On a compilation of Scots poetry

The Observer, Sunday 1 July 2001

    At the heart of what makes poetry Scottish lies the question of language. There are at least four varieties. First, there is the Scots of the old court before the Union of the Crowns. Then came the vigorous and assured tongue used by Robert Burns in his best poems, or richly put in the mouths of his native characters by Sir Walter Scott.

    Rebellions followed. Hugh MacDiarmid, junking the Burns tradition and the kailyard, turned to the etymological dictionary to concoct ‘plastic Scots’, in Edwin Muir’s dismissive phrase. Later poets such as Tom Leonard used the urban demotic and rejected the notion, dear to scholars, that Scots was a language like any other, with rules of syntax and usage.

    Indeed, since the King James Bible became the text of choice in Scotland, and English the official language, Scottish poets have always had to make a considered choice about tonality. Despite the mawkish excesses of the kailyard, RL Stevenson showed it was possible to use Scots easily and without sentimentality and in the next century Robert Garioch made it a vehicle for great themes.

    Muir rejected Scots with asperity. John Buchan, an unlikely literary ally of MacDiarmid (they both detested the kailyard), had his own prescription: toss in the odd word to infuse English with a Scottish feel.

    This recipe may be followed by modern poets such as Douglas Dunn and Iain Crichton Smith, but mood, resonance or context more truly make their voices distinctively Scottish.

    The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse cannot, of course, be entirely comprehensive. There are omissions and inclusions, like that of McGonagall, which seem quixotic. But it is an excellent introduction to a rich field of flowers and thistles.

    The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse
    edited by Mick Imlah and Robert Crawford
    Penguin £20, pp592