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Scotland small? A Century of Scottish Poetry

Buried in one of Hugh MacDiarmid’s long, later poems (‘Direadh’) is a clear passage that strikes the reader like an angry epiphany:


Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?

Only as a patch of hillside may be a cliché corner

To a fool who cries ‘Nothing but heather!’ (…)


MacDiarmid then moves on to list and catalogue the great variety of colours and plant forms he finds on one small hillside, and this comes in a poem bursting with knowledge, facts and insights about Scotland, culturally, nationally and internationally.

2014 is not only the centenary of the outbreak of World War One but it is also the year of the Scottish Independence Referendum (this September). MacDiarmid served non-violently in the RAMC in that first war, for the sake of ‘small nations’ and came back to Scotland determined to play a part in sculpting its destiny via poetry and the arts with a lifelong commitment to its independence. He would have agreed with Professor Alan Riach who writes that ‘the arts help people to live’ and ‘all arts work for independence’.

By looking at a small selection of poems written by Scottish poets, each representing a particular decade, from the 1910s to the 2010s, my upcoming course aims to show how central poetry was to shaping a sense of national identity for Scotland, and how Scottish poets have responded in great variety to all of the major events of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

A great polyphony of poetic voices has emerged from Scotland since 1910, impacted by a remarkable century of restless social change and political ferment, and although there are already lots of anthologies dedicated to Scottish poets, hardly any focus exclusively on this overlooked era. As a taster, I’ve put together an anthology of my own. You will see that Scotland is anything but small when it comes to its poetry!



1910’s/ WW1

War poets, neo-Georgian poets and vernacular tradition poets, the forerunners of the Scottish Literary Renaissance.

–  Canon Andrew Young (1885 – 1971) begins publishing initially neo-Georgian, sub-Swinburne lyrics in this era, before finding his powerfully honed lyrical voice in the natural world.

Poem: ‘Passing the Graveyard’

–  Marion Angus (1865 – 1946) writes fruitfully out of the ballad tradition in Scotland, poems have a song-like quality, highly influential on the following generations, Scottish Literary Renaissance, in particular the young Hugh MacDiarmid.

Poem: ‘Invitation’

–  Violet Jacob (1863 – 1946) was another major formative influence on the Scots poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid. Historical novelist and poet, Jacob’s poetry also gains power from the rich seam of the ballad tradition, spoken Scots and folk-song.

Poem: ‘Tam I’ the Kirk’

–  Roderick Watson Kerr (1893-1960) was born in Edinburgh and served in the 2nd Royal Tanks Corps in WW1, and most of his poems are from the battlefield.

Poem: ‘From the Line’

–  Ewart Alan MacKintosh (1893-1917) was born in Alness, Easter Ross and acquired Gaelic at Oxford University. He was awarded the MC for his bravery at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, but died at the Battle of Cambrai in 1917.

Poem: ‘Cha Till MacCruimein (Departure of the 4th Camerons)’


The influence of  international literary readings and Modernism, rising out of the British WW1 interest in Vorticism.

–  Hugh MacDiarmid (1892 – 1978) was a controversial figure, but still generally regarded as the foremost Scottish poet of the 20th Century – has a very long poetic career, we shall focus here on his highly praised early lyrics which draw on the folk traditions as much as European thought of the time.

Poem: ‘The Watergaw’

–  Edwin Muir (1888 – 1959) Muir wrote widely during the 20s (novels as well as reviews and translations, of novels by Kafka and Bosch) but the majority of his work we enjoy today was written much later, in the 1940s and 1950s. One time ally of MacDiarmid, he was calumnised by the poet for his insistence on writing poetry in English.

Poem: ‘Horses’

–    Naomi Mitchison (1897-1999) wrote a range of novels, historical novels, stories, poems and pamphlets throughout her long life. She established her name as a novelist during this decade, but her poetry came later, much of her best poetry written during WW2.

Poem: ‘Up Loch Fyne’

–    William Soutar (1898-1943) spent much of his adult life bed-bound and in many ways is one of the ghostly figures of the Scottish Literary Renaissance. Friends with Hugh MacDiarmid, he is now largely thought of, perhaps unfairly, as a minor poet.

Poem: ‘Song’

–    Muriel Stuart (1885-1967) wrote poetry from WW2 onwards, abandoning the art-form in the 1930s. Her poems are often concerned with politics between sexes and as a poet she was admired by both Hugh MacDiarmid and Thomas Hardy.

