Willa Muir, Scottish novelist, essayist and translator who also worked under the pseudonym Agnes Neill Scott, was born Wilhelmina Johnston Anderson in Montrose on the 13th of March 1890 to Shetland parents, both from Unst. Her parents were in fact first cousins through their fathers' side of the family - Elizabeth (Betty) Grey Anderson (b.21.7.1866, Millbrae, Unst), and Peter Anderson (b.29.12.1864, Calback, Unst) were both grandchildren of a Jerome Anderson (b. Vatsie, Yell), and his wife Janet Margaret Robertson (b. Mid Yell).
Peter was the younger brother of Basil R Anderson, the great Shetlandic poet who died tragically young of tuberculosis on the 7th of January 1888 in Edinburgh, to where the family had moved following Willa's grandfather's death at the haaf fishing off Norwick in Unst, when Peter was still not two years old. At some point between Basil's death and the marriage of Peter and Betty on the 22nd of February 1889, Peter and his mother Elizabeth (nee Ramsay) had moved to Montrose, perhaps to escape the tragedy.
Peter and Betty Anderson settled in Montrose where he worked as draper. Peter's mother lived with them, and here Willa was brought up, before leaving for St. Andrews University where, supported by a bursary, she was one of the first women to study. In 1910 she graduated with a first class degree in Classics, which was followed by a Berry Scholarship (1911 - 1912) and a year's teaching in the University. In 1915, she moved to London and took up a post at Gypsy Hill Training College, where she taught Latin and educational psychology, and became its Vice-Principal.
Willa's meeting with the Orkney-born writer Edwin Muir took place in Glasgow in 1918. They married within a year. Edwin Muir was already known for his radical socialism and atheism and Willa had to resign her post in the college following the publication of his We Moderns (1918). They were wed on the 7th of June, 1919, set up home in Bloomsbury, and Willa continued to teach. With Edwin commissioned to write for 'The Freeman' in 1921, the couple set off to explore the continent, beginning with a sojourn in Prague. Willa Muir began translating German classics, and together with Edwin, she published English language versions of Lion Feuchtwanger's Jew Suss in 1926 and Franz Kafka's, The Trial, amongst others. Although the translations were acknowledged as a joint product, it seems that Willa often did the vast majority of the work, and was not given enough credit for her input. In the mid-1920s, the couple lived for a time in Montrose where they encountered Hugh MacDiarmid, then resident there. Further travels, this time in France followed, and the couple returned to Britain in 1927, when their son Gavin was born.
Her first major solo work, the 1925 essay, Women: An Inquiry examined differing gender experiences in Scottish small-town life and Muir's novels further explored the repressed and difficult place of women in Scottish culture. Imagined Corners (1931), her first, was written at the request of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, but took years to complete because of her translating and the birth of her son. Like her second novel Mrs Ritchie which appeared two years later, it delves into the negativity of Calvinism and is particularly concerned with the limitations forced on women, themes further treated in Mrs Grundy in Scotland and Women in Scotland, both published in 1936.
During WW2, Edwin Muir began to work for the British Council in Edinburgh and in 1945 he was appointed as the director of the British Institute in Prague, where Willa joined him. Following the Communist takeover in 1948, the couple moved to Rome, where Edwin took on the same role. In 1950, he was appointed as Warden at Newbattle Abbey, a college for working class men. Willa and Edwin had a strong influence on a number of younger Scottish writers and poets, perhaps most importantly, Muir's fellow Orcadian George Mackay Brown. "With Edwin as our academic teacher (and warden) and Willa the nanny who healed our headaches," Brown used to say in private. After Edwin's death in 1959, Willa wrote an account of their lives together, entitled 'Belonging: A Memoir' (1968). She also completed a study, Living with Ballads (1965) which her husband had begun, and published several extended essays.
Willa Muir, along with her husband, played a major role in the Scottish Literary Renaissance of the first half of the 20th C., famously falling out with Hugh MacDiarmid in the 1930s over the publication of Edwin's Scott and Scotland. As translators, they introduced the work of Franz Kakfa, amongst others, to English. It appears that Willa sensed throughout her life that she lacked a place to which she really belonged - perhaps something to do with her parents own uprooting and tragic youth - and it seems this sense of rootlessness was shared with her Orcadian husband, who had left his own island idyll for Glasgow aged fourteen. Her later years were marked by a series of temporary situations, none of which seemed to dull her roaming spirit or love of literature. Willa Muir died on 22 May, 1970. Her papers are in St. Andrews University Library.
Aileen Christianson's entry in the Dictionary of National Biography