Scottish Poetry

Jeffrey Skoblow

No doubt the first observation to make about twentieth-century Scottish poetry is that to consider this material under the heading of 'poetry in English' is, at best, problematic. Scotland and England share a long and vexed history, and the vexations have been as much linguistic as political (if, indeed, these categories are distinguishable at all). With the joining of the Scottish and English thrones under King James VI in 1603, and the Union of Parliaments of the two nations in 1707, Scotland effectively ceased to exist as an independent entity on the geopolitical scene, and much of the story of Scottish literature over the past three hundred years or so has concerned the ins and outs and ups and downs of coping with that fact, embracing and/or resisting the subsumption of Scotland within Great Britain, and the ascension of English over Scots and Gaelic (previously the two most widespread languages in those parts).

And so perhaps the second observation to make about Scottish poetry in our period is that it has been more than usually preoccupied with questions of history and cultural identity — with the weight of the past upon the present, with claims of nationalism and self-conscious efforts at the preservation of heritage, including linguistic heritage. The literature of Scotland, in other words, is the literature of a kind of prolonged cultural crisis, framing all other considerations — even the most personal, lyrical or mundane — in the context of a broadly social, problematically national experience.

As Kevin Lynch puts it in Scotland: A New History (1991): 'We arra peepull! is the strange, defiant cry heard from some of Scotland's football terraces in the late twentieth century. But which people? A foreign visitor might well feel confused.' In terms of language alone, the tale of national identity is a tangled one. With the rise of English power over Scotland centuries ago, the Gaelic and Scots tongues begin their long decline into marginality, near extinction, and radical uncertainty. At the start of the twentieth century, both tongues have given way largely to English as the language of literature, as increasingly of common life — although both Scots and Gaelic continue to pursue their own distinct survival strategies, and to carve out their own histories, with different niches successfully occupied and the emergence of sustaining figures here and there. Scottish poetry in our century is a story of these three tongues — English, Scots, and Gaelic — their separate and related fortunes, and the cultural politics of their claims to a hearing.

At the end of the twentieth century all three languages display robust poetic life, if not an unparalleled multilingual situation at least a distinctive one (on a national scale), which a quick look at any anthology will reveal. The Scots line has produced one major figure (among several others of high achievement) in the period — Hugh MacDiarmid (the pen-name of Christopher Murray Grieve, 1892—1978), a figure too of considerable international reputation; the Gaelic line has as well found a kind of defining voice in Sorley MacLean/Somhairle Macgill-Eain (1911—96), a figure read in the original hardly at all, perhaps, outside the Hebrides; while the English line has produced no comparable figure, although on the whole perhaps a broader and deeper body of verse than either Scots or Gaelic, and many distinctive figures.

To say as much is to simplify things, of course, and though these basic parameters will do by way of orientation, the picture is rather more complicated than perhaps I make it seem here. Much of MacDiarmid's work is in English, for instance, or in varying degrees of Scots mixed with English — the two tongues closely related after all, the line between them not always plain — and this is true as well of many other poets who work in Scots. Scots itself as an instrument of poetic language has given itself to many forms of revival: a range of orthographies and approaches to vocabulary, sometimes neologized, sometimes raided from old dictionaries like Jamieson's Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1879—82), sometimes caught on the fly from common speech — so Scots itself can hardly be said to be a single language. Many poets working in Gaelic work in English as well, primarily or occasionally, and most, whatever their working tongue, write to varying degrees in the context of all three languages' relative currency, drawing from the national tradition as a whole (with Gaelic in translation, largely, and Scots often laden with glossary) and carrying it forward in this or that linguistic channel.

MacDiarmid is probably the best place to begin our survey, as the most prominent figure to emerge from this welter of divergent impulses, and as plainly the major figure in the reinvention of Scots as a modern poetic language. With Gaelic a closed book to most readers, and English a kind of interloper (of however long standing and current dominion), Scots — in large part through MacDiarmid's work and the subsequent work it made possible — makes a strong claim to representing Scottish poetry's signature mode. (But this may merely be my own prejudice.)

