In this regular Sunday feature, we ask people about 10 things that changed their life. This week, Jackie Kay, poet, author, makar

1. Burns Suppers

The National:

I WENT to Burns Suppers from when I was seven. I used to love the drama of them. I loved the Toast To The Lassies, the dinner round the trestle tables and I loved songs like Ae Fond Kiss and John Anderson My Jo. My dad often did the Immortal Memory and talked about Burns’s life.

I loved it when the haggis was piped in and the Address To The Haggis – the idea that a piece of food had a poem written about it! The stabbing was so theatrical. That introduced me to the idea that poetry could be theatre and enjoyed communally – that lots of people could join in and participate.

I just loved the bonhomie and the way they celebrated the life of a poet and also the lives of everybody there and their skills. I remember Maisie Hill used to do the Address To The Haggis and she was very fierce.

2. Being in an accident

THAT was when I was 16 and I was on my Honda 50 moped on Kirkintilloch Road. I hit three cars altogether and landed just outside the graveyard.

The accident resulted in a compound leg fracture and I wasn’t able to walk properly for a year and a half afterwards. One leg remains shorter than the other.

Before that I was a Scottish Girls’ Championship runner!

The accident changed my life in lots of ways. I still remember it vividly. It was April 17, 1978. At the time, my dad was at a trade union conference in Aberdeen. When my mum phoned to tell him, he thought she said I had fractured my head instead of my leg and he fainted with shock.

The accident turned me into an avid reader and writer. I wrote poems and my English teacher sent me to show them to Alasdair Gray who said: “There is no doubt about it at all: You are a writer.”

3. Anne of Green Gable

The National:

I LOVED Anne because she was so particular about her name being spelled with an “e”. I learned to extend my vocabulary reading her. I learned the word loquacious which is an accurate description of me, although my mum would say “blether”.

I loved coming across a heroine who was adopted and I called my son Matthew after Matthew in Green Gables as he was so kind and measured and understood everything.

I loved Anne’s imagination and, being adopted myself and feeling different to everyone else, I really identified with her. It was the first time in literature where I felt like I was reading my own story.

She felt different because of her red hair and freckles and I felt very different to everyone else too.

It was my first experience that reading a good book is like holding up a mirror to your own experiences. When books really touch you, it’s because you feel somebody understands.

4. Being adopted

The National:

THAT changed my life literally. You could say it in a glib way but I mean it in a deadly serious way, because if I had been brought up in an orphanage I don’t know if I would have been a writer. I don’t know what I would have been like. I could have been brought up by my birth mother or birth father or in any number of adopted families, or been adopted by Tories!

Even though I am not a believer in God I believe in Fate to some extent. I believe I was meant to be adopted by John and Helen Kay (pictured above) and brought up by them. My experience of being adopted and the love that I was given, and gave back, has been life-defining.

I think that what defines us most is love. We talk about the different ways of people getting their identity but one of the most crucial ways is feeling loved.

The National:

My mum is now 88 and told me recently that she is closer to me than if she had given birth to me herself. When you are adopted and have that kind of closeness, it’s like having double the riches. We are aware all the time that we were thrown together by chance.

It was a chance remark that changed my life: as she was leaving the adoption agency, my mum happened to say: “By the way, we don’t mind what colour the child is.”


WHEN I was 17, my partner at the time told me of this conference happening in London. It was a conference held by the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent and it was the first time in my life I made black friends.

I did not have any growing up in Glasgow and the conference gave me life-long black friends who really changed my life, my consciousness and my attitude to my colour and race.

I suddenly realised that all the experiences I had had were not unique to me. Lots of people had experienced racism growing up in different parts of the country, particularly those brought up in rural England and rural Scotland where they felt very isolated.

It was an extraordinary thing from feeling quite alone to feeling part of a whole group of people. It helped me to find my voice and helped me to find out what I wanted to write about.

