Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross
Born in Fife in 1578, Elizabeth Melville is the earliest known Scots woman to have work published. Writing predominantly in Scots, she composed poems on religious themes which were highly influential in their time. She was also an active member of the early Presbyterian Church and apposed the influence of both James VI and Charles I. This conviction to the Protestant faith was the foundation of her most famous poem; Ane Godlie Dreame, a Calvinist dream-vision poem written in 1603. That it was published at a time when women were hardly encouraged to express themselves is all the more remarkable.
Melville’s family history is often thought to be the source of her spiritual conviction. She was daughter of Sir James Melville of Halhill, a diplomat and memoir writer whose Memoirs of My Own Life is a fascinating insight into the politics of the period. Sir James’ own father, Sir John Melville of Raith, was a Protestant martyr who was executed in 1548. While Sir James served Henry II in France and remained loyal to Mary, Queen of Scots -after serving as her page in 1549- he also maintained his father’s religious views. This would be enough to impress the reformer Henry Balnaves who made Sir James his legal heir, passing on the Halhill estate upon his death in 1579. Armed with an impeccable Presbyterian pedigree and a flair for language Elizabeth Melville became one of the most respected women of her age.
Though popular throughout the 17th century, both North and South of the border, Melville’s work lay largely forgotten. In 1989 however sections of Ane Godlie Dreame were reprinted in Germain Greer’s anthology of 17th century woman’s verse Kissing the Rod. With interest duly revived the historian Jamie Reid- Baxter uncovered a further 3500 lines of verse by Melville in 2002. In 2014 Greer and Reid-Baxter unveiled a flagstone in Edinburgh’s Makers Court securing her place in the annals of great Scottish writers. The stone is engraved with two lines from Ane Godlie Dreame as inspiring now as they ever were.
"Though tyrants threat, though Lyons rage and rore.
Defy them all, and feare not to win out."