There were poets working in Scots alongside MacDiarmid, earlier in the century too, and back into the previous one. Violet Jacob and Helen B. Cruikshank, for instance, Lewis Spence, Bessie J. B. MacArthur, and Margaret Winefride Simpson — vivid voices all — carry the tradition forward, along with innumerable other more narrowly known and ephemeral poets working through the period. That many of these transitional, turn-of-the-century voices belong to women is a striking feature of the Scots line, but female voices of note are scarce thereafter, until much more recently —

another striking feature, which gives to modern Scottish poetry a distinctly mas-culinist air, a kind of burden which grows increasingly problematic as the century unfolds. In any case, the loudest voice in Scots as the century opens comes from the so-called Kailyard School - less a school than a tendency or reflex - a poetry of a kind of antique charm. 'Och hey! for the splendour of tartans!': this opening line of Pit-tendrigh MacGillivray's 'The Return', although a song of attack against the 'Sasun-nach' English, a poem of political engagement, nevertheless shows the tendency well. Scots early in the century lives a subsistence existence, in an impoverished, often sentimental landscape.

In this cultural context, MacDiarmid's first three books in Scots, Sangschaw (1925), Penny Wheep and A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (both 1926), appear as a veritable explosion. The first two are collections of lyrics, and the Drunk Man one continuous poem (of some 2,600 lines) stitched together out of many shorter ones, lyrical, exhor-tatory, cosmic, political, philosophical, scabrous, and otherwise by turns, revolving around the meditations of the title character on the thistle, the moon beyond, Scotland, and the state of his soul as he lies flat on his back in a ditch. It is an extraordinary tour de force which, together with the two books of lyrics, reclaims for Scots a full range of poetic effects, subjects and ambitions.

'The Watergaw' (in Sangschaw) for instance, has the force and feeling of one of Wordsworth's Lucy poems, reclaimed for freshly vivid, modern use. It begins:

Ae weet forenicht i' the yow-trummle I saw yon antrin thing, A watergaw wi' its chitterin' licht Ayont the on-ding;

An' I thocht o' the last wild look ye gied Afore ye deed!1

Even such a private poem as this speaks to broader concerns, too, with its faith in the persistence of the antrin and of something wild, indistinct yet not to be extinguished in the on-ding: a figure for Scotland itself. (This is, again, a common concern of MacDiarmid's as of the Scottish tradition generally: the pursuit of metaphorical relations between personal and national experience.) MacDiarmid is drawn to such figures of unaccountable persistence (like a drunk man, or a thistle), and mines the vein with endless variability. In a related poem, 'The Eemis Stane', for instance, the canvas is less intimate, more historical, even cosmic. Here the earth itself is (as glossed) an unsteady stone floating in space, with words cut into it and covered in a 'yow-dendrift' (blizzard) of 'eerie memories', making the inscriptions unreadable 'had the fug o' fame / An' history's hazelraw / No' yirdit thaim'.2 Here memory obscures and burial preserves, and such paradoxes are par for the Scottish course.

These early poems reclaim old words and old forms and make them new, in good modernist fashion. 'Empty Vessel', a poem of two four-line stanzas, begins in ballad measure and then shifts - with an abrupt rhythmic breakdown - into a different, more discursive rhetoric, signalling both the persistence and exhaustion of the traditional form. 'The Innumerable Christ' at once celebrates and relativizes the Christian miracle ('On coontless stars the Babe maun cry / An' the Crucified maun bleed'), another paradoxical move perhaps characteristic of Scottish poetic sensibility — the relativizing vision at work even here upon the most conceptually universal material.

That English hegemony over Scotland, always an important frame of reference, is never far from explicit in MacDiarmid, who declares in his tangled and obstreperous autobiography Lucky Poet (1943) that 'Anglophobia' is 'more than a mere hobby' but 'my very life'. To seek the relative — to seek limits on the absolute — is a Scottish political imperative, even if the form it takes here in the early lyrics seems far from politics indeed. (Cultural crisis means that nothing is far from politics.) MacDiarmid is zealous as anyone for 'all that the Gael holds dear' against the 'Sasunnach thieves and their laws' (as MacGillivray puts it in 'The Return', noted above), but his approach to the problem is more various and subtle than any Kailyard apostrophe. Often it is not so subtle, either, as in 'Crowdieknowe', a vision of a day 'the deid come loupin' owre / the auld grey wa's' of the local graveyard:

Muckle men wi' tousled beards, I grat at as a bairn 'll scramble frae the croodit clay Wi feck o' swearin'

An' glower at God an' a' his gang O' angels i' the lift

— Thae trashy bleezin' French-like folk Wha gar'd them shift!3

The dark underside of nationalism — xenophobia — is handled here with (perhaps) a humorous touch, but elsewhere the hand is heavier, the tone more bilious, and the effect less lovely. This rage and contumely — descent into scorn, isolation, hermetic pride — is as essential to MacDiarmid's verse as the breezy vigour, vivid directness, sharp music, and vision of Scottish souls uprising vengeful and heroic also exhibited here.