Poem: ‘A Song for Old Love’


Poets that began to emerge in the midst of Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘Scottish Literary Renaissance’, poems in Scots, often a confected literary Scots, and often tackling big political or global themes.

–   Sorley MacLean (1911-1996). MacLean was the major Gaelic poet of the 20th Century and he belongs in this era because of his agonised engagement with private life and the urge to fight in the Spanish Civil War, out of which comes one of his major long poems ‘Dain do Eimhir’. The poem we shall look at examines his birth place, the small island of Raasay and its connections with the Clearances.

Poem: ‘Hallaig’

–   Robert Garioch (1909-1981) began publishing his poetry as a student in the early 1930s, but published his early work, alongside that of Maclean’s in the self-published ’17 Poems for Sixpence’ chapbook (1939). Garioch, often thought of as a primarily witty ‘wee-man’ poet, had great depths and many of his poems are quite subversive. Here we’ll look at a poem from his war experiences as a POW.

Poem: ‘Letter from Italy’

–   Joseph MacLeod (1903-1984) also wrote under the pseudonym ‘Adam Drinan’. He effectively stopped writing after the death of his wife in the early 1950s. His first collection The Ecliptic (Faber, 1929) came out at exactly the same time as Auden’s Poems and both were reviewed as equally pivotal works. MacLeod’s work was admired by Eliot, Pound and Basil Bunting.

Poem: ‘Measures’

–   Alice V Stuart (1899-1983) was born in Rangoon to Scottish parents and after her education at Oxford, settled in Edinburgh. The author of a number of collections, critical attention has always evaded Stuart’s work.

Poem: ‘The Dark Tarn’


The Scottish poets of World War Two, who, through chance, found themselves fighting in the same theatre of the war, North Africa.

–   Hamish Henderson (1919 – 2002) wrote a sequence called ‘Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenica’ which has the scope, range and lexical grandeur of Eliot’s The Waste Land. Although in later life Henderson would devote himself to furthering an academic awareness and appreciation of folk-song, he is best known as a poet for this sequence.

Poem/song: ‘The Freedom Come All Ye’

–   Sydney Goodsir Smith (1915 – 1975) developed many literary personae and voices, but largely played the love-lorn bard of Edinburgh’s pubs. He wrote in a highly artificial but deeply literary and intertextual type of Scots, entirely of his own making. A civilian during the war, unfit for military service, he wrote many moving poems of the war front. This poem is from what many consider his masterpiece, a sequence of elegies and love poems called Under the Eildon Tree.

Poem: extract from Under the Eildon Tree

–   Norman Cameron (1905 – 1951) was a friend of Robert Graves and Dylan Thomas, and although a Scot by birth, he lived elsewhere, moving frequently.

Poem: ‘A Visit to the Dead’

–   George Campbell Hay (1915 – 1984) is considered to be the best Gaelic poet of the 20th Century after MacLean. Hay initially absconded from the military call-up, hiding in the hills, but was caught and sent to North Africa where he was deeply traumatised, not by the deaths of Allied or Axis forces, but by the death of the native Arab population. His work is some of the only war poetry to engage deeply and fruitfully with Arab culture.

Poem: extract from Mochtar is Dughall


Although a gloomy decade of rationing and war-related privations, Scottish poetry expanded markedly in this period. The arrival of many new poets and Scottish based publishers, although some major poets such as W S Graham, attracted the attention of T S Eliot and were forever more ‘Faber’ poets.

–   W S Graham (1918 – 1986) was very much an exilic Scot – living much of his life in London and Cornwall, although some of his most affectionate poems to his wife, Nessie, contain Scots words. By the 1950s, Graham was already a well-published poet and was beginning to shed the sloughs of the New Apocalypse/ The White Horsemen. His major poem of the 1950s, marking his maturity was ‘The Nightfishing’.

Poem: ‘A Note to the Difficult One’

–   Norman MacCaig (1910 – 1996) was too severing his ties with the New Apocalypse and the first collection MacCaig was to acknowledge was Riding Lights (1955).

Poem: ‘Aunt Julia’

–   Margaret Tait (1918 – 1999) Orcadian Margaret Tait was a pioneering documentary maker, artist and poet. Her poetry very much paves the way for younger women poets in that it breaks conventions and poetic expectations.

