Naomi Mitchison 1897 – 1999


Biography……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..Page 1 Contexts……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..Pages 2 – 3 Further Reading / Contacts………………………………………………………………………………………………….Pages 4 – 7


Naomi Mitchison (1897 – 1999) : née Haldane, born 1897 in Edinburgh and educated

in Oxford.A prolific author (with over 100 novels and 1000 pieces of short fiction and essays), Mitchison interrupted her university career at an early age when she married the barrister and Labour politician G Richard Mitchison in 1916, and since 1937 has lived in Carradale/Kintyre, keenly involved in local politics. Her interest in travel has led her to Botswana, where she was adopted as advisor and ‘mother’ of the Bakgatha tribe during the 1960s.

Mitchison’s books, include mythical themes (The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931), science fiction (Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962)), novels for children, biographies, a number of short stories and a volume of poetry. Her 1947 novel The Bull Calves is set in Perthshire in the years after the Jacobite rebellion.The story around her fictional ances- tor Kirsty Haldane is fictional, but background and events are real enough, painting a lively picture of life in 18th century rural Scotland. She died in January 1999.


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Naomi Mitchison 1897 – 1999


Naomi Mitchison – Storyteller

Naomi Mitchison was many things – novelist, dramatist, essayist, poet, but above all she was a teller of stories.

The storytelling tradition goes as far back as humankind itself: we have always told stories – they are a way of understanding ourselves and the important things around us. From fireside folk tales to movies, from ballads to pop songs, from the great myths of Homer andVirgil to the latest novels riding up the bestseller charts,our appetite for stories has remained undimmed throughout several thousand years of human history.

We tell and listen to stories for all kinds of reasons: to be entertained; to imagine other places, other worlds; to experience romance and adventure, pursuit and danger, life and death without having to leave the comfort of our homes or families; to prepare us in some way for the real world; and to learn about ourselves and our communities, our ‘tribes’.To do all this, and more, is the role of the storyteller.

The novel is the one of our most sophisticated ways of telling stories, a complex and difficult art that often reveals rare and beautiful truths.The best novelists are those who touch something deep within us which continues to resonate long after we put the book away, whose words compel us to attention by the force of their narrative and verbal power.The best novels tell us something we realise we already knew but had never brought to mind in such a lucid and enlightening way. Some novels even succeed in telling us how the world is going to be.

Modern storytellers differ from their ancient counterparts only very slightly.Through them we are able to understand our world, without them we would lose much of what it means to be human.

Naomi Mitchison was born into an aristocratic family in the last years of the 19th century and spent her childhood in the English countryside. Later, after her marriage, she returned to Scotland to explore her family and cultural heritage in a large number of novels

– over 80 were published in her lifetime.As well as being a writer she was a hardworking member of the several communities she belonged to.When she moved from Oxford to Carradale on the Mull of Kintyre she became concerned with Highland affairs and played a prominent role in local politics, serving as a member of Argyll County Council for over 20 years. Her concerns, though, were not restricted to the local. She travelled widely, most significantly in Africa. In the 1960s, when she lived in Botswana, she was adopted as adviser and Mmarona (mother) of the Bakgatha tribe.

Her work spanned almost the entire gamut of genres from early mythology in works Copyright 2003 © Scottish Literary Tour Trust. All Rights Reserved.


Naomi Mitchison 1897 – 1999

like the Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931), to science fiction in Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962) and Solution Three (1975). She explored Scotland’s histor y, as well as her own, in novels which often reflect the influence of Walter Scott. She had an assured sense of the mythological in her work which lent a timeless quality to the best of her fiction, particularly her writing for young people, for example, in Graeme and the Dragon (1954).

Mitchison’s work is so vast and varied that it is impossible to neatly summarise the themes and issues at the heart of her fiction. It would not be misrepresenting her work too much to say that she was concerned throughout her life with the fate of women in a man’s world in a way that few women writers at the time were prepared to. Many of her works, particularly her controversial early novel We Have Been Warned (1935), explored rape, abortion, enslavement and the loss of children.

But this wasn’t all. She wrote about politics and the effects that political decisions, and political ideologies have on individuals and their communities.Very often these political themes would deal with contemporary Scotland in its struggle to keep its head afloat in the modern world.At other times she would investigate the past – most memorably her own past and that of her family inThe Bull Calves (1947) – as a way of engaging history and politics with her own roots.

Mitchison’s best writing always revealed a global sense of perspective that her reading

and research in history gave her, that she gained from living through the 20th century and participating in its turbulent politics, that she took from folk tale and myth. She was a writer who told the eternal stories of humankind. Her truly unique and international voice was one which spoke as much for the ‘world tribe’ as for her own community.


Written By Colin Clark

Copyright 2003 © Scottish Literary Tour Trust. All Rights Reserved.

