IF you search online for Scottish poets, of course the great Robbie Burns heads the carousel of answers, but women’s names are fewer and further between. In the real world, 42-year-old Julie McNeill knows that’s a very different story.

“If you go to an open mic night or events at the Scottish Poetry Library, women are well represented in the fabric of Scottish poetry,” she says.

“At the grassroots level, there are some phenomenal Scottish poets. There are female voices out there, they sometimes get drowned out by the male voices, but there are things we need to say.

“Scotland is going through such an interesting time with the independence debate looming again, so these are important voices. Every time I stand on a stage or I’m given space in a book or an opportunity to say things that are important to me, I feel like I’m adding to that rich fabric.”

McNeill was born in Carlisle but lives with her family in Bishopbriggs, near Glasgow, and feels “rooted” in Scotland.

“I’m Scottish by choice,” she says.

“Carlisle is five minutes from the border but sounds quite different from Gretna. My life’s been in Scotland, my family are all in Scotland, parents, grandparents and obviously I’m raising my children here.”

An interest in poetry came as a teenager, pinning a quote from Tennyson’s Ulysses on her bedroom wall alongside the posters of her heroes, and Julie found verse gave her a way to express herself.

“I wasn’t really good at communicating or talking about my feelings or telling people how I felt, but I could do that snapshot,” she says.

“I could put it on a piece of paper and put it in my drawer. It’s always something I’ve had an emotional connection to and I can go back to, either when things are really good and I want to capture a moment, or when things aren’t so good and I need to understand how I’m feeling about something.”

Julie McNeill’s poetry  does more than simply inspire and connect

Her current favourites to read are American beat-style poet Jack Gilbert, who she discovered during lockdown.

“He’s a kind of poet of disappointment really,” she says.

“He reframes what we would see as endings or failures as ‘let’s be joyful about it happening’ or see the good in things.”

McNeill also immersed herself in the work of George Mackay Brown, who’s centenary was marked last year, thanks to her involvement in the anthology Beyond the Swelkie.

“I’ve been able to read the poem I put in that book for different audiences all over Scotland and spent a lot of time learning about him, his life and island communities. He’s another lovely one to read.”

McNeill’s love of words has done more than allow her to express herself and entertain others. She’s also used her talent to help people with dyslexia, including her husband Paul (47), their 12-year-old son Shea and daughter Bella, aged nine.

“The three dyslexic people in my life are probably the three most creative people I could come across,” she replies, when asked how the learning difficulty has impacted her.

“My life is much richer for having to adapt the way I organise my house and learn and deliver messages to my family.

“I’m also involved in a brilliant project with the Scottish Poetry Library in which I will go into schools and deliver dyslexia-friendly poetry workshops. We’ll use sensory things or word banks or the spoken word, letting children record themselves rather than write, and use scribes.”

She adds: “Dyslexic people are among some of the most entrepreneurial, creative people that we have in the world. We need to be able to harness that creativity and find a way they can access poetry that’s meaningful for them.”

Julie McNeill’s poetry  does more than simply inspire and connectJulie McNeill

The project builds on the success of Mission Dyslexia, co-created by McNeill, husband Paul and illustrator Rossie Stone. Both men have been ambassadors for Dyslexia Scotland for more than 10 years before she was asked by Jessica Kingsley Publishers to write a book based on the workshops Paul and Stone had held in Scottish schools.

Young Shea turned out to be the inspiration for Mission Dyslexia, as she explains: “It’s based on the strategies he developed and the journey we went on together to try to unlock his learning and how he talks about things.

“I thought the book would be used by parents, because really I’d written it for myself, but it’s been adopted as a resource in schools. It’s a tool to open up conversations and help people to develop strategies, based on the things they can do, to overcome the things they find difficult. It’s been a really good experience.”

McNeill, whose forthcoming poetry collection will be published by Drunk Muse Press later this year, is currently hard at work on three stories as a follow-up of sorts to Mission Dyslexia, juggling it with in-person appearances at events, something she’s grown to love over the years.

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“I started writing poetry regularly and more seriously just after Shea was born, because I was so bubbled up with emotion. I joined a local writer’s group and went for at least three months without saying a word. I was paralysed with fear. I couldn’t read my work out loud, I didn’t know how to do that and felt like a complete imposter. They were just a brilliant group and slowly, I read little sections and got feedback, and it’s grown from there: 12 years of taking it one toe at a time!”

She recently appeared at Belladrum, The Wee Gathering in Stonehaven, and St Andrew’s, as part of an anthology supporting people with dementia and Alzheimer’s where golf was the theme.

“I’d written a poem based on Paul’s memory with his dad, who is no longer with us. It was about them watching Sandy Lyle and the underdog coming through in the end. It felt brilliant to be able to stand on the stage and tell that story, which might resonate with the audience.

“The best thing was my kids were in the audience and as I walked up to the stage, Shea shouted ‘that’s my mum!’. The whole thing made me feel really proud. I’m just loving being able to stand up and read my work. I believe now in the words that I’ve written.”

Twitter @JulieMcNeill1