THE intimacy of language itself is the first priority: how it sounds and is heard; where it comes from, in terms of the poet’s body, voice, nation and history; her or his geography; domestic circumstance; political position – all these have bearing and deep significance, especially for the poet.

And this is about to be demonstrated in a series of lively readings at two events in Glasgow and Biggar, in Lanarkshire. First, I’ll be introducing an evening of poetry from the Faroes, Latvia and Scotland with readings from Sissal Kampmann (Faroese), Ligija Purinasa (Latgalian) and Niall O’Gallagher (Scottish Gaelic), from 7-9pm on Tuesday in Seminar Room 203, No 4 University Gardens, Glasgow G12 8QH. This is free but please RSVP It promises to be as varied and unique as it sounds.

Poetry, as we’ve demonstrated and explored in these columns many times over the years, carries both universal application and specific linguistic, local and national provenance and authority. This is how it works.

The three poets, who are collected in The Last Model/Padejais Models, are richly contrasting but complementary. The translations are all by Jayde Will, whose own short stories, poetry and essays on Latvian literature are an essential resource.

Latgalian is a minority language within Latvia. During the Soviet era, using the language in public life or printed books was banned and after Latvian independence in 1961, Latgalian had to recover its own prestige. Fortunately – and one might think of similar circumstances affecting Scots and Gaelic – there were those who remained committed to it and over the years, their efforts have brought about greater recognition. This book is part of that process of liberation.

Purinasa has been a pioneering journalist, writing on Latgalian culture and women’s rights, protecting language and raising feminist priorities. A small sample can only give a flavour of her work. But try this:

tu es muns

Kirils i Metodijs

opolim pierstim

pa munu misu

zeimej milesteibys


ar lyopum


Izgudruojs sovu


you are my / Cyril and Methodius / drawing quadrants / of love / with fleshy fingers / on my skin / you devised / your own / writing system / with your lips

That’s a poem which slips writing, speech, physical touching and intimacy of voice and skin into relations of new interactions.

Language is both actual and metaphorical in these poems, and its effectiveness as communication is tender, vulnerable, prompting newly-devised systems of practice and breakthrough. That in itself can be politically revolutionary.

Raibis is a playwright, musician and fiction writer as well as a poet, a prize-winner in Latgalian literature. Based in a small town in Estonia, his work is often more explicit:

We are the last models

from the final days of the Soviet Union.

We wouldn’t admit it to ourselves before,

then we accepted it as an interminable fact

when a few young actresses

we were getting wasted with at the bar

asked us for our passports.

An almost throwaway anecdote holds within itself a world of political invasion, intrusions into national identity and social interaction of the most mundane kind. And with Ingrida Tarauda, we have a multilingual poet, writing in Latvian and Russian as well as Latgalian, based in Ireland and organising online poetry events bringing Latvian and Irish writers together. Once again a vividly colourful time with surprises awaits you.

Forgive me for the crunching of snow from my feet

Letters sent to the universe caught in a willow’s branches

The birds fly over my path oh so happily

We’ll definitely do this again

Kampmann’s poems, translated by Marita Thomsen, draw on the Faroese ballad tradition of wandering narratives but the recurring imagery of this book, the first-ever bilingual Faroese-English publication of Faroese poetry, brings the landscape and light – as in the title, Darkening or Myrking – of the Faroes into clear configuration.

A thousand black suns

glisten and glitter

in your eyes


Closed eyelids

cannot quell the sparks

from the spotlights

illuminating the area

by the boat bridges

like one-thousand-watt bulbs

on thick cables

strung up

between lampposts.

O’Gallagher’s collection The Sounds of Love / Fuaimean Gràidh brings together poems of love, domestic life, public occasion and meditative reflection, drawing on personal experience but modelling their form on traditional structures. The result is both immediate and respectful of the long history and context of the language.

One marvellous poem, “The Pianist at Glasgow Central”, describes a public encounter and its personal resonance. It highlights a contemporary circumstance and momentary pleasure that still carries the lasting significance of music in the air.