Naomi Mitchison 1897 – 1999

Further Reading

Scottish Gazeteer

a brief introduction to Naomi Mitchison and her work

Obituary and Bibliography

a feminist science-fiction website (!) which features Mitchison’s obituary and an exhaustive list of her work.

A queen, a saint, a shaman

moving tribute from Neal Ascherson, one of Britain’s most articulate journalists and friend of Naomi Mitchison.,5673,320853,00.html

The following websites will be of general interest to the student of Scottish literature:

Scottish Literary Tour Trust

Featuring an extensive section on the Makars’ Literary Tour

National Library of Scotland

Homepage of the NLS.

Scottish Poetry Library

A very attractively laid out website with information on some of the major poets of the 20th century along with detailed readings of their best-known works.


The name stands for Scottish Librarians Across the Internet.This excellent site features brief, well-written biographies of many of the great Scottish writers.

Scots Online

From essays to an online dictionary this is a web-based resource with everything you could possibly need to know about the Scots language and how it is used.

Shudder at the Niffer Copyright 2003 © Scottish Literary Tour Trust. All Rights Reserved.


Naomi Mitchison 1897 – 1999

Gaelic & Scottish Connections

A resource on Gaelic language and culture, featuring poetry and essays and an online dictionar y.

Electric Scotland

Electric Scotland is a real mixed bag of Scottish paraphernalia with nationalist overtones. This page in particular allows you to hear and read complete Scots poems, from MacDiarmid to Dunbar.

Literature links

An encyclopaedic web of links to Scots magazines, monuments, libraries and languages. – lit

Project Gutenberg

This is a web-based publisher of copyright expired books.

Poetry Archive

A good, user-friendly site, sponsored by a bookseller, which features examples from some of the best poets in the world.

Poem Index

Almost 900 poems in the English language from 13th to 19th centuries.

Representative Poetry On-line

An enormous and easy to use resource based at the University ofToronto featuring alphabetical and chronological lists of 450 poets with substantial selections of their work. http://eir.librar

Scottish PEN

The name stands for Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists and exists to promote the friendly co-operation between writers in the interests of freedom of expression throughout the world.



Writers’ Portraits

Photographic and biographical pen portraits of some of Scotland’s greatest contemporary writers.

Copyright 2003 © Scottish Literary Tour Trust. All Rights Reserved.

Naomi Mitchison 1897 – 1999


The Book of Prefaces

edited and glossed by Alasdair Gray

Bloomsbury (2000)

Every home should have one. Dust jacket contains this advice:“Warning to Parents, Teachers, Librarians, Booksellers. Do not let smart children handle this book. It will help them pass examinations without reading anything else.”

The Faber Book of Twentieth Century Scottish Poetry

Edited by Douglas Dunn

Faber & Faber (1992)

A detailed account of the dramatic transformations the Scottish verse underwent in the previous century, with an enlightening introduction by Dunn.

The New Penguin Book of ScottishVerse

edited by Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah

Penguin (2000)

A beautifully presented chronology of some of the greatest Scottish poetry, from the 6th century to the present.

The Penguin Book of ScottishVerse

edited byTom Scott

Penguin (1970)

Earlier incarnation of above, edited by Scott – a recent inductee to Makars’ Court. Contains the infamous and controversial rude verse attributed to Burns. Makes for an interesting comparison with Crawford & Imlah’s anthology.

An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets

Edited by Catherine Kerrigan

Edinburgh University Press (1991)

Covers folksong, ballad, Scots and Anglo-Scots, from the middle ages to contemporary poets.

Studies and Criticism

Scottish Literature

eds Douglas Gifford, et al

Edinburgh University Press (2002)

This is all just about all you need to know about Scottish literature. A comprehensive, and very readable book. Excellent.


Copyright 2003 © Scottish Literary Tour Trust. All Rights Reserved.

Naomi Mitchison 1897 – 1999

The Mainstream Companion to Scottish Literature

Trevor Royle

Mainstream (1993)

Alphabetically arranged standard reference on Scottish literature.

Modern Scottish Literature

Alan Bold

Longman (1983)

Learned, erudite discussion of the major writers and texts of Scottish literature in the 20th century. Brilliant study material for Higher English.

Imagine a City: Glasgow In Fiction

Moira Burgess

Argyll (1998)

The definitive work on Glasgow’s place in Scottish literature, written by the author of the Makars Court Tour script.

A History of Scottish Women’s Writing

edited by Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan

Edinburgh University Press (1997)

This is the best book around for Scottish women’s writing at the moment.Tone can be a bit academic in places.


For further information about this project contact:

Morris Paton

Scottish Literary Tour Trust. Suite 2

97b West Bow



E-mail: Web:


Copyright 2003 © Scottish Literary Tour Trust. All Rights Reserved.

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