By Julia Welstead
We talk from the get go, from the gate, ‘sorry it’s closed, the sheep get in to the garden otherwise’ to the kitchen, ‘would you like soup?’ I arrive at 12.45, leave at 15.45. As I’m walking away from her shed, `a moment of guilt, wonderment, humour, passes between us – have we actually covered the necessities of the interview? ‘I can send you more information’ – is all that’s actually verbalised.
In between, we pack everything, including the kitchen sink. I’d say ‘cabbages and kings’ but those weren’t covered, unless of course they are metaphors for women in kitchens and men with big egos. In which case we covered both.
However, here and now, I’ll confine myself to writing about Pauline Prior-Pitt, poet and artist.
Pauline moved to North Uist in 1997, having taken early retirement from her teacher-advisor post (specialising in dyslexia) in the Midlands to make time for poetry. She is keen to emphasise that she enjoyed her job, but realised the need to give time and space to her creative energies. The latter involved a move north and west, crucially to live by the sea.
A natural performer, Pauline had thought of acting as a career, and enjoys reading her poems to audiences, very much revelling in the joy of the spoken word. She runs local monthly poetry evenings and writing workshops, and supports the Scottish Book Trust’s live literature programme, which financially helps poets to travel to less populated locations, both by welcoming other poets to North Uist, and by travelling to different locations herself.
Whilst she has a small regret at the loss of her poetry performance work at ‘big ladies lunches’ in England, this is massively outweighed by the environment – seascape, landscape, flora and fauna – in which she now lives, and from which she has developed new veins of writing and painting.
What is it about the ‘scapes’ (land, sea, sky) that inspires? For Pauline it is meditative, and the resulting poetry is often a blend of one’s mood or feelings at the time, perhaps something one is going through, with the visual and visceral environment, the weather, the season. The physicality of walking prompts words. Elements in the landscape can be reminiscent of other things, like the flock of shorebirds that reminded her of falling snow in her ‘shore sequence’.
There is something magical about a slim volume of poems, and Pauline’s exquisite books are no exception. ‘Storm Biscuits’, ‘Written on the Shore’, ‘Be an Angel’, ‘No Better Place’, ‘Elsewhere’ – their very titles are evocative and intriguing. Covering everything from the Clearances to Covid and from the many facets of women’s lives to the power and beauty of the ever present ocean. Metaphors abound.
Pauline’s break into the Scottish poetry scene came via her pamphlets, when one of these hand stitched and illustrated little beauties – ‘North Uist Sea Poems’ – won her the Callum MacDonald Award in 2006.
Soup finished, I’m invited to see Pauline’s workshop, which turns out to be a dream of a shed in the garden. Spacious, light-filled and (vitally for these climes) insulated. Slight confusion ensues as I find myself in more of an artist’s studio, less of a poet’s study*. Painting has become another outlet for Pauline’s creativity, a new language in describing her beloved seascapes. She finds the two disciplines of poetry and painting to provide a productive balance of the cerebral and the physical.
This is when I discover that Pauline studied drawing and painting on the UHI BA degree course in Fine Art at Taigh Chearsabhagh in 2004. She exclusively sells her gorgeous seascapes from her studio, as part of ‘Art on the Map’, a decision taken in order not to ever feel pressured to increase the volume of her painterly output. If you want one, you have to go to North Uist.
The word Pauline leaves me with is ‘play’. She plays with words, plays with paint. Has fun. Earlier in my visit, a grandson had popped in to collect a painting he and she had worked (or played) on together. With her sparkling, mischievous eyes, Pauline is playful, entertaining, and great fun to be around.
*When I send a draft of this article to Pauline for her thoughts, she picks up on my confusion about the shed:
“I can’t believe that I didn’t show you my writing room. It’s above the kitchen, reached by an electric staircase that comes down by the back door. It has a beautiful view of the sea and is crammed with a desk and lots of poetry books and very untidy.” I put this omission down to our conversation veering rapidly off the topic at hand, and I feel an immediate urge to return to North Uist, if only to visit that idyllic writing space.