Born Helen Burness Cruickshank was in Hillside, near Montrose, Angus, of local parents, she went to school in Montrose. Summer holidays were spent in Glenesk and the landscapes and people of Angus and its glens appear in her poetry. After leaving school, Cruickshank entered the Civil Service, working first in London for the Post Office from 1903 to 1912, and then, from 1912, in Edinburgh, where she spent most of her adult life. She joined the Women's Social and Political Union and actively campaigned for the Suffragette cause. She was also a committed Scottish nationalist, an active member of the Saltire Society, and a founder member of Scottish PEN, which she served in various ways. She encouraged the work of the young CM Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid), of James Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon), and other writers, and was sympathetic in her appreciation of the poetry of Violet Jacob and Marion Angus. Helen Cruickshank devoted much of her life to other people (she cared for her elderly mother), yet published poetry over several decades, in Scottish chapbook, Northern numbers and many other journals, and in Up the Noran Water (1934), Sea Buckthorn (1954), The Ponnage pool (1968), Collected poems (1971) and More collected poems.
Helen Cruickshank's best known poem is probably Shy Geordie which, like much of her work, is in Lowland Scots and draws on her Angus country heritage (the poem has been set to music by several people, including Buxton Orr and Jim Reid). Many of her poems echo ballad and folksong and other traditional forms. In Glenskenno Woods, There was a sang or Fause friend show a range of mood and tone, from lyrical to humorous, and her best work avoids the charge of sentimentality which might sometimes be levelled. She draws on the natural world for strong symbols about human life, as in the fine Sea Buckthorn (set to music by Francis George Scott), or in Ponnage pool, prefaced with a quotation from Hugh MacDiarmid; this deals with questions of personal identity:
Cruickshank also wrote in English; her poem Spring in the Mearns for instance, is a tribute to Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Lines for Wendy Wood celebrate another activist; this poem also illustrates Cruickshank's own passionate concern with social problems, her compassion and commitment to the fighting of poverty and injustice, shown, too, in a Lowland Scots poem such as Song of pity for refugees.
Cruickshank cared for her mother for many years; she herself retired in 1946. She was awarded an honorary MA by Edinburgh University in 1971, and two years later poor health forced her to leave her house in Corstorphine and move to Queensberry Lodge in the Canongate, where she died on 2 March 1975. Cruickshank recorded her long life and aspects of her times in her autobiography, Octobiography (1987), which was published posthumously.
Helen Cruickshank is commemorated in Makars' Court, outside The Writers' Museum, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh.