STEWART Conn was born in Glasgow in 1936 and brought up in Ayrshire, then moved between Glasgow and Edinburgh, while regularly visiting the Western Isles. These locations figure throughout his poetry as natural contexts for evocation and curiosity.

He has published numerous poems prompted, or considering questions raised by, occasional events and works of art encountered in galleries or music in concert performance, and thereby “set” in places redolent of middle-class cultural encounter, in Edinburgh, France, Italy and elsewhere.

READ MORE: Poetry Reviews: Meditations on the coldness of Auld Reekie's heart from former Makar Stewart Conn

The sensitivities at work in such poems are characteristically refreshing in their refusal of conventional political partisanship and polemic of any kind. His attention to nuance and balance, subtlety and evenness of tone risks a lack of strong colour but it would be wrong to suggest that his poems are more watercolour than oil, though they are more Renoir than Van Gogh.

His early books include Stoats in the Sunlight (1968), An Ear to the Ground (1972) and Under the Ice (1978). In each of them, the country world is a strong presence, often not the source of easy comfort but rather reminding human beings that self-importance stands to fall in nature’s pre-eminence.

Deftly, with assurance and light gestures, the poems evoke the bloody business of predators, the fact that under the earth are worms as well as roots, echoes of approaching armies as well as sounds of spring rising.

From them we infer the dark threat of psychological depths unplumbed by reason, unconquered and not exploitable. These qualities never go away but are leavened by light and other arts, entering the poems as subjects in such collections as In the Kibble Palace (1987), The Luncheon of the Boating Party (1992) and In the Blood (1999). Ghosts at Cockcrow (2005) includes the moving sequence, “Roull of Corstorphin”, an exploration of the life and character of a poet named in William Dunbar’s “Lament for the Makars”, but of whom almost nothing is known. Conn imagines him slipping out of the Court of James IV, where Dunbar is about to embark on a lurid flyting with Andrew Kennedy, and slipping back to Corstorphin, “where in the shade of a seeding sycamore / he will sit penning his tender love poetry.”

Conn became head of radio drama for BBC Scotland from 1977-92, writing his own plays for broadcasting as well as theatre performance. His own plays for theatre include The Burning (1973), about Bothwell and James I, innocent people caught up in political and religious power-struggles), The Aquarium (1973), an intense domestic family drama, Play Donkey (1977), about morality and family loyalty as a mercenary soldier is locked up in an African jail, and the biographical plays Herman (1981), about Herman Melville, and Hugh Miller (1988).

He adapted Neil Gunn’s novel Bloodhunt for BBC television (broadcast 1986) and produced John Purser’s award-winning radio play Carver (1992) before taking up writing full-time.

He was the first to hold the post of Makar or poet laureate of Edinburgh, 2002-05, taking forward his sense of the value of a public presence for poetry and literature. The Touch of Time: New & Selected Poems (2014) demonstrates a fine craftsman’s care for structure and poise with a countryman’s understanding of the hard realities of the farming world.

The emotional authority of Conn’s poems resides in a gentle but steely sense of humour, an understated irony and an unaffected compassion. In his poems, the creatural character of being human is a dark presence alongside precise and unvaunted celebrations of humanity’s cultural sophistication at its finest, and the tenderness and vulnerabilities of folk at every age and strata of their lives. His prose collection Distances (2001) collects memoirs of George Mackay Brown and Iain Crichton Smith, notes on Alasdair Maclean and WS Graham and recollections of Ayrshire.

Aonghas MacNeacail was born in Uig, on the Isle of Skye, in 1942 and grew up with Gaelic as his first language. At school, he has written, the work priority of the first teacher he encountered was to teach “her tearful new charges a foreign language [English], which most of us would soon learn to speak better than our own”.

This gives his poetry in English a distinct sense of both fluency and strangeness, judgment and pronouncement on matters of politics and history but at the same time an introspective character, both engaged and meditative.

He is a lyric love poet and a poet of explicit social engagement, a journalist prompt to comment and correct the still too frequent crass pontifications of public figures uttering their opinions about the Gaelic language. He is also a scriptwriter and filmmaker, librettist, songwriter and broadcaster.

His commitment to free verse, formally influenced by the American Black Mountain poets, and therefore evidently different from the more traditional forms to be found in earlier Gaelic poetry by Sorley MacLean and George Campbell Hay, is another distinction.

In this respect, there are affinities with another fine Gaelic poet, Donald MacAulay (1930-2017). Like MacLean, MacNeacail began writing “literary” poems in the context of a long and rich tradition of Gaelic song. His book imaginary wounds (1980) contained poems in English in which matters of Gaelic history, memory and identity were suggestively brought into the texts with quiet and powerful pathos. In “interval” the evocation of a school playground vividly gives us children taking sides: Not cowboys and Indians but “campbells and mackenzies” – so far, it might seem, so innocent, until we get to the last lines: “It was later we learned / about glencoe”.

The National:

Aonghas MacNeacail was born in Uig, on the Isle of Skye

The lack of punctuation and lower case letters are characteristic, from this early book, all the way through MacNeacail’s writing. His name is given as “aonghas Macneacail” in his early publications.

His first major collection was An Seachnadh / The Avoiding (1986), poems set o out in Gaelic and English on facing pages, and then poems in English were collected in Rock and Water (1990).

In “jock the shop’s odyssey” reductive humour and formal layout on the page delivers a humour that is both sympathetic and critical, aware of a social and economic history, as well as a human vulnerability and danger:








a straight line





homeward, heavy

with provisions, the cattle will

winter, the village eat, but

first, jock’s mother

Her tongue

will scorch

the ears of her (once monthly)

wayward son

Scottish poetry in Gaelic and Scots, and even in English, that makes such self-confident use of open forms like this was rare when MacNeacail began writing and he was aware of his originality in this regard. He presents himself in his poetry sometimes as “the holy fool / the bard” but history is essential to his vision and the thrust of his political ideas comes through most forcefully in its personal application.

His good humour and generous disposition is not a disguise, nor an evasion, when it comes to the seriousness of the questions his poetry raises about cultural history and malign political priorities.

In A Proper Schooling / Oideachadh Ceart (1996), he writes: “when i was young / it wasn’t history but memory”. In “air soitheach nam peann gu baile nan slige” / “on the ship of pens to the city of shells”, from the book, laoidh an donais oig / hymn to a young demon (2007), literary metaphor and historical references combine dramatically: “destruction’s an impartial judge, as measured by the gentle / level voice of the language professor, on the level deck of this / voyage to the red city of histories, of blows and deaths / where the sun would shine on us”.

MacNeacail has lived for many years in the Borders. As well as writing in Gaelic and translating his own work into English, he has also written effectively in Scots, bridging Highlands and Lowlands as well as the old and the new, especially in the booklet ayont the dyke (2012) and his contribution to the anthology The Smeddum Test (2013). His new and selected poems were published as deanamh gaire ris a’ chloc / laughing at the clock in 2012.

It’s difficult to imagine two poets of such contrast and complementarity, both equally essential in modern Scotland.