In the Drunk Man all these matters are more explicit still. The poem takes as premise that 'He canna Scotland see wha yet / Canna see the Infinite / And Scotland in true scale to it' and proceeds via endless series of thematic oppositions and substitutions and formal and rhetorical variations both to explore and explode the notion of national identity. The drunk, the drink, the thistle, the rose, the phallus, the moon and stars, wisdom and folly, Time and Eternity, Scotland and Infinity ... all circle round and through the poem, for (as a nameless voice tells the drunk man near the end) 'A Scottish poet maun assume / The burden o' his people's doom, / And dee to brak' their livin' tomb', and this is a task that requires a wide-ranging poetic language.

The Drunk Man is an attempt to provide that language in a single poem - a kind of mad, quasi-encyclopedic, stunted epic - and as such defies description in no uncertain terms. It is a powerfully witty and ambitious piece of work, a signal achievement. MacDiarmid would continue his efforts in this direction in later Scots poems, including the long and rather more chaotic collage of To Circumjack Cencrastus (1930); and he would begin writing increasingly in English, in a range of forms including the grim cosmic meditation of 'On a Raised Beach' (1934), with its language of 'lithogenesis', 'epanadiplosis' and 'old Norn words', and the sprawling experiments of In Memoriam James Joyce (1955). These later works represent the most immediate aftershocks of that initial explosion - the reclamation of a literary Scots tongue - and, among other things, they show the difficulty of sustaining the project.

But Scots persists in other mouths, by other hands, as well. Younger contemporaries like William Soutar (1898-1943), Robert Garioch (1909-81) and Sydney Goodsir Smith (1915-75) expand the poetic uses of the language in different directions, walking (like MacDiarmid) the line between traditional and as yet unimagined forms. Of the three, Soutar's work tends most heavily towards the auld forms and themes; still, even here, the sense of a modern context impinges, as in the shock of strangeness thematized in 'The Tryst', or more explicitly in 'The Makar' (or Maker, an old Scots term roughly equivalent to 'bard'), in which 'Nae man wha loves the lawland tongue / But warsles wi' the thocht - / There are mair sangs that bide unsung / Nor a' that hae been wrocht', 'Though a' his feres were fremmit

Garioch is a more complex figure. More formally adventurous - he borrows stanza forms from Robert Burns (the centre of an earlier, late eighteenth-century explosion of Scots verse, a problematic predecessor, guide and obstacle to MacDiarmid and the whole latter tradition as well), some of which Burns himself had borrowed from still earlier figures; and he writes numerous sonnets, among other traditional forms -Garioch brings to these more or less long-lost vessels a distinctly modern eye and tongue. 'Embro to the Ploy' (Edinburgh to the Frolic is one way to gloss this) is a poem that begins right out of the old Burnsian mode ('In simmer, whan aa sorts foregether / in Embro to the ploy, / fowk seek out friens to hae a blether') and goes on in that same mode gathering in the most modern details:

Whan day's anomalies are cled in decent shades of nicht, the Castle is transmogrified by braw electric licht.

The toure that bields the Bruce's croun presents an unco sicht mair sib to Wardour Street nor Scone, wae's me for Scotland's micht, says I in Embro to the ploy.

An Edinburgh poet, Garioch writes (in what is known as the Burns stanza, a six-line form also known as Standard Habbie, after an old antecedent) 'To Robert Fergusson', drawing this other Edinburgh poet (another eighteenth-century figure, immediate predecessor and hero of Burns's) fully into modern light, where 'the flicker-pictur on the screen / bursts as by boomb-blast, and is gane', and 'our life's a bogle-hauntit dream / owre thrang wi wirrikows to seem / quite real'.

