IN the history of Scottish literature, there are particular moments that mark a point at which things permanently change.

Let me suggest a few examples. Allan Ramsay’s anthology The Ever Green (1724) brought back William Dunbar and other poets from the 15th century to an 18th-century readership, so when Patrick Geddes published an essay in his journal The Evergreen in 1895 calling for a Scottish “Renascence” and then in 1922 Hugh MacDiarmid took up that call, a connection was established back from MacDiarmid, through Geddes, to Ramsay, and thus to Dunbar, Henryson and the old Scots Makars.

Things changed after 1724, and then again after 1922. A longer perspective was established. And after Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814), the relations between history, fiction and political understanding changed forever.

The National: Waverley was a landmark moment in Scottish literatureWaverley was a landmark moment in Scottish literature (Image: NQ)

The knowledge that fiction, with an international readership, could alter the way we comprehend history through printed writing, begins most radically at this point. Not only many virtues of perception and perspective but also innumerable liabilities of political intention, including bad propaganda, follow from that.

Another one: MacDiarmid’s The Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry (1940) reconfigured Gaelic, Scots, Latin and English-language poetry into the one national multi-linguistic tradition, establishing forever the truth that Scotland’s literature is multi-lingual.

That precedent has been followed by the best large-scale anthologies and revised the sense of what Scottish literary history really is, ever since then. It is emphatically not monolingual.

And then in drama, John McGrath and 7:84 Theatre Company’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, in its first production in 1973 and then on tour, and as the TV “Play for Today” in 1974, altered the way theatre could be presented in Scotland, and also the way information about Highland history could be disseminated widely in English and Gaelic and could be reinterpreted and applied to economic priorities of the present time.

It changed theatre and playmaking in ways that still haven’t been fully explored in Scotland, and it helped change the ways the history of the Highlands and Islands could be given vital representation.

In this history of turning points in Scottish literature, Liz Lochhead’s Memo for Spring (first published by Gordon Wright in 1972) is another key moment. After it, the voices of women in poetry in modern Scotland had to be understood as essential to Scottish literary tradition.

The patriarchy was not abolished but knocked sideways and the voices of men, especially those which had dominated the immediately previous generations, were relativised, complemented, and implicitly placed in a critical relation with the voices of women, Liz’s voice itself, and those of the women at that time still to come. The 30th anniversary edition, with a new introduction by Ali Smith, appeared in 2022.

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All these works and authors and moments in history made changes possible. They expanded the range of possibility. Are they being used to advantage?

Certainly, the long, multi-lingual tradition of Scottish literature is now more firmly established than it was a hundred years ago but there’s an awfully long way still to go. A colleague of mine, arriving to teach in Scotland from Poland, was astonished to discover that William Dunbar and Robert Henryson were not familiar poets taught in all Scottish schools. They would be in other countries. Why not in Scotland?

And historical fiction is a familiar – perhaps too conventional – literary genre, nowadays. The conventions are there to be interrupted. Alan Warner’s recent novella (the title itself is magnificent), Nothing Left to Fear From Hell, tracks Prince Charles Edward Stuart through the Highlands and Islands in the aftermath of Culloden, in 1746. Physicality, vulnerability, materiality are paramount; the vision of a liberated Scotland is a broken context for the torn fragments of the map the characters cross.

It is one of a series of “Darkland Tales” commissioned and published by Polygon/Birlinn, which includes Denise Mina’s Rizzio (horribly recounting the culmination of the life of the presumed lover of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1566), Jenni Fagan’s Hex (centred on the persecution of women driven by James VI’s witch-hunts in 1591), with Columba’s Bones by David Greig forthcoming.

By their abbreviated form, taut with tension, and the sheer novelty of their writing (for example, in Warner, the seagulls are “curiously silent like possible informers”), these works refresh the idea of “historical fiction” beyond the conventions of the genre.

But is the explicitly politicised agit-prop character of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil firmly embedded as part of the National Theatre of Scotland’s activities? There’s surely plenty to pick up and revitalise in the Scottish theatrical tradition than is currently under way, but our history has been a major source for some of the best recent Scottish plays, from Donald Campbell’s The Jesuit and Stewart Conn’s The Burning to Rona Munro’s James plays (now up to four, with James IV).

Liz Lochhead’s work since Memo for Spring, and the work of a whole generation of poets, women, writing since the 1970s and publishing extensively since then and on through the 21st century, is generally a positive and exemplary story.

The National: The work of Liz Lochhead is a positive storyThe work of Liz Lochhead is a positive story (Image: NQ)

Thinking of such poets as Meg Bateman, Elizabeth Burns, Anne Frater, Gerrie Fellows, not to mention more familiar names such as Jackie Kay and Kathleen Jamie, the quality and diversity of their work amounts to a major contribution. Indeed, one might describe it as the mainstream, although the metaphor is not quite right.

In the world of new technology, there are many poets at work, men and women, whose poems are often fine, sometimes try-outs, not always great but admirable and enjoyable in various ways. But it is perhaps difficult to identify a small number of whom you might say: They are major.

You need to keep your eye on them. They teach you new things about how language works, and they show you how their minds work in poetry, in truly extraordinary ways. There are some, but the contemporary scene is always in movement, as it should be. Not a “mainstream” then: rather, a constellation.

Which means that the most reliable co-ordinate points, those most brightly shining stars, come out of the past. And some are even now as lively as ever they ever were. Liz Lochhead is one of the liveliest.