Poem: ‘Bushels’

–    George Mackay Brown (1921 – 1996) another Orcadian, Brown was a poet, short-story writer, novelist and playwright and lived entirely by his writing. Edwin Muir was Brown’s teacher and an early admirer, responsible for placing Brown’s second (but first critically acclaimed) collection ‘Loaves and Fishes’ with the Hogarth Press.

Poem: ‘Hamnavoe Market’


Edwin Morgan was to write, in a letter to Alec Finlay, that the 1960s were Scotland’s major cultural decade on the 20th Century, and that he could date his life beginning in 1960, not 1920. In general, there was a great opening up of channels and a liberation in poetry where many forms were accepted, but figures like MacDiarmid railed against popular poets and folk-songs.

–    Edwin Morgan (1920-2010) Scotland’s first ‘Makar’, Morgan has been writing poetry (and teaching it) for a long time before the 1960s, but it was with the overall efflorescence in Scottish poetry and renovation of his beloved, native Glasgow that gave Morgan a ‘second life’ – giving him the title for his most famous collection The Second Life (1968).

Poem: ‘Strawberries’

–    Iain Crichton Smith (1928-1998) Glasgow born, but Lewis raised, Smith was proud of his Gaelic heritage. A voluminous writer of novels, stories and poems, Smith really began to be noticed in the 1960’s.

Poem: ‘Two girls singing’

–    Joan Ure (real name Betty Clark, 1918-1978) was a poet, dramatist and writing of poetic/dramatic cross-over monologues. Her work is ironic, sharp, revelatory and shows the impact of a Scottish patriarchal (and often in Ure’s eyes ‘philistine’) society on a struggling woman writer.

Poem: ‘Margaret on a Monday’

–    Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006) was an artist, poet and radical gardener/landscaper, famous for his ‘Little Sparta’ garden. Many of his poems are concrete or visual poems, but he also published collections of poetry.

Poem: ‘The Dancers Inherit the Party’


The rise of many poetic and novelistic talents who still loom large today, such as James Kelman, Tom Leonard and Liz Lochhead, it also, we shall see saw the deaths of not only many of the vanguard, MacDiarmid, Goodsir Smith et al. It saw the tragic death of young poets also.

–    Tom Leonard (b. 1944) is most famous for poems written in a gruff-sounding phonetic scots which attacks hegemonic and establishment views – such as his ‘Not the Nine o’clock News’. However, this combative element to his work overlooks his deep scholarship and also some of his most moving work.

Poem: ‘Eclipse’

–    Liz Lochhead (b.1947) inherited the role of Scotland’s ‘Makar’ from  Edwin Morgan. She has written a range of poems and plays, including the popular Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off.

Poem: ‘View of Scotland/ Love Poem’

–   Veronica Forrest Thomson (1947-1975) wrote in a highly literary, erudite style, often using dictionary definitions as the basis of poems, she was highly influenced by and also influenced Jeremy Prynne. She died in her late twenties of an overdose of alcohol and pills.

Poem: ‘Pastoral’

–    Alasdair Maclean (1926-1994) was a rather forbidding and reclusive figure in Scottish poetry, the author of only two poetry collections and a book of memoirs, he committed suicide in 1994. His poetry has a small cult following nowadays.

Poem: ‘Death of an Old Woman’


This decade saw the formation of the Scottish Poetry Library and also the deepening of Scottish Literature as an academic area at university, particularly at the University of Glasgow, and a great number of poets born during the 1950s and 1960s began to emerge.

–    Ian Abbot (1947-1989) died in a car crash only months after the publication of his first, and as far as we are aware, only collection of poems Avoiding the Gods. His work is characterised by a leanness and elemental otherness similar to that of Alistair Maclean. A remarkable poet who supported his writing though a great variety of jobs including fence-builder and silversmith.

Poem: ‘Mechanisms of the Gin’

–    Kathleen Jamie (b.1962) was only in her teens when her first collection was published ‘Black Spiders’ but she wrote throughout the 80s, 90s and stronger than ever to this day, with a long oeuvre including poems, memoirs, travelogues and essays. She is Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Stirling.

Poem: ‘Moon’

–     W. N. Herbert (b.1961) was born in Dundee, educated at Oxford and has been a Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University for many years. He writes in Scots and English and is often associated with Robert Crawford.

Poem: ‘Dingle Dell’

–    John Burnside (b.1955) was born in Dunfermline and has written memoirs, novels and poems, often dealing with his own struggles with addiction and in general dealing with issues of spirituality and ecology. He teaches at the University of St. Andrews.