Garioch moves between the documentary and the visionary, as in 'The Wire', a horrific vision of extreme desolation and helplessness in a Second World War prison camp, with 'guns gaun aff, and pouther-reik / and yappin packs of foetid dugs, / and blobs of cramosie, like blebs / of bluid' — or in 'Heard in the Cougate' (one of the 'Edinburgh Sonnets'), a mellifluous yawp in which 'the Queen's t'meet / The King o Norway' and we hear about it from one of the locals ('Chwoich! Ptt! Hechyuch! Ab-boannie cairry-on'), who declares: 'Ah ddae-ken whu' the pplace is comin tae / wi aw thae, hechyuch! fforeign po'entates'. As ever, the subject is Scotland (and here, its place in the world).

For Goodsir Smith the subject is always Scotland as well, and his reach even wider than Garioch's in formal, rhetorical and thematic terms. Conversational modern poems like 'Under the Eildon Tree' in which he sees himself 'scrievan the last great coronach / O' the westren flickeran bourgeois world', auld mode or quasi-Elizabethan pieces like 'Time Be Brief' and 'The Ineffable Dou' ('White Dou o Truth / Black Dou of Luve / Perpend, incline / My sang to pruve'), social commentary, lyric: on subjects ranging from personal love to the Libyan desert in the Second World War, Goodsir Smith demonstrates the flexibility of a Scots poetic, and pursues his own and his nation's demons. In 'The Grace of God and the Meth-Drinker', a vision of 'a mercifu omnipotent majestic God / Superne eterne and sceptred in the firmament', both the self and the state are figured as, at once, utterly crushed by and impervious to Imperial power: paradoxical image of the Scottish condition.

Other, younger Scots poets have followed, although without the programmatic edge of the mid-century generation, and with perhaps an even more local audience. Both subject matter and poetic style have moved further from the auld mode into fully modern (or postmodern) language. The best of this new material, the most ambitious reinvention of a Scots poetic, is in Sharawaggi (1990), a collaborative book of poems by Robert Crawford and W. N. Herbert, and in Herbert's books Dundee Doldrums (1991) and Forked Tongue (1994), among others. (Crawford has continued to publish poems in Scots, too, although he works more regularly in English — as in Spirit Machines (1999), which contains only one poem in Scots, but which also carries odd, faint Scots echoes of syntax or rhythm in its English. Herbert too has worked frequently in English.) In Herbert's 'Mappamundi' 'Eh've wurkt oot a poetic map o thi warld', in which 'vass tracts o land ur penntit reid tae shaw / Englan kens naethin aboot um', and in which 'scenario Eh'm a bittern stoarm aff Ulm'. Scotland persists — 'Scoatlan's braith draggin lyk a serpint owre / thi causie o ma spine' (in 'Cor-mundum', Confession, from Sharawaggi) — and Herbert at once celebrates and challenges the fact:

this Disnaeland, this Brokendoon, Eh breath ut, aynd withoot end, Eh am thi coontircheck that cuts thi groove oan whilk oor severt heid an erse o gless sall open til thir celsitudes o noth, thi stern.5

Scotland clearly is a problem for Scottish poets: it can be a nourishing problem or a crippling one, sometimes both at once. Edwin Morgan (b. 1920), a Glasgow poet, identifies this problem as an 'incubus' in his essay 'The Beatnik in the Kailyard' (1962):

I think it is clear that the language problem, the problem of Scottishness, has proved something of an incubus, and the fact that it is a real and unavoidable incubus (shake it off, and you leave scars and puncture marks) makes it all the more difficult for the Scottish writer to develop integrally.

Or as Herbert puts it, in 'Owre Mony Nemms' (Over Many Names, a poem 'After Neruda', Sharawaggi):

Thuv harpit oan at me aboot Britain, o Scoatlan and Englan; Eh huvnae a clue whut thur oan aboot. Eh ken anely thi peelreestie o thi yirth an thon's no gote a nemm.6

Herbert, like MacDiarmid often, both breathes the very air of national identity anxiety and wishes merely to be done with it. For many Scottish poets writing in English throughout the century, the problem is the same, though caressed by a different tongue.

