Scotland's 'makars' thrive among differing tongues
Scotland’s poetry scene is thriving, in a country that is justifiably proud of its heritage and well-known for its achievements in the arts. It’s also a country of several historic and contemporary languages. Scots is traditionally the speech from lowland Scotland, while Gaelic is the language of the Western Isles and parts of the north-west of the Scottish mainland. In addition there is Doric, a distinct variation of Scots, spoken in the north-west of the country, while an Old Norse dialect of Norn is spoken in the islands of Orkney and Shetland. Glasgow has its own version of contemporary urban Scots, affectionately known as “The Patter” – a regional dialect full of irreverent humour and a dislike of anything that is deemed to be at all pretentious. Poets or “makars” as they are known in Scots, freely avail themselves of the richness of expression that is to be found in all these different tongues.
Scotland’s international poetry festival, StAnza, is by far the biggest poetry festival in Scotland, and is held in March in St. Andrews. It is now in its 20th year and from small beginnings back in 1998 continues to grow in popularity and scope. No two years are alike. The two themes for 2015 were Unfinished Business and An Archipelago of Poetry. In the first, mindful of the Valéry quote that “a poem is never finished”, the focus was on poetry as an ongoing creative process, as well as poetry engaged with the unfinished business of daily life. The second theme embraced poetry that was “coastal, tidal and insular and how poets, festivals or organisations exist not only individually but also collectively as part of an archipelago of poetry”. Each year, a careful balance is struck between major figures and writers who are less well known, poets writing within the mainstream and those who are more experimental. Each year the festival also features poets from about a dozen different countries. The poetry is often presented in collaboration with other art forms and media – installations, films, visual art, drama and music. Digital technology is also employed to link up with poets in the remoter areas of Scotland and also with poets in a number of cities from across the world.
Glasgoes Poetic, Glasgow’s biggest annual poetry event, takes place over a 10-day period in September-October. Events take place at Glasgow’s Mitchell library (one of the largest public libraries in Europe), and at other venues throughout the city. On one occasion, an event took place in an empty swimming pool. Jim Carruth has described it as “one of the unsung heroes of the festival world in Scotland – it provides poetry without the frills”.
The Callander Poetry Weekend is another jewel in the crown. It is hosted by Sally Evans, who edits Poetry Scotland and is a poet in her own right, and her husband Ian King who, between them, run a bookshop in Callander. A one-day event grew into a weekend and is now celebrating its 15th year. Events take place in the bookshop and in the Kirk Hall. One year, a poetry reading took place on a boat on Loch Katrine. There’s usually some Gaelic and Scots at the Callander poetry weekend and poetry in other languages is also welcomed.
Book festivals or literature festivals are more wide-ranging in scope and content but poetry still has a place in the majority of the programmes. The main festivals are held in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen, Wigtown and Gatehouse of Fleet.
The most prominent of these is the Edinburgh International Book Festival, pictured, which is held in the gardens of Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square during the Edinburgh International Festival. Events feature writers from all genres drawn from over 40 countries. There are readings, workshops and activities for every age group.
Glasgow’s Book Festival – “Aye Write!” - was founded in 2005 and, since 2007, has been an annual event in the cultural calendar. The festival takes place during September and October and attracts a lot of visitors. “Aye Write!” celebrates the best in national, international and local writing, extends to a schools festival and also offers a variety of free community and family events.
Dundee’s Literary Festival is held each year in late October. It is run by Literary Dundee and has been described as “five days of words, writing, debate, discussion and the odd slice of cake”. Each year there are about 60 different events on offer. Poetry readings and workshops are held within the precincts of Dundee University. Outside the festival, literary salons are held every month at Dundee Central Library and a series of late afternoon events called Poetry Hour takes place in the University’s College Hall, hosted by Jim Stewart.
Word, the University of Aberdeen Writers Festival that ran from 1999-2011, has widened its scope to embrace other subjects such as music, film, science, food and, nutrition, Gaelic debate, and readings. Now known as the May Festival, it still has a literary basis. This year’s festival, for example, included an exhibition on the life and works of WB Yeats, a celebration of the work of the late Iain Banks and readings from Baudelaire’s prose poems translated into Scots.
Wigtown, Scotland’s national book town, hosts a 10-day literary festival every year during September-October which has been running for 17 years.
In south-west Scotland, the “Big Lit” festival is held every year at Gatehouse of Fleet. This is a four-day festival that takes place around the middle of April. Chrys Salt MBE, artistic director of the Bakehouse, a performance space dedicated to poetry and the spoken word, is the festival organiser. There are readings and workshops, talks and music and plenty of activities for children. Other, smaller literary festivals take place in towns throughout the length and breadth of the country.
The Scottish islands have their own literary festivals as well. Both Orkney and Shetland hold book festivals each year and a Hebridean book festival, Faclan, takes place every October. These festivals showcase the best of Scottish and island writing with appearances from local and visiting authors.
The Scottish Poetry Library, housed in a modern, purpose-built complex in Edinburgh’s Old Town, is a meeting-place for many writers and poets. The library has over 45,000 items of poetry including the Edwin Morgan Archive, an unrivalled collection of contemporary Scottish poetry and a wide range of international poetry. The emphasis is on work from the 20th and 21st centuries, in Scots, Gaelic and English, but an extensive range of older Scottish poetry is also available. The international collection features poetry in English translation or in parallel text and there is an extensive archive of poetry magazines. Many services are also available by post or online such as the online bookshop, education resources and Scotland-wide poetry events and listings. Although the library is physically located in Edinburgh, it has a presence in other places as well and regularly tours Scotland by going out on the road to reach those who live in remote areas.
A number of presses such as Chapman, The Edinburgh Review, Gutter, The Red Wheelbarrow, Lallans, Pushing Out The Boat, Northwords Now, Poetry Scotland, and The Eildon Tree continue to produce poetry magazines in printed format and the Association for Scottish Literary Studies in Glasgow publishes an annual volume, New Writing Scotland. In the age of the internet, there is also a marked shift towards the development of publications online.
Opportunities for giving poetry readings abound in most of the main centres of Scotland. These may take place in libraries, schools, bookshops, museums and art galleries, cafés, restaurants and bars and they are frequently well-attended. Through agencies like the Scottish Arts Council and the Scottish Book Trust and partnering universities and local councils there are many writers’ residencies in operation up and down the country at any one time.
The Federation of Writers (Scotland) is alive and well with a membership that is just shy of 1,000. The majority of the members are from the central belt but there is representation from right across Scotland. The federation offers both new and established writers the chance to promote their work through publications and readings and there are also workshops and other mentoring schemes available to those who wish to pursue them.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist and critic living in Edinburgh. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014) and The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2015). His website is at www.poetrypf.co.uk/neilleadbeaterpage.shtml.