Greta Michie: connections between Glenesk and St Andrews reinvigorated

Friday 24 January 2020

In previous blogs, we have featured reports from the Logjam project highlighting our active management of our archival collections through the appraisal and cataloguing of our archival backlog. Here’s a story about the re-homing of material that falls outwith our collecting policy, where the finding of a new home for papers has restored older links.

While reviewing our collections, we came across a few boxes of unidentified photocopies of documents in one of our stores. The copied documents all related to the Glenesk area in Augus, and included scrapbooks, letters and school projects. The only indication as to their provenance was a pencilled note on the boxes that they had been copied by RNS, the late Dr Robert Smart, Keeper of Manuscripts and Muniments, and required appraisal.

It is not within our collecting policy to retain photocopies, in particular those that are unconnected to St Andrews and East Fife, but rather than immediately disposing of documents which had been painstakingly copied, we started on a quest to find a more suitable home for them. The quest would eventually lead to the Glenesk Folk Museum and Margaret Fairweather Michie.

Some of the copied documents did have reference numbers which, using citations in secondary literature, were tracked back to the archive of the Glenesk Folk Museum. After getting in touch with the community volunteers who now run the museum, we were able to set up a visit to the Glen Esk valley and a tour of the Folk Museum.

St Andrews bindings

It turned out that the museum already had copies of these documents bound in distinctive St Andrews bindings, dating back to a time when the University Library ran a joint bindery with the University of Dundee. The Museum volunteers were happy to receive the St Andrews copies though, as they could replace some of the more heavily-used volumes. This visit sparked a discussion as to the connections between St Andrews and the Museum’s founder – Margaret Fairweather Michie.

Margaret Fairweather Michie, known as Greta, was born in 1905 in Cairncross to George Simpson Michie, farmer on the Dalhousie Estate, and Alexina Whyte Fairweather. Greta’s connections with Fife began with her schooling. While staying with relatives, Greta studied at Kirkcaldy High School followed by a time at Edinburgh Ladies College and then Montrose Academy. Greta arrived as an undergraduate student at the University of St Andrews in 1924 and received her MA in History and English in October 1928. After graduation, she went on to study at Dundee (still part of the University of St Andrews at this point) and graduated with a Diploma in Education in June 1929. She returned to St Andrews as a research student in 1946, researching ‘The depopulation of the Braes of Angus’ under the supervision of Dr Ronald Cant in the School of History, who incidentally had been an undergraduate at the same time as Greta.

After receiving her Education diploma Greta started her teaching career in Brechin, later moving to Monifieth Public School in 1935. While a teacher at Tarfside, she founded in 1955 the Glenesk Folk Museum, located in the Glen Esk valley, nine miles north of the village of Edzell. Originally the museum was housed in the “Retreat” Shooting Lodge, the property of Lord and Lady Dalhousie, built in part by Captain Wemyss in the 1840s.

Within the papers of Ronald Cant, there is a draft typescript memoir and biography of Greta. This memoir comments on Greta’s efforts to collect artefacts and her interest in documenting every aspect of community life in Glenesk, an interest which directed her research at St Andrews in 1946. Cant highlights the influence of a trip to Norway and the work of the Artur Hazelius, Swedish folklorist and founder of the Nordic Museum on her desire to set up the folk museum. Greta’s efforts were rewarded in 1956 with an MBE for services to Rural education.

Greta’s connections with St Andrews did not end after her time as a research student. Upon inspecting the accessions information we have for our collections, it became apparent that Greta kept in regular contact with the Library, both with her former supervisor then Keeper of Muniments Dr Ronald Cant, and his sucessor in office Robert Smart. Her collecting spirit extended to St Andrews as many of our smaller collections have been either deposited by Michie or in some cases gifted to the Library with her assistance.

Poem St. Andrews by William A. Craigie, 17 April 1886 (ms31004)
Poem Fair, fair an’ sweet is Life, August 1886 by William A. Craigie (ms31004)

Two of the collections she donated stand out. Firstly, a small collection of poems, mainly by St Andrews graduate and lexicographer and philologist William A. Craigie. A couple of examples of his poems are St Andrews dated 17 April 1886 and Fair, fair an’ sweet is Life, dated August 1886. These poems would have been written by Craigie as a student as he studied at St Andrews between 1883 and 1889. The poems are accompanied by a letter from Greta to Robert Smart (3 January 1970) explaining that she thought them best to be housed in the University Library, though there is no information as to how she acquired them.

One of the other collections which stood out were the papers of Helen Burness Cruickshank (ms37326). Helen Burness Cruickshank (1886–1975), born near Montrose, was a Scottish poet of the Scottish literary renaissance of the early to mid-20th century. A civil servant for over forty years, Cruickshank was politically active, joining the Women’s Social and Political Union and taking part in marches in the early 20th century.

Cruickshank wrote poems both in Scots and in English and her first collection was published in 1934. Her more successful poems were those inspired by the countryside of her birthplace around Angus. Examples of her poems can be seen in A Glen Anthology, edited by Greta Michie for the Glen Esk Trust in 1959.

The small archive collection donated to the Library by Greta includes a series of letters sent to her by Cruickshank over the period 1957 to 1973; a typescript copy of a One-Act Play in Scots “The Birken Bush” by Cruickshank and a photograph of the two of them together (Helen Cruickshank is on the left and Greta Michie on the right in the above photo). The letters from Cruickshank reveal her connections with many of the other leading lights in Scottish literature of the time. Cruickshank was a founder member and secretary for many years of the Scottish Centre of the International PEN club and therefore had many contacts and friends within the literary community, including authors such as Hugh MacDiarmid and Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

Letters from Helen Cruickshank to Greta Michie

The details of how Greta and Helen became friends is unknown, though they would probably have resided in Montrose at the same time. While the letters from Helen are not currently catalogued, they may yet prove to be an important resource in the history of the Scottish literary renaissance, for which we are grateful to Greta Michie both for her collecting efforts and her generosity to the Library.

Sarah Rodriguez
Assistant Archivist (Modern Records)

The Glenesk Museum is closed this season but visitors are welcome to get in contact and arrange a visit by appointment:

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3 thoughts on "Greta Michie: connections between Glenesk and St Andrews reinvigorated"

  • Steve Byrne
    Steve Byrne
    Wednesday 23 December 2020, 11.22am

    A lovely piece! Helen Cruickshank holidayed in Glenesk with her family every summer in her childhood, so she knew the school at Tarfside. She writes in her "Octobiography" (pp. 144-148) that she met Greta Michie for the first time in 1956, having gone on a day visit to the glen while she was visiting Kirriemuir. Later in 1956, Greta asked Helen to write a play for the school's closing concert the next summer. Helen even made the costumes.

    • skr23
      Wednesday 23 December 2020, 3.50pm

      Hi Steve, thanks for sharing that information. It is good to know more about the connections between Helen and Greta and when their friendship began.

      • Steve Byrne
        Steve Byrne
        Monday 28 December 2020, 10.36am

        You're very welcome! I had the pleasure of working on some of HBC's letters in the Hamish Henderson archive and she makes mention of Glenesk and the play for the schoolchildren. I also met Greta Michie when I was very young, my family knew her a wee bit as we used to camp up Glenesk regularly. Great to see her recognised like this.


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