Cruickshank played an important role in the Scottish literary renaissance, not just through her poetry, but by her involvement in the Scottish literary scene throughout much of the 20th century, including her involvement with Scottish PEN.
In 1921, in the aftermath of the First World War, a society called International PEN was established to promote the friendly co-operation between writers in the interests of freedom of expression throughout the world. More generally, its was founded to promote respect and understanding between nations despite the often huge and seemingly impenetrable political differences that exist between them. The acronym PEN stands for poets, playwrights, essayists, editors and novelists. Central among the society’s aims was to create a world community of writers that would emphasise the central role of literature in the development of world culture.
Scottish PEN was founded six years later by Hugh MacDiarmid and a number of other prominent writers including, Naomi Mitchison, Neil Gunn, Edwin Muir, and Helen Cruishank, who was to be the association’s secretary for a number of years. This is a significant moment in Scotland’s literary development since it was a public and international assertion of Scotland’s right to have a distinctive voice and position on the world stage, particularly when many people (including some at home) believed that Scotland’s culture was not sufficiently different from England’s to merit a separate PEN centre.
MacDiarmid gets much of the credit for all this – rightly, perhaps, since he fought so long and hard to establish a position in the world culture for Scots language and literature. But it says a great deal about the critical shadow that many women writers have existed under for so long that many of them exist as mere footnotes in the history of Scottish writing. It is not even a question of statistics – research has shown that the balance of the numbers of men and women writers is roughly 50-50. But it’s mostly the men whom you find in the anthologies and in the pages of Scottish textbooks. Critical favour has been slow in coming for many Scottish women writers, and although that now seems to be changing for the better we still have to dig quite deep to find anything about Helen Cruickshank.
What we do know is that she was as selfless in her devotion to her mother, whom she looked after for 16 years following the death of her father, as she was to the cause of Scottish writing and the support of her fellow writers. She wrote in English as well as Scots and much of her work reflects the influence of her contemporaries – Hugh MacDiarmid and Lewis Grassic Gibbon in particular, to each of whom she dedicated a poem – and a profound connection with the land of her birth.