, always with much thought to the correct post to catch. Arrangements to meet meant detailed discussion on railway time-tables.
But unlike ‘Brief Encounter’ this need not have been a doomed relationship. Both parties were very much in love and neither was married. A happy ending might have seemed the most likely outcome.
Yet it didn’t happen. There was a problem which in the end proved insoluble. Athole was a Scot, much involved in the political and cultural struggle to gain Scottish independence. The Welshman, though not – as far as I know – a nationalist, had as strong a commitment to his own country and to the survival of the Welsh language. He was apprehensive of the dangers of a mixed-language marriage, referring to it as a “stumbling block”. He could only dream of the possibility of Welsh-medium education, and Welsh language television was not even a gleam in his eye.
How times have changed. Today in Wales Welsh-medium schools are flourishing as strongly in Cardiff as in the language’s traditional heart-lands. S4C, the committed Welsh language channel, was set up in the early 1980s. Even in Scotland where the Gaelic language was deliberately suppressed in schools by the 1872 Education Act – no doubt for the best possible educational reasons – there has been a modest re-introduction of Gaelic-medium schooling and BBC Alba is well regarded. Being a Scots speaker but with no Gaelic I often tune in to Alba for a shinty match or a documentary on Europe. And most recently for the Scottish woman’s football. Tam Cowan missed a cracker of a match there.
Unfortunately we have only one side of the correspondence, but there is no doubt Athole would have been informing her Welshman of the state of the Scottish nation. In one letter he acknowledges receipt of a 25-page epistle. And even if her letters have disappeared, she has left us a poem. As she would. I found it among the letters and it seems to me to provide a fitting epitaph to a particularly intense, peculiarly Celtic, and finally doomed brief encounter. Pity their timing was so wrong. This is the poem:
We who have loved the changing scene together
And now are parted quietly and for ever
We, the self-martyred to our hopes and fears
What have we now to use instead of tears, now all is ended?
What have we left, after the vision splendid?
No more on the edge of the night
Laughter and sorrow together
No more within hearing or sight
Yet ours is no tumult of grief
Nor the hopeless calm of despair
Nor the comforting pride of belief,
Bur emptiness everywhere.
Deep in the depths of our souls,
When the sting of missing is past,
Shall be grief, for the grief that is gone
And the pain that cannot last.