Scotsman Obituaries: Lorna J Waite, academic, poet and community activist

Lorna Waite had one of the most striking voices on the Scottish poetry scene (Photo: hy)
Lorna Waite had one of the most striking voices on the Scottish poetry scene (Photo: hy)

In 1985 the Glengarnock Steelworks in the Ayrshire town of Kilbirnie closed its doors for the last time, after 142 years of production. The closure, subsequent demolition of the site and deliberate destruction of archival material dealt a death-blow to the town as the guts were ripped out of the community. This kind of Thatcherite economic and social vandalism was, of course, not confined to communities in Scotland: it was a pattern repeated ad nauseam in all parts of these islands but focused on the industrial parts of Wales, the North of England and West Central Scotland.

The Glengarnock closure left deep, indelible marks on the people who lived in the town and these scars are still visible to this day. Among many others, the closure had a profound effect on the life of Lorna Waite, who was 21 when the steelworks shut. Generations of Waite’s ancestors had been employed in “the work” and, like everyone else in the town, whose inhabitants are known as “Blasties,” she felt a fiercely proud identification with Glengarnock. Years later, in 2011, Waite completed a practice-based PhD at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, entitled “Cultural retrieval, land use and post-industrial folk memory: a practice-led response to the destruction of Glengarnock Steelworks”.

Waite’s thesis was a tour de force: forceful, erudite, unconventional, creative, bold and uncompromising, it both celebrates and mourns the culture of Kilbirnie. An articulate advocate of Scottish secession, and a member of the radical left, Waite labelled the Glengarnock closure as “internal colonisation” and part of the “Industrial Clearances”. She described the Glengarnock Steelworks as a form of “memory, lost object, form, metaphor, inventory, vision, clearance and retrieval”.

Waite further described her thesis as using “local material culture and decolonising methodologies... to articulate the process, knowledge and gathering of the visual archive, to repair and reinstate the lost object in memory and to reimagine this through a creative response in poetry and story which animates the active, female voice, often missing from the narratives of working-class Scottish history”.

As well as a hefty thesis, Waite produced the children’s novel Frances and The Blasties: Seven Steel Myths for Children, and a collection of 56 poems, The Steel Garden, as part of her research. The poetry was unapologetically political but with a lyricism and fervour that made her a powerful new voice on the Scottish scene, and beyond. In “Steelworks Likes Tae Be Remembered” she wrote:

“I hae wrapped maself in a plaid o memory

Cradlin yer water unner ma haun oan the hill

The lang view fae the scheme afore the treeline ends.

I hae sat by ye an poured ingots o grief an lost love

Intae yer bounded coarners

O my map o a sense o belongin

Huggin rusty stains oan a manmade waste.”

The phrase “ingots of grief,” with its judicious use of metallurgical terminology, resonates with all the bereft beauty owned by the whole community. Waite’s voice was one of many to mourn the loss of the works, but her notion of cultural retrieval is an important one, not only personally but as a creative map of defiance and strength for all those deeply scarred by the trauma of societal vandalism.

Lorna Janet Waite was born in Kilwinning and attended Garnock Academy before studying at Edinburgh University, where she gained an honours degree in psychology, and an MSc in Community Education. At Edinburgh she began work on a PhD that embraced feminism, psychology and art, but the project was not completed.

In the 1980s Waite worked with several special needs groups and became a contributor to and co-editor of the radical cultural magazine, Variant. In 1989 Waite wrote an article entitled “Notes on Poland: The Orange Alternative”. The piece was a result of an Edinburgh Arts “expedition” organised by The Richard Demarco Gallery in May of that year. The trip, in the company of around 30 UK-based writers, artists, and teachers, had a profound effect on Waite. The itinerary included galleries and cultural institutions in major Polish cities, as well as meetings with individual artists, although a scheduled meeting with the country’s best known and controversial theatre director, Tadeusz Kantor, did not materialise. Crucially, and unusually for a cultural visit, participants were taken by Demarco to Oswięcim (Auschwitz) where they were asked to contemplate the meaning and purpose of art in a world that involved mass murder on an industrial scale.

Waite wrote: “I still retain a philosophical position which does not accept the possibility of understanding antisemitism. I grieve but remain with the newly discovered experience of Kantor. One can write poetry after Auschwitz.” Later in her career, Waite’s talents as an author and poet were recognised by the award of a writing residency at Hugh MacDiarmid’s cottage at Brownsbank in 2011, and the following year, as Jessie Kesson Fellow at Moniack Mhor.

Her literary output was prodigious, and words flowed from her creative soul in a torrent of visceral intellect. She was ambitious, but in the best sense of the term: it was an inclusive, generous impetus advancing the causes and passions that she advocated. Much remains unpublished and, in time, a collected edition of her work must surely see the light of day.

Waite had many other enthusiasms and interests. She was a fully paid-up member of the Tartan Army, those internationally loved goodwill ambassadors for Scottish football, one of whom, Craig Davidson, was also her hairstylist. Davidson’s creativity in the salon was manifested by Waite’s mane of beautiful golden waves, the perfect accompaniment to her flamboyant, warm, embracing personality.

There are few better words to describe Waite than those recently penned by her fellow writer, Gerda Stevenson: “Lorna was luminous, powerful, brave yet humble, with a touching vulnerability. A remarkable woman, whose being somehow embodied the cultural strata of this richly diverse small nation we inhabit, and whose work we should all know about”.

Lorna Waite lived her life with courage and conviction. She showed the same kind of mettle when facing cancer , dying peacefully at home, surrounded by family and friends.

She is survived by her husband, Professor Emeritus Murdo Macdonald.


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