Here the foundational figure is Edwin Muir (1887-1959), although perhaps less for his poetic achievement (which is considerable) than for his articulation of the necessity for a Scottish poetry in English. In Scott and Scotland (1936) Muir claims that a Scottish writer who wishes to achieve some approximation to completeness has no choice except to absorb the English tradition, and that if he thoroughly does so his work belongs not merely to Scottish literature but to English literature as well. On the other hand, if he wishes to add to an indigenous Scottish literature, and roots himself deliberately in Scotland, he will find there, no matter how long he may search, neither an organic community to round off his conceptions, nor a major literary tradition to support him, nor even a faith among the people themselves that a Scottish literature is possible or desirable.

Many Scottish poets before and since have assumed as much, or, at any rate, have recognized English as their native tongue (or among their native tongues), and have sought their bargain with the incubus in those alternative terms.

If Muir thinks he has solved the language problem, the problem of Scottishness remains in full force: he is preoccupied throughout with the nation. His verse too tries to bring to Scottish poetry the perspective of modern experience — his English is itself a programmatic gesture in this direction — and his tone is for the most part sober and quietly elevated, though not without stern and graceful force, and with a mythic reach as well. 'Childhood' conflates personal history, geography and political history; in 'Scotland 1941' 'We, fanatics of the frustrate and the brave', inhabit 'a sham nation' with our 'mummified housegods in their musty niches'; many other poems, like 'The Castle' and 'The Labyrinth', elaborate emblems of Scotland, inquire into 'the long-forgotten word' ('The Ring') or the 'earth still left forlorn, / An exile or a prisoner' ('The Transfiguration'); in 'The Horses', 'Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep'.

Other poets have more distinctive voices, bringing the problem of Scottishness into English, not only (as in Muir) thematically, but in more broadly conceptual ways as well, by means of various odd rhetorical and formal strategies. W. S. Graham (1919—86) and Morgan (mentioned above) are poets of precise and striking achievement. Graham's subject is often explicitly, as in 'Malcolm Mooney's Land', 'the obstacle of language' and the power of silence, as in 'Johann Joachim Quantz's Five Lessons': 'Here where I am to speak on the other side / Of language'. The language is both philosophical and intimately emotional, 'through / Each word you make between / Each word I burn bright in' ('Seven Letters'): 'From wherever it is I urge these words / To find their subtle vents, the northern dazzle / Of silence cranes to watch. Footprint on foot / Print, word on word and each on a fool's errand' ('Malcolm Mooney's Land'). The language problem here cuts deeper than English, Scots or Gaelic, to the roots of human communication, as Graham pitches his English (and all language) at an extremity of unlikelihood: 'I walk the dead water / Burning language towards / You where you lie in the dark / Ascension of all words' ('Seven Letters'). If Muir solved the language problem but could not shake the nation, it may be Graham's distinction to have escaped, in some measure, the incubus of Scottishness (he lived for many years in Cornwall, later in life, and wrote only in his own idiosyncratic English) without, however, having escaped the incubus of language. His work is beautifully vigorous and quiet.

Morgan's work is something else: extreme variation of form and subject is its immediate impression. Although he does work in various Scots idioms (see especially his translations of Mayakovsky into Scots, Wi the Haill Voice, 1972), his customary tongue is English — but this English encompasses a wild diversity of tongues over the course of his career, from Concrete Poetry ('Dialeck Piece', 'Centaur', many others) to 'Allair-blue beauheaven ablove / Avlanchbloomfondshowed brrumalljove' ('Verses for a Christmas Card') to remarkable science-fictional meditations. like Scottish parables, on exile, alienation and contradiction ('In Sobieski's Shield', 'From the Domain of Arnheim', 'The First Men on Mercury') to social commentary of various kinds, as in 'Glasgow Sonnets' ('A shilpit dog fucks grimly by the close') to quieter reflections, lighter caprices, poems in many voices. The restlessness of his work, and its formal and rhetorical energy, has been an important force in opening the possibilities of modern Scottish poetry in English.

An older contemporary of Graham and Morgan, Norman MacCaig (1910-96) has produced an extensive body of work that perhaps most successfully finds a middle ground between the lean stringencies of the one and the mad excesses of the other. Scotland is as ever a preoccupation, sometimes explicitly but more often in MacCaig underlying other, more personal and immediate concerns. 'A hen stares at nothing with one eye, / Then picks it up' ('Farm') I would call a very Scottish line (though its subject nominally and centrally is not national identity), in its economical movement and humour, and its wry concern with states of diminishment, silence and redemption from the brink of nothing. MacCaig writes a largely conversational, subtly flexible, contemporary idiom - a poet at home assuming an audience, quite without fuss (and as such, quite an anomaly among Scottish writers of early and mid-century) -observing and reflecting upon the contemporary Scottish cultural landscape, imagining the life of the land and of the individual in one shifting focus: 'Farm within farm, and in the centre, me'.

