This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

September 2005


12 September 1855:   “Fiona MacLeod” (William Sharp), Scottish poet and prose writer, born.

For years Fiona MacLeod delighted readers with her novels, stories and Scottish Gaelic poetry. She was widely hailed as an authentic voice of the emerging Celtic revival, but the mysterious Fiona declined honors and interviews, never stirred from her home in the Hebrides, and conducted business only through her agent, the noted literary critic William Sharp. It was only when Sharp died that the truth emerged: “Fiona MacLeod” was in fact William Sharp.

Born in Paisley, near Glasgow, William Sharp’s interest in Celtic culture came from the summer holidays he spent with his family in the Hebrides. Young William loved to roam and explore, and later claimed that he had “sailed up every loch, fjord and inlet” in Scotland’s western Highlands and Hebrides. His urge to roam even led him to skip out from college to spend three months traveling with a band of Gypsies.

In 1878 he settled down in London, establishing himself as an editor and literary journalist, and became the London art critic for the Glasgow Herald in 1883. In London he cultivated a wide range of connections in the artistic and literary community, notably the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti (for whom the Manx novelist Hall Caine had served as a secretary.) Sharp would eventually score his first major success with a biography of Rossetti.

Fiona MacLeod would be born of another artistic friendship. On a visit to Rome in 1890 Sharp met Mrs. Edith Wingate Rinder, and found they shared a deep common interest in Celtic culture. (Rinder herself was a noted translator of Breton folklore.) His friendship with Rinder, it is believed, inspired Sharp to strike out in an entirely new direction.

Under the pen-name of Fiona MacLeod (the surname came from a Hebridean fisherman who had befriended the young William) Sharp wrote a romantic novel, Pharais, A Romance of the Isles, a tale of doomed love set in Gaelic Scotland. Such a novel was a major departure for the hitherto sobersided literary critic, so Sharp hid behind a pen-name for fear that otherwise neither he nor the book would be taken seriously.

Somewhat to Sharp’s surprise, Pharais proved a hit, and he quickly followed it up with two more novels. But he was now not only writing fiction, he was living it too, as public interest in Fiona MacLeod forced him to adopt ever more elaborate subterfuges to avoid revealing himself as the true author. He developed the cover story that he was only Fiona’s literary agent, and he brushed off requests for interviews by saying that Fiona was a very shy and private person living in an unreachable corner of the Hebrides. Developing a believable persona for the fictitious Fiona, he even drafted letters in her name that he had his sister Mary copy out so they would appear in a feminine handwriting. Sharp even stepped beyond the limits of ethics by compiling an entry for Fiona to be published in Who’s Who.

The deception proved costly for Sharp when in 1902 Prime Minister Arthur Balfour expressed an interest in granting Fiona a civil list pension. Sharp managed to have a private word with the Prime Minister, and nothing more was said about the pension. The deception held, though some people (including perhaps WB Yeats) were now beginning to think that Fiona was a phoney.

Undeterred, the prolific Sharp continued to publish poetry and stories as Fiona MacLeod, and these were received with acclaim by Celtic revivalists. Especially notable books included The Sin-Eater and Other Tales (1895) and By Sundown Shores (1900), while under his own name Sharp worked with his wife Elizabeth to edit the anthology Lyra Celtica. There was even an opera, The Immortal Hour, based on Fiona’s poetry, which is still recorded and performed today.

William Sharp, though, was dogged by bad health. In addition to a heart damaged by the scarlet fever he had as a child, he was suffering from diabetes. He died in 1905 while on a visit to Sicily, and was buried in a Protestant cemetery on the slopes of Mount Etna. His grave is marked with a Celtic cross carved from the local lava. He left behind a letter to his friends in which he admitted that he was the real Fiona MacLeod.

For more information on Scotland, see the Scottish Nation Page.

The stories featured in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2006 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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