SMEDDUM is the name of one of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s short stories but it’s a word that could easily be used to describe Florence Marian McNeill.

It means having common sense but also courage, drive and resourcefulness and McNeill, who was born on the small Orkney island of Holm, was forced to employ all these qualities throughout her life to overcome many of the obstacles that threatened her achievements.

Despite the hurdles, she became a key figure in the Scottish Renaissance and at one point her books graced the shelves of many Scots households – but it is feared she is at risk of being forgotten.

One woman who is determined her legacy is remembered is storyteller Amanda Edmiston, pictured below, who will feature McNeill at the Scottish International Storytelling Festival in Edinburgh this month.

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“She seems to have been slightly overlooked but I am overwhelmed by her,” Edmiston said. “She is an amazing person who should be feted along with her male contemporaries, such as Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Hugh MacDiarmid, but I think she is at risk of being lost.

“We should not be losing people that took the first steps forward. Quite often when we are looking for female figures from history, we are all going for the big blockbusters but sometimes the ones who are really brave are the people who are quietly doing something but making a step for what they know is right.

“We need to keep reminding people that small but significant steps are important, especially if you are surrounded by setbacks.”


A DAUGHTER of the manse, McNeill’s father, the Rev Daniel McNeill appears to have been a kenspeckle figure who combined his Christianity with a few of the old superstitions, such as walking widdershins (anti-clockwise) around the house at New Year to ward off evil spirits.

Educated at Kirkwall Burgh School, McNeill was friends with Edwin Muir, later a celebrated poet. She attended the University of Glasgow where she graduated with an MA in 1912. At first she taught English in Germany and France, but she returned to the UK in 1913 and began campaigning for women to have the right to vote.

She was elected organiser for the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies but when war broke out she moved to London and became secretary for the Association of Moral and Social Hygiene.

Throughout most of this time she kept a diary, but when Edmiston began researching McNeill’s life, she found there was nothing for 1917. “I couldn’t find out what she did then but later discovered her brother Will went down with the HMS Laurentic which was full of gold bullion,” said Edmiston.

A total of 350 men were lost after the ship struck two mines north of Ireland. It is estimated the bullion, which was to be used for the purchase of war munitions from Canada and the United States, would be worth £22 million at today’s prices.

“Will’s body was washed up six months later on the Hebrides. She lost another brother in the war and I think there was a fiancé who did not come back,” Edmiston said.


AFTER the war, McNeill moved to Greece but she later returned to Edinburgh to work as a freelance journalist and writer, then became principal assistant on the Scottish National Dictionary project in 1929.

She also joined the SNP, eventually becoming vice-president.

It was at this time that McNeill became involved in the revival of Scottish literature and culture known as the Scottish Renaissance, publishing The Scots Kitchen and A Scots Cellar, both treasure troves of folklore and literature as well as recipes covering the diversity of Scotland’s culinary heritage.

They were kept and consulted by many, with recipes ranging from everyday fare such as broth and brose to the more exotic jellied sheep’s head or the evocative mashlum bannocks, fitless cock and whey-whullians.

“I’ve inherited my granny’s 1929 edition which I remember from when I was a little girl – I loved the fact that it has a recipe for shortbread called Dreaming Bread,” Edmiston said. “I have been using both books in an intergenerational project called Kist in Thyme because they are a beautiful combination of folklore and food and drink traditions.

“I’ve been using it to help children think about changes in farming and food through stories.

“It is about that pivotal period in Scotland before we were catapulted into the modern era and before food preparation changed dramatically.

“It is an interesting point in history that she managed to capture. It needs to be kept and treasured because it is how people behaved for 1000 years and how they lived their lives.

“It is a very female perspective because it’s really about the small things that people are doing on a day to day basis as they go about their ordinary lives. It’s the domesticity of life that makes her very accessible.”


AT the National Library of Scotland, Edmiston found letters between McNeill and other literary figures of her time.

Edmiston said: “Her contemporaries are really well-known figures in the British arts and literary scene but she is also struggling as a freelance writer – at one point her publisher loses an entire manuscript she had been working on for years, a collection of Scottish lullabies.

“Another time she had to organise the Lewis Grassic Gibbon memorial and says she has not two pennies to rub together, the ironing is piling up and she hasn’t done any housework!

“She is this amazing combination of an educated woman who travels alone, is passionate about the country she comes from and the rights of women and someone who is doing her own research and writing and still has the ironing to do.”

“She lost brothers in the war, her fiancé did not come back, she had no money, she didn’t have the vote but she was someone that kept on going even though she was passed over often for prizes and commissions and even when her script was lost.

“She just kept going with that gritty determination and she is worth celebrating for that alone.”

Edmiston will talk about McNeill in Feasting, Folklore and Florence on Friday, October 26, at 2pm at the National Library of Scotland, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh.

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