This one, first in O’Gallagher’s Gaelic then in a translation by Peter Mackay, starts with the mythical imagery associated with St Kentigern, or Mungo, and Glasgow’s coat of arms but the immediacy of the imagery brings it into a contemporary understanding of sympathy, in the face of a bullying brutality. It vouchsafes a perennial presence of care.


Laigh an t-eun gun ghluasad air

an làr.

Thàinig iad nan gràisg: ‘Is ann a dh’eug

brù-dhearg, mharbh esan e’, ’n gille sèimh

a rinn iad a thrèigsinn mar bu ghnàth.

Cha tug e an aire ach, le gràdh,

rinn e nead le làmhan agus shèid

anail shocair, thlàth air a dà sgèith

sgaoileadh beatha feadh gach ite ’s cnàmh’.

Dh’fhan i tiotan air a bhois

a’ ceilearadh air leth-chois

mus do thog i oirre tron an sgleò.

Theich a threud ach cha do chlisg

an gille le làmhan brisg’,

cluas sa lios ri bualadh sgèith an eòin.


The bird lies stock-still on the ground.

The gang moves in: “the robin’s deid –

he kilt him”. The quiet boy is betrayed,

as happens when stuff goes down,

but he pays no heed and lovingly

makes a nest with his hands and blows

soft, warm breath into her bones,

her feathers, and fills her wings with life.

She hovers an instant on his palms

on one leg, singing,

then takes off into the dark.

Everyone else long gone, the boy still cups his hands

and, unflinching,

listens for a wingbeat in the yard.

All the books quoted from here are published by Francis Boutle (, a specialist in minority language literature publishing. Check them out.

AS if that were not enough, we have an event at the Biggar Little Festival at 7.30pm on Friday at Biggar and Upper Clydesdale Museum: Scotland’s Voices: In the Company of Hugh MacDiarmid, in which the novelist James Robertson, the poet, playwright, actor and director Gerda Stevenson and I will commemorate and celebrate the achievements of three former Brownsbank writers – Lorna J Waite, Aonghas MacNeacail and Carl MacDougall, and MacDiarmid aficionado Kenneth White.

See for more information.

Waite’s poem “Conscientious Objection and Cleaning: For Valda Grieve” takes us into Brownsbank and the domestic world of MacDiarmid and his wife, and the presence of the visiting poet, Lorna herself, memorably recording her carefulness and respect for both:

I tenderly clean the framed photo,

Not the national portrait of the public realm,

Proud and private, Chris wearing the robes

Of the honorary doctor, sitting

Old man on a bench, a Siberian woodcutter’s face

The compliment pleased you.

I dust away the debris of my skin,

Sweeping away strands of blonde hair on terracotta carpet,

Evidence of living in the museum of your memory.

I burn with the necessity of fire, close to the sky

A trail of smoke signals the flaming of words,

A welcoming hearth, the sound barrier of stone,

A long view of Scotland between rivers

the tributaries snake through every crevice

of history’s shapeshift, seeking expansiveness,

across seas words voyage, sounding similar

in the south western wind…

to cackle of geese, the creak of burning wood,

the flintiness of sharp rock, the cry of surprise

in lonely wood among the pines, a hearing of the first songs,

sibilants chanting on the octave gales of autumn,

falling leaves, intermittent, a failing pulse of green,

the raven ever present, beyond migration, endures

croaking her warnings in black robed druidic repeat,

cackling cries of foretelling on fields of blood red,

carrion for the living, heroes of the other’s war,

proud to die in flag draped coffin, spare parts

re-arranged in the regimented story.

Do you see drones hover over the dens of the homeless?

Or hear bagpipes mimic the early song of birds

On the sand blasted field of deserted piobaireachd?

The warlord is in shape of bird, inhuman sky

Machines of the imperial order, retreat

From the ridge of the sand dune, the wave of peace near Glasgow,

The tents of the nomadic, the cave dwelling of the mountain teller,

MacDiarmid flighted ye a’!

I sense Chris in the freen o wee flowers, pal o Wullie Gallacher,

Valda’s man, in the leather chair

fae the millworkers o Langholm

A gift fae the women on your birthday,

Fit fur a Bard o the Republic o Alba,

I polish it with hope, wishing the ghost

Of your names, the fulfilment of fireside thought.

