Sheila Templeton: a personal appreciation

Pushing Out The Boat was deeply saddened to hear of the loss of Scottish poet Sheila Templeton in November 2023. An esteemed poet in both Scots and English language, she supported the magazine for many years, having both contributed her own poems, and latterly, wrote the foreword for POTB issue 16.  Below, team member and fellow poet, Judith Taylor, pays her tribute to Sheila.

Sheila reading her poem ‘The Iceberg that Sunk the Titanic’ at the launch of Issue 15

I have to admit that when I first knew Sheila, I was a little intimidated. She was a tall, statuesque woman, always glamorously dressed, and with tremendous presence, on and off the podium. I loved her poetry, but I was shy of her as a person. But then I gave her a lift to an event in Aberfeldy, and it turned out to be the most uproarious journey – we talked, and laughed, our heads off all the way there and all the way back. Later, when I bought a copy of her pamphlet Tender is the North (Red Squirrel 2013) she inscribed it “Really good to get to know you properly!” And that was what she was like – her poetic talent allied with a warm heart, an unfailing interest in the people and events she encountered, and a tremendous gift for friendship, as the outpouring of affection and tribute that greeted the news of her death bears witness.

Sheila was born in Aberdeenshire: her father was a farm-worker who later became a railwayman, and this took the family furth of the Shire and indeed furth of Scotland, when he took a job with East African Railways in Tanzania. She came back to Scotland to complete her education and went on to a career in secondary school teaching (that stage-presence was honed on tough audiences), but like many women of her generation, her own creative work had to wait for the demands of job and family to diminish – as she put it, “early retirement and a headlong dive into scribbling”. From her first pamphlet, Slow Road Home (Makar Press 2004) to her most recent collection Clyack (Red Squirrel 2021), taking in collaborations like the Writing the Asylum project (https://writingtheasylum.co.uk), and the two tri-lingual pamphlets she, AC Clarke, and Maggie Rabatski published with Tapsalteerie (Owersettin, 2016 and Drochaid, 2019), her work attracted justified praise: she appeared on many prize shortlists, and won the McCash Scots poetry prize so often that if it had been a trophy like the World Cup, she would have got to keep it. Her last-published book, Norlan Lichts, produced jointly with Sheena Blackhall and Lesley Benzie (Rymour Books), was for many – myself included – one of the poetry events of 2022. She was generous too with her time and advice, acting as a Scots/Doric consultant for Poetry Scotland magazine and commenting wisely and helpfully on the work of poets – again, like myself – writing less surely in Scots.

Sheila wrote in both Scots and English. Her poetry in both languages is lyrical, accessible, and filled with a clear-eyed understanding that responds to its subjects with unsentimental human sympathy. Her poem “Living Room” / “Leevin Room”, about the bombardment of Gaza in 2009, has been much on my mind this winter, and I remember how passionately she read it at Callander in 2013:

And so he dances, this father, this citizen of Gaza,
smiling at his girl, making funny faces, breathing
love into a space full of brokenness and fear,
reminding us exactly how war is waged among the weary.
the innocent, in broken houses, the once living rooms.

And for the Scotia Extremis project, when many of us were choosing famous monuments or spectacular scenery, she chose James Keir Hardie as her subject:

Nae for you the cauld analysis, the lang-nebbit theory o the dialectic
settin the warld tae richts. Aa yer gumption, yer scrievin, yer wirds
cam fae life, fae a day’s lang darg, fae the hard tyauve o yer hauns
burnt intae muscle memory

Though for most of her writing career she was living first in Ayrshire and then in Glasgow, her Scots poetry kept faith with her Doric roots. And although she explored those roots in poems like “Cottar Wife” or “The Clyack Shafe”, or the English “Priming the Pump”, she was not one to let her mother-tongue fade into nostalgia, using it as she used English for any and all subjects, from a sunbather on Glasgow Green, to the paintings of Whistler, to the mysterious celestial object Oumuamua. She had, too, a wicked and subversive sense of humour that glints out in poems like “Dumfoonert”, where a group of adolescents enter a fairground booth and encounter Estelle the Tassel Swinger (“Whit wye is she able tae dee that?”), or her appreciation of Captain Picard from Star Trek. The two poems from her that we were lucky enough to publish in Pushing Out the Boat 15 (and which later appeared in Clyack) capture these different aspects of her work: “The Iceberg That Sunk the Titanic“, a sly telling of a grandfather’s possibly-tall tale; and “Unn the Deep Thochted”, an exploration of the character of a woman in the Laxdaela Saga who takes her family to Iceland to escape the feuds and wars that have cut them down:

Naebody iver sang aboot my byowty. Naebody
iver spak o my bonnie face. My ain faither
niver caad me his bonnie quine. But he gied me
a byordnar gift at my kirsenin – Unn the Deep Thochted
he kythed me. And that’s been mair eese than byowty,
that’s been shinin siller in the kist o ma life.

We were delighted, too, when she agreed to write the introduction to issue 16, and we are heart-sore to think that we, and the world, will have no more poetry from her: heart-sore too for her family and their loss, all the more cruel given her delight at becoming a granny just a few years ago. I couldn’t make it to Glasgow for her funeral, but I was glad to hear that those who could carried out her wishes in the poem “Living Will”, belting out the hymns she loved as a worthy sendoff:

Don’t even think of sitting quietly.
I want you on your feet. I want to go hearing you singing.
Make a big noise.