Janet Paisley

  • Ilford, Essex


Writer, poet and playwright Janet Paisley writes for stage, television, radio and screen.

She was a member of the Working Party for a Scottish National Theatre, the SAC Scots Language Synergy, and is on the Cross Party Parliamentary Group for the Scots Language. She has held three Creative Writing Fellowships, received two Scottish Arts Council Writer's Bursaries and a Playwright's Bursary, edited New Writing Scotland and co-ordinated the first Scottish PEN Women Writers Committee.

A performer of her own work, she appeared at Glasgow's Mayfest in Bread & Circuses, The Killing of Women, Stick, Back to Basics and For Want of a Nail.  Her first poetry collection, Pegasus in Flight, was published in 1989. Her play Refuge, won the Peggy Ramsay Award in 1996. Other plays include Winding String, Deep Rising, straitjackets, the radio plays Curds and Cream, Diary of a Goth, Silver Bullet, and co-written with Graham McKenzie, the stage play, Sooans Nicht, and the radio comedy play, Bill and Koo.

in 2000 she was awarded a Creative Scotland Award to write Not for Glory (2001), a collection of linked short stories in Scots, set in Glen Village near Falkirk, where she lives. This book was one of the ten Scottish finalists voted for by the public in the 2003 World Book Day 'We are what we read' poll.

In 2001, Janet Paisley's short film Long Haul won a Bafta nomination. She also writes poems, stories and radio drama for children. Her latest books are two novels: White Rose Rebel (2007), set during the Jacobite rebellion; and Warrior Daughter (2009), both being made into films. Her most recent play, The Lasses, O, was performed at Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2010 and is based on the life of the poet Burns. 

Critical perspective

As the tension builds up among a group of women during Janet Paisley’s powerful drama Refuge, set inside a safe house in Scotland for victims of domestic violence, they have to confront not only the ever-present threat of male violence but also some uncomfortable truths about their own past actions.

Elderly Agnes is the matriarchal figure, telling the women that ‘shuttin yer een [eyes] disnae make oneything disappear …. But naebody wants the truth. Cause the truth needs dealin wi[th]’. In a larger sense, Paisley’s diverse and extensive body of work in plays, poetry and stories is ‘about’ dealing with the truths of human behaviour, especially those between men and women. She brings an unflinching eye, as well as an ability to move convincingly between pathos, satire, invective and even humour, when looking at relationships as well as the darker subjects of sexual violence and abuse. In the outspoken nature and language of her work she stands alongside her Scottish contemporaries Liz Lochhead, James Kelman, A.L. Kennedy, and Kathleen Jamie.

Paisley is herself a native Scots speaker, and politically active about her language. But she writes with equal facility in Standard English (as in most of her earlier poems), and in a vernacular ‘Scottish English’ used to great effect in the monologues Ye Cannae Win (2000) and Not for Glory (2001), a collection of interlinked short stories set in and around a village near Falkirk. The latter has a wonderfully living feel to its language, full of idiomatic expressions and rhythms best suited to convey her cast of mostly working-class characters. She particularly excels at presenting female voices, and Ye Cannae Win is by turns comical and poignant. Agnes (from Refuge) puts valium into her husband’s food to get a quieter life, and we also hear from teenage girls complaining about a teacher or getting their first kiss. Abandoned wives tell us their story, as does prostitute Sandra: ‘Ah’m deid oan ma feet …. Ken there’s nights oan this stretch / ye can nae gie [give] it away’. And, perhaps most desperately, a mother is baffled when her son is accused of murder: ‘Kill a wummin he didnae even ken? No ma wean. No ma wean’.

Paisley’s plays have taken a variety of forms: some are emotionally hard-hitting stage dramas such as Refuge, which won the 1996 Peggy Ramsay Award, and Winding String, in which three related women gradually discover the hidden extent of sexual abuse within their family. By contrast, the very funny short plays for teenagers Silver Bullet (adolescent Wattie is suspected by his parents of turning into a werewolf) and Diary of a Goth, have been broadcast on BBC Schools Radio. Likewise, her popular radio series The Story and the Song, consisted of episodes from the life and death of Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns, each narrated by women, from the midwife who delivers him to the neighbour’s daughter who sees him last, ‘Awa[y] doun the brae and out of sicht [sight]’.

