Stella, the Muse of Rose Street

A personal view by poet Magi Gibson

I first came across Stella as a headline in the Sunday Arts Review section of a Scottish newspaper in the mid-eighties. STELLA, THE MUSE OF ROSE STREET. I was intrigued. Reading on, I came across the names of Scottish male poets from the generation before me, poets I held in high regard... and at their centre this young woman, this bright shining star. How romantic! One poet had described her voice “of roses and rain”. Another had written of her as “the lassie frae the mune”. I'd never come across her before, but was now discovering that these mid-twentieth century Edinburgh poets had written hundreds of poems inspired by her. Oh, and quite a number of these men had been her lover. Or had aspired to be. Or had claimed to be.

But wait — how romantic was this really? Because this was essentially an obituary. Precipitated by the premature and lonely death of the eponymous Stella. From alcoholism.

What's more, the Rose Street of the headline, for all its pretty and sweet-smelling name, had been a somewhat seedy place in the 1950s. So how did a teen schoolgirl, from a good background (dad an architect, mum a nurse) come to be drinking whisky with men often more than twice her age, in a pub in a street of ill repute?

Since reading that article, I've done a lot more digging into Stella's story. I don't know quite what to make of her father taking her to Milne's Bar in Rose Street, Edinburgh at fifteen years old — illegally — to drink with his poet pals. I do understand, being from a dull Scottish town myself, that teenage Stella, sparky and daring, devouring European literature as an only child at home, sneaking out to smoke an occasional illicit cigarette, would have longed for excitement. To go into the city centre in the evenings, to drink in a pub, to be treated like an adult woman, be fawned over by these older arty men - no wonder she was quickly seduced into her role as ‘muse’!

But as so many women have found, being a muse rarely, if ever, leads to a fulfilling life. Yet there is so little source material written about Stella that is not written by the men who wanted to romanticize her as some idealized youthful spirit that rekindled their own dwindling inspiration, that it seems almost impossible now to know who the real Stella was. One source says she wasn't very bright or witty in conversation, another says she was remarkably well-read in modern literature and could hold her own intellectually — even with these erudite men. One says she wasn't much of a looker, another says she was beautiful. Which all begs the question, when a woman becomes a Muse, is she no more than a blank canvas or page that the male artist projects whatever he wants onto? And in that very act is the personality of the woman herself damaged? Is she destroyed little by little? If not downright obliterated.

If only the young Stella had met Polish poet, Anna Swir, who wrote, “I will not be the slave to any love / To no one / Will I hand over my purpose in life / My right to go on growing.” At fifteen, Stella had hardly started growing at all into womanhood when she was catapulted out of her depth into a world of alcohol, sex, and the stultifying role of muse. And at the time, the 1950s and 60s, a woman's role was very much still seen as being a wife rather than pursuing a career. Stella certainly tried to be more Bohemian. But in the end, it seems the men who'd been so happy to drink with her, disappeared when things got rough.

George Mackay Brown was the one man who, it would appear, did fall in love with Stella in a way that seemed to have a gentleness and generosity about it. But ultimately he returned to Orkney, where he was well-looked after by his mother, and remained until he died aged seventy four.

Stella quickly succumbed to what Mackay Brown called, “John Barleycorn, the smiler with the knife” while still in her twenties. In one anguished note to Mackay Brown she wrote, "George, what have I done so wrong to be thrown on the rubbish heap at thirty-two?"

By her late forties, after spells in and out of hospital as a result of alcoholism, the Muse of Rose Street was dead.

And not one of the poets Stella had known, not one of those men who'd written all those hundreds of poems inspired by her, attended her funeral.