Poem: ‘Afterlife’

–    Mick Imlah (1956-2009) was, like W. S. Graham, a rather exilic Scot, but an engagement with Scotland and its history/ foibles is clear in his later work. His death was from motor neurone disease.

Poem: ‘London Scottish’


A hugely fruitful decade in terms of emergence of new poets and a body of work from Scottish poets being produced.

–    John Glenday (b.1952) is perhaps one of the finest lyric poets of his generation. His output has been slow and meticulously crafted. Before his retirement he worked as an Addictions Counsellor for the NHS.

Poem: ‘Undark’

–    Carol Ann Duffy (b.1955) needs little introduction. Born in the Gorbals in Glasgow, she is now Poet Laureate for the UK.

Poem: ‘Valentine’

–    Don Paterson (b.1963) was born in Dundee and now teaches in the English department of the University of St. Andrews. A well-known and influential poet, particularly on successive generations of poets (see Niall Campbell).

Poem: ‘Rain’

–    Angela McSeveney (b.1964) was born in Edinburgh and came to prominence at the same time as Jackie Kay and yet her remarkably controlled but confessional work is often overlooked now, which is unfortunate as it repays further reading/study.

Poem: ‘The Lump’

–    Imtiaz Dharker (b.1954) was born in Lahore and grew up in Glasgow. She describes herself as a “Scottish Muslim Calvinist” which pays a nod towards Norman MacCaig’s phrase that he was a Scottish “zen Calvinist”.

Poem: ‘Women Bathing’

2000’s / 2010’s

Many of the poets who emerged in this decade and our decade are still ‘making their presence known’. In the selection here we have Scots language, poetry from the Hebrides, women’s poetry, and poetry of cities all mixed together.

–    Niall Campbell (b.1984) is an Eric Gregory Award winner from South Uist. His pamphlet is After the Creel Fleet and his first collection is Moontide.

Poem: ‘The Fraud’

–    Claire Askew (b.1986) grew up in Kelso and teaches in Edinburgh. She is the author of the pamphlet The Mermaid and the Sailors and regularly performs her work in Edinburgh.

Poem: ‘I am the moon, and you are the man on me’

–    Jen Hadfield (b.1978) grew up in Cheshire but while studying in Scotland she formed a deep connection with Shetland, where she now lives. A multiple award-winning poet, latest collection is Byssus.

Poem: ‘The Moult’

–    Cheryl Fullon (b.1978) lives and works in Glasgow and is published by Bloodaxe.

Poem: ‘O Wildwood Bouquet!’

–    Billy Letford (b.1977) works for his family’s roofing company in Stirling, where he lives. Author of the critically acclaimed collection Bevel (Carcanet Press, 2012) and a very popular performance poet.

Poem: ‘Wit is it’

If you’d like to learn more about and be inspired by a lost golden age of poetry, book your place now on A Century of Scottish Poetry, Part 1 with Richie McCaffery. This course is open to everyone and no specialist knowledge of Scotland or the Scots language is required. Please book via the Poetry School website or ring us on 0207 582 1679.


  • Clare Hepworth-Wain

    This is a really useful article. Thank you Richie.Your links are just brilliant and I am discovering lots of new poets. I keep coming back to The Watergaw by Hugh MacDiarmid. To hear him read it and explain it is a privledge. The poem resonates so deeply…his choice of words offer the reader an opportunity to think deeper. Fantastic.

  • Richie McCaffery

    Hi Clare,

    Delighted you’re getting some use out of it – it’s far from comprehensive and rather subjective, but they’re all fascinating poets. MacDiarmid’s ‘The Watergaw’, along with Sydney Goodsir Smith’s ‘Under the Eildon Tree’ first got me into Scottish poetry, as I knew I was missing out on something amazing and I needed to be able to understand it. If you get a chance, try and track down a copy of ‘Sangschaw’ in a library. This is MacDiarmid’s first collection of lyric Scots poems – some little gems in there! Cosmic and eeire and local all at the same time…

  • Steve Ely

    Sorley Maclean’s ‘Elegy for Calum I.Maclean’ is one the most moving poems I’ve ever read. Intensely personal yet totally engaged in the heartfelt, spiritual politics both brothers were utterly possessed by. I’m teaching it on my course, Versus, Vehemence, Vision – The Poetry of Public Engagement. ‘White Leaping Flame’ is a fabulous book. Good luck with this: YES!

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Image: Scotch Highlands by Robert S. Duncanson

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