As a poet, Paisley declines to be called ‘feminist’: writing in the Edinburgh-based literary magazine Chapman, she observed that ‘Poetry that is universal is deeply feminist’. Among her own inspirations have been Violet Jacob’s love poems, George Bruce (who was something of a mentor to her) and, among contemporary poets, Liz Lochhead and Ted Hughes. In Alien Crop (1996) she draws upon a woman’s personal views of love and sex, children and the natural world, but evokes them as much through metaphor as by direct observation. The title poem is a celebration of fertility, male energy symbolized by ships and the female identified with the sea, ‘her depths combed smooth with light’. ‘Sinking the Ship’ neatly reverses the metaphor but is more sexually explicit: ‘you slide / deep inside me, spill / your whole salt self into my hold / and surging now, surround, enclose’. As always, she gives voice to victims of men, whether as a child (‘Don’t Say You Love Me, Daddy’) or an abused wife (‘Easy Street’). Perhaps most memorable are her poems about childbirth, such as ‘The Caul’ and ‘Words for my Daughter’: ‘my labouring is done, your cry / has split the world’s roof …. Go forward / from the shadows mothers cast’. Of Reading the Bones (1999), Kathleen Jamie observed that Paisley’s poetry ‘is very much “in the world”. With a wry, full awareness …. She writes with a wisdom which has surely been won from experience’. The collection begins and ends with moving evocations of her mother, and in between ranges widely over female lives, from little girls being abused in ‘Mint Imperial’ and ‘Whist & Syrup of Figs’ to adult passions in ‘Sailing with Tangled Sheets’. The painful loss of a child is the subject of ‘Mayday’: ‘All you left, breast full, blood heat, the bluish milk, / fell in the void of your leaving / and destitute, my arms raged’. Her mother is memorialized in ‘Lightness’, her burial in ‘The hills, always your home’ (‘Mountain Thyme’).

The substantial collection of vernacular stories comprising Not for Glory is undoubtedly her finest work to date. Once again, we receive a variety of tragic-comic voices and viewpoints, often recounting domestic violence and sexual abuse, but here their inter-action within a present day Scottish setting makes the characters really come alive. Their interior monologues bring us the thoughts of teenagers who are continually in trouble with the police; women struggling to raise families, and even an elderly woman living with her dead husband. Interspersed throughout are scenes from the life of Tom, a mentally impaired man fixated with new arrival Julie and the ‘Ainge Jull’ [angel] sculpture that she works on, to the suspicions of neighbours, in her garage. Maureen is another strong and independent single mother, a white witch who casts protective spells and takes in troubled Scratchy, who is being abused at home.The misadventures of young anti-hero Howie propel the action; we hear how he has fallen out with his pregnant girlfriend ‘Treeza’, and about the drug deal while in police custody, whose pay-off provides the book’s climax. The outstanding single story is ‘Doin the Darkie’, in which the village postmaster, facing bankruptcy, tries to drown himself at night in the local canal (putting Polyfilla in his boots), only to be rescued by a runaway girl. His suicidal thoughts are hilariously counter-pointed by his sleeping wife’s sexual fantasies. When he and the girl improvise a faked robbery at his shop, he survives cutting through an electricity cable, and a second suicide attempt, and ends up a local hero. In Not for Glory, as throughout her best writing - Refuge, Ye Cannae Win, and her poems about motherhood – Janet Paisley’s ability to move seamlessly from hilarity to fear, pathos and tragedy marks her out as one of the truly vital Scottish writers of today.

Dr Jules Smith, 2004


The Lasses, O!
Warrior Daughter
White Rose Rebel
On the road home it was suddenly
Going up Ben Nevis in a Bubble Car
Not for Glory
Ye Cannae Win
Reading the Bones
Alien Crop
Wild Fire
Biting through Skins
Pegasus in Flight


Royal Television Society Award
Scottish Arts Council Writer's Bursary
Creative Scotland Award
Canongate Prize
Scottish Arts Council Playwright's Bursary
Scottish Arts Council Writer's Bursary
Peggy Ramsay Award
Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award
Scots Language MacDiarmid trophy
Sutton Short Story Prize
BBC Radio Scotland Prose Prize