She may have never considered herself a writer, but her powerful Orcadian poetry and prose told a different story.
Bred in a family deeply rooted into the culture and history of Orkney, Fiona Cowan always used the power of the written word to express her love of the island.
From funny poems to “make people giggle” to the more serious pieces focused on lifestyle and customs, her writing was a direct reflection of her personality and identity.
Now, nearly three years after she died – leaving “footprints in the lives of many” – Mrs Cowan’s husband Les has decided to “let her voice be heard” through her work.
Merry Dancers in the Sky to preserve the personality of a ‘remarkable woman’
Mr Cowan has collated her poems and short stories to commemorate the “diverse and remarkable” person she was, while also raising funds for cancer research and care.
The 63-year-old discovered the hidden gems while going through old family papers and tenderly assembled them under the title Merry Dancers in the Sky – named after the Aurora in Orkney.
Mr Cowan, who is a writer himself, said: “She didn’t consider herself really a writer – it was a natural expression of who she was and of her love of Orkney.
“The point of the collection is to raise some cash, to have a good laugh and enjoy her creativity, her sense of humour and very quirky view of the world, but also to preserve her personality through her words.
“We have photographs, we have memories, but I believe that what you say conveys in a very deep level who you are.
“Fiona was a very witty person in her speech and I think this transfers in her writing.
“She was kind and compassionate, generous and totally focused on the needs of others, and ultimately capable of anything she put her mind to.”
An occupational therapist by profession, Mrs Cowan from Westray was known to most as the “life of the party”, having devoted herself to “making everyone feel special”.
Despite her initial diagnosis of breast cancer in 2015, she never gave in to the disease and “lived, laughed and loved up to the end” – always trying to bring people together.
I’m grateful, positive and want to bring something good out of the tragedy we experienced’
– Les Cowan
She died after a second diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer in January 2019, aged 58.
Mr Cowan added: “Fiona was not bitter, angry or hostile. She accepted how things were and she just lived, laughed and loved up to the end.
“I couldn’t have done this six months after we lost her. It’s taken me two and half years to get to the point where I can be a little bit more objective.
“Not long after we lost her, a friend said to me a very wise thing – ‘in order to have a great loss, you must first have had a great gain’.
“And that’s the way I look on it – I was a lucky guy, I had a great marriage for more than 40 years, and I put on her gravestone ‘in memory of a remarkable woman’.
“Time is the great healer and now I’m not feeling distraught and traumatised, and bereaved – I’m grateful, positive and want to bring something good out of the tragedy we experienced.”
Supporting research into breast cancer vital to achieve ‘by 2050, nobody dies’
Driven by their “incredibly powerful” mission statement – ‘by 2050 nobody dies’, Mr Cowan has now launched a fundraiser to support Breast Cancer Now.
To mark the official launch of Merry Dancers in the Sky, family and friends will gather for two live reading events to celebrate Mrs Cowan’s “wit and wisdom”, as well as the Orcadian culture and language.
The first event will be held at the Baptist Church hall in Kirkwall tomorrow, with another celebratory evening in Mrs Cowan’s hometown Westray taking place on October 23.
All of the funds raised from the sales of the books, as well as the events will be going towards research into cancer treatment and care for patients led by Breast Cancer Now.
Hannah Adam, charity’s head of central community fundraising and marketing, said: “We are so grateful to Les for donating proceeds from Merry Dancers in the Sky, a collection of poetry written by his late wife, Fiona, to Breast Cancer Now.
“The Covid pandemic has presented us with huge challenges but we’ve worked tirelessly to ensure we continue to be there to support anyone affected by breast cancer the whole way through, and to drive world-class research and hope for the future.
“The money raised will help us to achieve our ambition that by 2050, everyone who develops breast cancer will live and be supported to live well.”
People can donate on Les Cowan’s fundraising page, or buying a copy of Merry Dancers in the Sky or at both of the live reading events.