The work of MacNeacail, another Brownsbank writer-in-residence and one of the finest Gaelic poets of recent years, is lastingly memorable but here we’re commemorating him in Stevenson’s poem “How to Tell Him (On receiving news of my mother-in-law’s death)” from her collection If This Were Real (Smokestack Books).

IT seems appropriate, for it connects MacNeacail and Stevenson but also the moment of interface between the living and the dead, and it exemplifies the living presence of the poem, and what it means, which stays with us:

I replace the phone on its cradle,

the news resting in my ear.

How to bring it to my mouth,

be midwife to words that will cut

the cord of their braided years.

How to tell him?

He looks up from his paper

like a child over a garden hedge –

her fond and only prodigal.

I can hear the clock on her mantelpiece

two hundred miles away, its tick

a pulse to the music of her days:

the hens’ muffled clucking at her kitchen door,

the hot water tank’s bubble and slurp

as the peat-blaze sears the back boiler;

the ferry’s boom at the pier head,

the wind’s whine up the croft brae.

She’s still alive until I tell him,

sending eggs next week, as usual,

swaddling each fragile oval

in the Press & Journal’s folds;

tomorrow’s pot roast is on the stove,

homage to the Sabbath, when

duty-bound, she’ll take her ease;

and she’s skinning Golden Wonders,

scooping salt herring from a plastic pail,

their scaled bellies a rainbow in her palm –

until I tell him.

We’ll also be remembering the poet and essayist of “geopoetics”, the psychogeographer of the north-western Atlantic seaboard, Kenneth White, whose unembarrassed admiration for MacDiarmid is a refreshing antidote to those who remain troubled by the great man’s reputation for prickly “thistleonicality”.

White’s poem “For Hugh MacDiarmid” refers to “the golden pine and the silver birch” as if the autumn trees themselves were a kind of mourning commemoration, “in the Larig Ghru / at the heart of the ontological landscape”.

More than most modern Scottish poets, White sees MacDiarmid gesturing confidently to “the affinity between Celtic art and the East” and notes how, far from endorsing “exotic or sectarian obsession,” he stimulated and confirmed “the deepest and most projective indigenous tendencies.”

Brownsbank Fellow Carl MacDougall is also remembered. Particularly, we’re celebrating his posthumous memoir, Already, Too Late (Luath Press). Carl was a friend, an enabler of others, an encourager of many beyond the literary world and within it. His achievements as a novelist, short story writer and editor, TV presenter and essayist, are numerous, and we’ve written in these columns in praise of him.

In this last book, he excels his reputation with a deeply moving personal history. The pathos of the narrative is heartbreaking at times, without being sentimental, but the humour is also characteristic. Here’s a taster, his description of his mother, Marie, who worked for a time in hotels, particularly in Oban:

“She never trusted happiness, assumed it was temporary, an illusion, or both. She wanted it for other people and delighted in their success but never embraced the possibility for herself. It was taken, she said. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, which doesnae leave much room for manoeuvre, never mind choice.

“This, like most of her conversation, was a pronouncement, an absolute, a statement rather than a topic for argument or discussion. She’d wander round the house singing, telling jokes and making herself laugh. And she made me laugh in more ways than anyone I have ever known. Even now, I often laugh when I think of her.

“‘Away and raffle your doughnut’, she said, and I am sure her interpretation was literal. Any other possibility would never have occurred to her. Most of her pronouncements were literal.”

In the second half of the evening, novelist and former Brownsbank Fellow James Robertson, and I will be in conversation, focusing on my own new book, The MacDiarmid Memorandum. It’s a patchwork biography of Scotland’s greatest poet since Burns.

Beginning with MacDiarmid’s childhood in Langholm, travelling with him after the First World War to Montrose and then to Shetland, and returning to Brownsbank, it should prompt new perspectives on MacDiarmid’s attempts to re-orient Scotland’s landscapes and history in a world where nature and culture are inseparable from political realities.

Come for a couple of hours and be in the company of MacDiarmid and some of the company he valued, and who valued him – in person!