6. Audre Lorde

I MET her when I was 23 and was friends with her until she died. She told me I could be both black and Scottish and that was an amazing thing. Reading her poetry was a life-changing experience for me because she opened up my world.

She had had breast cancer and had one breast removed but did not get a prosthetic so she had one quite large breast and one flat. She wore one long earring and one short so that she highlighted being lopsided. She made being different a strength and taught me being different could be a positive thing.

I met Lorde because I worked for a publishing company called Sheba. We published her books and I wrote to her and invited her to stay at my place as we did not have the money for a hotel. She stayed with me for a week.

She is experiencing a kind of renaissance now which is really exciting as for years she was not known by many people.

7. Matthew

The National:

HAVING a child wonderfully and completely changed my life. One of the things that nobody necessarily thinks about is that when someone who has been adopted gives birth they are often experiencing a blood relation for the first time.

From the minute he was born – he is 31 now – he seemed very wise and made me rethink everything. I used to think much of your personality was developed through nurture, but when I had Matthew I realised how much was to do with nature. So much of him felt like it was already just there.

He is a filmmaker now and he has really influenced and changed my life because he has such a particular way of seeing the world. He is very visual while my way is more to do with hearing voices.

He has taught me a lot, but any mother or father will tell you their children possibly teach them more than they teach them.

It is an amazing feeling – maternal pride – and I never realised, until I was a mother, just how much your heart expands to make space for all that extra love.

8. Bessie Smith

The National:

MY dad gave me her as my first double album when I was 12. On the front cover she looked sad but on the back cover she was smiling.

I loved the blues and loved the way anything could be a subject. Whatever drama happened in your life could be turned into the blues.

I could not find a way on the page to write about being black and Scottish so I took the rhythm, the 12-bar beat, and tried to write a fusion style of blues and Scots together.

I loved following the way that blues from the 1920s onwards kept shifting and changing shape and identity.

Listening to blues and jazz made me think that identity is a very fluid thing. We always want to set it and say you are a man, you are a woman, you are working class, you are upper class, you are black, you are white, but listening to blues and jazz makes you think everything is more fluid than that. That music is way ahead of the time too.

Blues and jazz artists became almost like an extended family to me, and music opened up another world. Although I don’t play an instrument and I don’t sing, I love listening to people singing, and I love the way music changes people. 

9. Red Dust Road

I WENT to Nigeria and found my father’s ancestral village and the red dust road which had been there in my imagination ever since I was young. It was quite extraordinary to meet it in real life and feel as if my footsteps were already on the road ahead of me so all I had to do was walk into them.

The red dust road and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland feel very much a part of me and it makes me wonder if we have a certain recognition of different landscapes in our blood. I’m really fascinated by that. Landscapes give you a sense of belonging and even when people reject you the landscape still welcomes you. I found that a life-changing experience.

It made me feel different, much more Nigerian, but it also made me feel very mixed. The people called me the pigeon name for white person, Oyinbo. I had grown up in Glasgow where I was often called Sambo or darkie and now suddenly I was in Nigeria and people were saying Oyinbo! Mixed race is not a term I happily embrace but it was the first time in my life that I really felt mixed race.

10. Realising I was a lesbian

The National:

WHEN was 16 I asked my mum how she would feel if I were to tell her that I was a lesbian, and she said she would be very upset because I would be becoming something she did not know and understand and I would not be Jackie anymore.

I remember feeling very scared at that and it was scary in the mid 70s to realise you were gay.

However, coming out changed my life, because it meant I did not have to live a lie, and it meant I could boldly embrace my sexuality and meet other out lesbians.

The different people I have loved have changed my life because love gives you a sense of yourself.

Being with my partner Denise has been life-changing for me. I have been with her for 15 years and it is good to have the security of being in a long-term relationship where we both have different talents and give each other the space to nurture them.

I also think the biggest single change that has happened in Scotland in the course of my lifetime is the change in attitude towards gay people. That has been massive.

Fifteen years ago, I would not have thought it was possible for me to become Makar, but I am and that has changed my life too.