In 'The Shore Road', 'As though things were / Perpetual chronicles of themselves, / He sounded his small history', but this small history is never his alone; 'Feeding Ducks' begins 'One duck stood on my toes' and ends 'Till my gestures enlarged, wide over the darkening land'. 'Only men's minds could ever have unmapped / Into abstraction such a territory' ('Celtic Cross'), and MacCaig's sometimes ironic visions of the material present of Scotland, seek to re-map it out of abstraction into closely observed detail and careful reflection. His project in this regard resembles Muir's, though it feels considerably less programmatic in MacCaig, and makes for a more supple and fully developed poetic language, intelligent and graceful.

Another figure of stature is Iain Crichton Smith (b. 1928), who writes in Gaelic (he is from Lewis, the outermost of the Outer Hebrides) and in a wide range of English verse and prose forms. He too is often explicitly concerned with Scotland itself, Scottish cultural institutions and national landscape, and with finding ways of circumventing or banishing the burden of this preoccupation. 'The White Air of March' tells of 'Culloden' (site of the last decisive battle - 1745 - in the struggle for Scottish independence from England): 'where the sun shone / on the feeding raven. / Let it be forgotten!' 'The Clearances' begins: 'The thistles climb the thatch. Forever / this sharp scale in our poems, / as also the waste music of the sea'. Crichton Smith seeks continually fresh ground upon which to stand, honouring the thistle and the waste while pursuing something else as well. His verse shows an admirably wide range, from 'orphans rejected from our Welfare State' and 'the marble and carnations of Elysium' (in 'By the Sea'), to 'a conversation / between a wellington / and a herring' ('Gaelic Stories', translated from his own Gaelic), to his mother, 'her voyage . . . / to truthful Lewis rising, / most loved though most bare' ('For My Mother'). Throughout, his modernist precision, rhetorical vigour, and laconic humour map out a modern Scotland of considerable achievement in English.

Thus my quick sketch of twentieth-century Scottish poetry in English, from which I have omitted much. I have neglected Gaelic almost entirely, including the powerful and extensive poetry of Sorley MacLean, because I do not know the language and because it can by no stretch of the imagination be considered poetry in English. (I have drawn the line between the gloss of Scots and the translation of Gaelic, however arbitrary this may ultimately be: as noted earlier, the relation between English and Scottish is always problematic.) Among MacLean's other achievements is a rich body of work (even in translation) on the Second World War, a subject which forms a rich thread throughout the Scottish tradition, in whatever language, and which I have only glanced at here. (Hamish Henderson, William Montgomerie, Norman Cameron, among many others, deal directly with the war, often with reference to North Africa.) I have largely omitted, too, the literature of the Islands, like George Mackay Brown's work from Orkney in the far north, in English mostly, Scots occasionally, with a savour of Norse tongues: 'No more ballads in Eynhallow. / The schoolmaster / Opens a box of grammars' ('Runes from a Holy Island'). I have neglected Douglas Dunn's quietly various work in English, full of local detail and wide-ranging meditation. And I have omitted idiosyncratic figures of powerful interest like Tom Leonard, a Glaswegian, whose work ('stick thi bootnyi good style / so ah wull', 'goaty learna new langwij / sumhm ihnturnashnl' ('Six Glasgow Poems', 'Paroakial') has given a hard shove to the Scottish idiom, and been an influential voice of strong licence; and I have said nothing of the Scottish tradition's strong interest in modes of performance (with its roots, however unrecognizable, in the old ballad culture), as in the spoken recordings of Ivor Cutler or the public performances of Liz Lochhead, as well as in the rhetorical self-consciousness of Scottish poetry in general, even in print.

