Widow of the poet Sorley Maclean; Born: November 22, 1920; Died: March 9, 2013.
CATHERINE (Renee) Maclean, who has died aged 92, was the wife of the late Gaelic poet Sorley Maclean, to whom she was married for 50 years until his death in 1996.
Their friends often pondered what might have befallen him had he not met and married her. It was a question normally met with a pursing of lips and a shaking of heads, the consensus being that everyday life would have been immeasurably more difficult for the poet.
Although she always kept herself firmly in the background as her husband was winning international recognition, she was his anchor. Her natural charm, humour and well-developed diplomatic instincts were disarming, her organisational skills much needed. With her, his earlier personal torments gave way to a loving and fulfilling family life in Edinburgh, Plockton and Skye.
She was not the woman/women of whom he wrote in some of his most famous works. But the one poem he did write for her suggested a new optimism. In translation it begins: “When this auburn head lies on my shoulder and my breast the dawn of triumph opens however gloomy the darkness.” A muse was not a role she had anticipated growing up in a family of four in Inverness. Her father, Kenneth Cameron, who had a joinery business, came from the Kilmuir area of the Black Isle when Gaelic was still spoken there. Her mother, Isabella Buchanan, was from Callendar.
They lived in the Crown area and she attended the then nearby Inverness Royal Academy. It was an Inverness unrecognisable today with farmland almost on their doorstep, where great swathes of housing now stand.
On leaving school she went to Edinburgh College of Domestic Science, which became known by its location in Atholl Crescent. She recalled seeing from the college windows some of the first German war planes to fly over Scotland in 1939. She studied needlework and qualified as a teacher.
The war years stayed with her and she would often paint a vivid picture of the home fronts – from the restaurants that would advertise a choice of six main dishes, when they only ever had powdered egg omelettes, to the trains packed full of servicemen.
By the time she met Sorley Maclean (who later changed his surname to MacLean in his published work) in 1944 the tide of the war had turned. He had been injured in the north African campaign and returned to Scotland.
He was teaching English at Boroughmuir High School when they married. She gave up her own teaching career on becoming a married woman, as was the norm at that time.
They became close friends with the poet Sydney Goodsir Smith, both families sharing a house in Craigmillar Park for about 18 months. In the folklore of the family this became known as the Schloss Schmidt, and was the focus of much humour. She held Smith the most naturally funny man she ever met.
Although friends of the Scottish literati, from Hugh MacDiarmid to Hamish Henderson, family life dominated as three daughters Ishbel, Catriona and Mary followed. It was during his time in Edinburgh that Sorley’s masterpiece Hallaig was written.
In 1956 he was appointed rector of Plockton High School, so they left the capital and headed to Rossshire where they brought up their children with Renee throwing herself into community life.
She also managed to sustain a policy of effortless hospitality as a broad section of humanity beat its way to the schoolhouse door.
It was the same open-door policy when they retired to Braes in Skye. The Maclean house was always a place of warmth and great craic, where she would often hold centre stage as she recounted some ludicrous episode from their lives, often involving her husband’s eccentricities. He loved nothing better.
Between 1973 and 1975 they were back south in term time when Sorley was creative writer in residence at Edinburgh University. It was also at this time invitations were arriving for poetry readings around the country and well beyond.
It all made for a fine retirement, but they suffered the most cruel of blows with the untimely death of their daughter Catriona. She lived with her family nearby in Braes and thereafter the three young sons she left became Sorley and Renee’s world. She stayed on in Skye after Sorley’s death, and only moved in 2007 to Cromarty to live with her daughter Mary and this writer, her son-in-law.
She is survived by her sister Evelyn, her daughters Ishbel and Mary, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.