I’d like to introduce three of Liz Lochhead’s newest poems. The occasion at which I heard her read them was memorable. It was the 60th birthday event for Glasgow’s poet laureate Jim Carruth and his wife Lorna, a happy occasion with a good crowd and excellent readings by Bernard MacLaverty, Ian Stephen and Jim himself, as well as Liz. My wife and I were sitting enjoying the whole thing and when Liz read these poems, something strange happened.

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We were paying close attention, because the readings themselves, as well as the work read, were so good. And with the first and second of the poems we’re going to print here over the next two weeks, the pleasure of the text was primary.

You don’t always stay awake or on full alert at poetry readings. Well, I don’t. I can’t. I’ve always had a tendency to drift off and tune in again later. Sometimes it’s because the readers aren’t very engaging, sometimes because the poems aren’t very good. But readings need to include try-outs, attempts that are not-successes, as well as poems of good quality.

There’s almost always something to learn. But this was different. There was no lapse of attention at all. The event itself was a happy and uplifting one: everyone was well-disposed. And attention was sharp, all through. And then, when Liz read the third of her poems, the breath was suddenly held. Something more was going on.

We’ll come back to that third poem. First, the first of the three. It’s a return, in some respects, to a familiar idea: the distinction between Scots and English, the difference between languages that are close but distinct, discernibly similar but deeply unalike.

Liz herself has a wonderful example in “Kidspoem / Bairnsang” with its repeated list of things a mother does and advises her daughter to do before going to school, where the girl learns to speak in English, and the list is repeated in that other tongue, taking us further and further away from the vernacular, friendly, family idiom of Scots in the first half of the poem.

It starts in a domestic, diminutive, pawky, humorous way, but there’s a growing anger and strength of feeling in it. The poem ends with the lines, “Oh saying it was one thing / but when it came to writing it / in black and white / the way it had to be said / was as if you were posh, grown-up, male, English and dead.”

I remember hearing Liz read that poem with the greatest gusto and full-strength smeddum in Buckingham Palace in November 2013, at a reception celebrating “British” poetry.

The audience, including the late Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, seemed of course ultimately unmoved, but when we came to the end of that poem, quite a distinctive ripple did travel around the audience of about 300 poets, professors, publishers and representatives from England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and “Black Britain”. It had originally been written for schools, an exploration of linguistic difference that engaged with the idea and facts quite playfully, but with a deadly serious point to it.

The question it addresses, of Scots and English, is there in different ways in other poems by other poets. Carol Ann Duffy’s “Originally”

from The Other Country (1990), for example: “my tongue / shedding its skin like a snake, my voice / in the classroom sounding just like the rest.”

Or Jackie Kay’s “Old Tongue”: “I turned my back on Scotland. / Words disappeared in the dead of night”: she loses “eedyit, dreich, wabbit, crabbit” and gains instead “ghastly, awful, quite dreadful” and she’s left frustrated, wanting her voice back: “my old tongue.”

Here, in Liz Lochhead’s funny but complex poem “Ashet”, the focus sharpens on a single word, but the word itself opens a world of thought crossing generations, geographies, cookery, technologies of communication and questions of honesty and self-confidence. Intricacies of meaning are disclosed.

A few other Scots words and phrases are sampled, their provenance and use are considered, and then, towards the end, the poem focuses on a different word, “winterdykes”, a word that means a thing that will make possible a comforting warmth, the security of a linguistic “home” in winter, a foldable frame for drying new-washed clothes. Food, clothes, a sense of home, and a language that can tell the truth: these are human necessities, all of them.

Here’s a poem we can learn from as much as we enjoy it.


On yon Zoom

the ither day a wee bit friendly argie-bargie stertit up aboot whit exactly wis

an ashet

when it wis at hame? Well, some wid huv it

it wis a muckle-great delft platter for servin,

say, a hail gigot o mutton roastit wi aw the trimmins

an ithers insistit, naw it wis nuthin but a

humble enamel pie-dish

sich as ye’d mibbe mak a shepherd’s pie in, or yaise for reheatin

(o aye, in a gey hoat oven!) yesterday’s left-ower stovies or day-afore-peyday pan-haggis (never ever cryin that skirlie, nut ata, no here in Glesca, no in the West.)


There’s monie wouldnae gie houseroom

to this shabby aul chrome-platit slottit-spoon

wi hardly a scrap o rid or black pent left on its widden

haunle, but –

it was ma mither’s – I haud it in ma

haun wi ma heid fu o mince an reminiscence, thinkin

how a clock could be a clock or a black beetle

how a sair heid is a sair heid but a sair haun is a piece

an jam ’s long’s the slice o breid’s as thick as a doorstop

an the jam strawberry or rasp, an I’m wonderin

– since the press in ma kitchen contains

baith a chippt bog standard wee white pie-dish an thon

oval antique art-nouvea losol-ware tulip servan-dish

I got for a shillin in a kirk jumble-sale in the sixties --

pie-dish or platter? Which is the classic ashet?


Och, settle an argument with a friend, wee bit o

elementary detective work in a dictionar, an here it

turns oot it’s no either/or but baith/and

which is even better (for mair is ayeweys mair than less in ma book, eh no?)


An I’ll tell ye wan thing for shair: ma brand-new winterdykes I ordered online an that arrived the day fae Amazon might no be made o wid but raither

o clean plastic an lightweight metal

an huv an awfy well-designed an nifty wey

o foldin doon tae nuthin to store gey neatly in the loaby press or o openin oot lik wings

and takin a loat mair claes than ma pulley ever could but they’ll aye be ma winterdykes