William Sharp

A major figure in the “Celtic Revival”, William Sharp was a poet, novelist, literary biographer and critic, born in Paisley.

He was born on 12 September 1855 at 4 Garthland Place, Paisley. His father was a muslin manufacturer, and his mother was the daughter of the Swedish Vice Consul in Glasgow. His childhood was one of wealth and family summer holidays were spent in the Inner Hebrides. In 1863 his aunt and uncle came to stay with their children at the holiday home for the summer. William and his cousin Elizabeth had many shared interests, and a friendship began. William Sharp left Paisley at the age of twelve and following school he entered the University of Glasgow to study literature.

William’s health was not robust and following a spell of rheumatic fever he left university to spend a year in the warmer climes of Australia to improve his health. He returned to London in 1878 and not only reacquainted himself with his cousin Elizabeth who knew several influential figures in the literary circles of the time but tried to forge a career as a poet. In 1884 William and Elizabeth were married. By the end of the 1880’s the couple were well known within the cultural scene. Elizabeth was a talented writer and biographer in her own right. By this time William was well established with three books of poetry with many articles and reviews in cultural magazines. He had a wide circle of literary associates including W B Yeats, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Oscar Wilde.

This life of culture however took an extraordinary turn when in 1891 William began writing poetry under the assumed name of Fiona MacLeod following a romantic affair with Edith Rinder during a holiday in Italy. The work created by Fiona MacLeod was distinguished by its romantic themes based on the stories, myths, and legends of the Celtic culture. Fiona MacLeod’s work was an instant success and even inspired some composers to set the work to music. Fiona MacLeod could be thought of as an alter ego for William Sharp and gave him the freedom to express himself in more romantic terms. Further the influence of Fiona MacLeod’s work to the emerging Celtic revival movement towards the end of the 19th century was immense.

William Sharp was known as a progressive thinker and advocate of women’s rights. He was also a member of the occultist society called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in the 1890’s. Readers however were curious to know more about the identity of the mysterious Fiona MacLeod, but William and Elizabeth Sharp resisted any questions. Privately William termed this dual identity “Wilfion.”

His health however failed during a visit to Sicily. He died on 12 December 1905 at the Castello di Maniace. He is buried there with a large Celtic cross as a grave marker. The identity of Fiona MacLeod only became known following his death. William Sharp led a full life and one which deserves to be more widely recognised especially in Scotland’s year of stories, myths, and legends.

The swift years slip and slide adown the steep; The slow years pass; neither will come again.

~ William Sharp