In 2017, I asked my online friends to suggest candidates for a proposed book of ‘Cool Scots’. The responses were surprising; many of the names were unknown to me. In this, the second in a three-part series, we meet a very special novelist

NAOMI MITCHISON (1897 to 1999)

I ONCE read that time is elastic. I don’t know what it means but I always liked the sound of it. Recently I tried to stretch my hours to accommodate some of the grand artistic achievements that might be within my grasp if only I wasn’t such a wastrel. I got as far as cleaning the brushes I’d left soaking over a week ago, then it was lunchtime and the elastic snapped back. I think my time is more like string.

How do highly effective people do it? Apparently Richard Branson gets up at 2am, works a 40-hour day and is back in bed by 1:59 the previous night. The diddy. When I first read about the impossibly full life of writer and activist Naomi Mitchison, I thought “why can’t I be that productive?” then stared out the window for an hour thinking the clouds all looked a bit like Ken Dodd.

Mitchison is considered one of the greatest ­writers of historical fiction, but also wrote poetry, ­travelogues and three volumes of autobiography. She lost track of how many books she’d written, ­suggesting it was around 70 (it was actually more than 90). A compulsive scribbler, friends never dared turn their back in case she began writing on their shirts.

The National:

Born Naomi Haldane in Edinburgh, she ­studied science at Oxford, but at the outbreak of the First World War chose to retrain as a nurse. (Later she ­expressed concerns about where scientific ­development was heading. It’s as well she didn’t live long enough to hear that one of the world’s ­richest men is going to be putting implants in people’s brains.)

She was first published in 1923 and in books like The Corn King And The Spring Queen and We Have Been Warned she tackled sexual themes such as free love that were daring for the time. Her marriage to Labour activist, later MP and peer, Dick ­Mitchison was known to be an open one; each was free to ­develop outside friendships, generally meaning more than the odd game of Scrabble.

READ MORE: Greg Moodie's Cool Scots: Ancell Stronach

Mitchison’s politics were firmly of the left; a trip to the Soviet Union in 1932 later resulted in her ­appearance on a Foreign Office naughty list. Of course in those days, you only had to be able to ­identify Russia on a map to be accused of

­having communist sympathies. In fascist-dominated ­Austria she helped smuggle persecuted socialists out of the country as a way of mitigating the pain of an ill-fated love affair. Writers of popular song should note that this must surely be the very best response to the question “how do you mend a broken heart?”.

Her activism was tireless. She was a ­spokesperson for Scotland’s island communities, a Labour ­representative on Argyll County Council and a ­vocal campaigner for women’s rights. She also found time for botany, gardening and farming, and then there was her long-standing interest in archaeology. And her seven children.

Always playful, when Dick received his life ­peerage in 1964 it was more a source of amusement to her than anything else, and she point blank ­refused to go by the name Lady Mitchison. In Who’s Who, she listed “burning rubbish” as a hobby.

On her 90th birthday she was asked if she had any regrets. “Yes,” she said. “All the men I never slept with. Imagine.”

She lived to 101, and reading about everything she crammed into those years is at once inspiring and exhausting. I should make more of an effort. Maybe after a nap.