Poets of younger generations, still active or just rising, continue the work sustained by those throughout my historical sketch. Many are concerned, in varying ways and to various degrees, 'tae wak a' Scoatlan's stour o deid' (Crawford, Sharawaggi, 'Semiconductors') - to wake all Scotland's dusty dead - although the inclination has been increasingly to turn in other directions, in whatever language, to shake somewhat free of the incubus, to tell it: No. Women in particular - Lochhead (b. 1947) and Veronica Forrest-Thomson (1947-75), and younger poets like Carol Ann Duffy, Elizabeth Burns, Jackie Kay, Kathleen Jamie, among many others, and men as well - have looked for ways to turn their backs on the problem of Scottishness, as part of a general counter-attack on the more macho elements and self-importance of the national tradition. Forrest-Thomson's brief body of work is particularly distinctive: 'the only art where failure is renowned' ('Strike') - but even here Poetry itself is figured as yet another emblem of Scotland: the incubus is tenacious.

The issue of gender itself rhymes in manifold ways with issues of national identity: dominations and submissions, dichotomized social orders, anxieties of power-lessness, assertions of abiding strength, and questions of silence pervade the one as the other. It seems that if gender can provide, in part, a fresh perspective, it will be by means of transforming our understanding of issues long familiar through other -nationalist - terms of oppression and liberation. As the century ends, contemporary

Scottish poets move both more fully still to the roots of their traditions, and with unprecedented range over the modern landscape. The signs are hopeful for continued poetic vigour and growth, the scene is lively; and 1999 has seen, for the first time in almost three hundred years, the convening of an independent Scottish parliament.


1 Watergaw indistinct rainbow; ae weet one wet; forenicht early evening; yow-trummle cold weather in July after sheep-shearing; antrin rare; chitterin' shivering; on-ding downpour.

2 Fug moss; hazelraw lichen; yirdit buried; thaim them.

3 Crowdieknowe graveyard near Langholm; loupin' leaping; grat wept; bairn child; feck plenty; lift sky; thae those; bleezin' blazing; gar'd made.

4 Feres comrades; fremmit foreign.

5 Disnaeland Disneyland, Does Not Land; Brok-endoon Brigadoon, brokendown; Eh I; aynd breath; coontircheck tool for cutting the groove that unites two sashes of a window (Herbert's gloss); oan whilk oor severt heid an erse o gless on which our severed head and glass arse; noth nothing; stern stars.

6 Peelreestie the restless, youthful skin (Herbert's gloss); yirth earth.


Crawford, Robert (1999). Spirit Machines. London: Cape Poetry.

Crawford, Robert and W. N. Herbert (1990).

Sharawaggi: Poems in Scots. Edinburgh: Polygon. Crichton Smith, Iain (1985). Selected Poems. Manchester: Carcanet. Dunn, Douglas (ed.) (1992). The Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Scottish Poetry. London: Faber & Faber.

Goodsir Smith, Sydney (1975). Collected Poems.

London: John Calder. Graham, W. S. (1996). Selected Poems. London:

Faber & Faber. Herbert, W. N. (1991). Dundee Doldrums. Edinburgh: Galliard. Herbert, W. N. (1994). Forked Tongue. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe. Leonard, Tom (1984). Intimate Voices. Newcastle upon Tyne: Galloping Dog Press. Lynch, Kevin (1992). Scotland: A New History.

London: Pimlico. MacCaig, Norman (1990). Collected Poems. London:

Chatto & Windus. MacDiarmid, Hugh (1972). Lucky Poet: A Self-

Study in Literature and Political Ideas. London: Jonathan Cape.

MacDiarmid, Hugh (1987). A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, ed. Kenneth Buthlay. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

MacDiarmid, Hugh (1992). Selected Poetry, ed. Alan Riach and Michael Grieve. Manchester: Carcanet.

MacLean, Sorley (1991). From Wood to Ridge: Collected Poems in Gaelic and English. London: Vintage.

MacQueen, John and Tom Scott (eds) (1989). The Oxford Book of Scottish Verse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morgan, Edwin (1972). Wt the Haill Voice. Oxford: Carcanet.

Morgan, Edwin (1974). Essays. Cheadle Hulme: Carcanet.

Morgan, Edwin (1985). Selected Poems. Manchester: Carcanet.

Muir, Edwin (1936). Scott and Scotland: The Predicament of the Scottish Writer. London: Routledge.

O'Rourke, Daniel (ed.) (1994). Dream State: The New Scottish Poets. Edinburgh: Polygon.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment