After the last few weeks talking about modern poetry in Gaelic, Alan Riach takes us on a scenic route to the Scots language, and the work of William Soutar

I WAS born in Scotland, in Lanarkshire, and my father was born in the far north, in Dingwall. He grew up in the Western Isles and trained as a cadet in the merchant navy and, like William Soutar, he went to sea as a young man.

When he became a Trinity House pilot and worked on the River Thames, we moved to England and I went to school in Kent. And that was where I was first introduced to Soutar’s work, when I was in my final year at school, preparing to go to Cambridge University to study English literature. My headmaster pointed me in the direction of Hugh MacDiarmid. “You should know about this poet,” he told me. “You’re Scottish, you’re from Scotland, and this is a poet living now who has been writing in the Scots language and is a great modern poet. You should know about him.” He was an enlightened headmaster!

And so, in the unlikely location of Gravesend, in Kent, surrounded by such very different voices, I started reading MacDiarmid. And later I met him, hitchhiking overnight from Cambridge to Edinburgh and visiting Biggar. When I found his poem “Tam o’ the Wilds and the Many-Faced Mystery”, dedicated to William Soutar, I went looking for Soutar’s poems. They came into my reading, and they’ve stayed with me ever since.

Soutar (1898-1943) is an extraordinary poet in his own right. I discussed his work in The National (“Versed in Scots and English” September 15, 2017) and we’ll come back to him but let’s approach him here in a roundabout way, taking the scenic route, via MacDiarmid’s poem. It’s a rarity: for most of its considerable length Tam is its centre:

“Tam was a common workin’ man,/Or, raither, an uncommon ane;/

An eident worker a’ his days,/

In his scanty leisure a roamin’ ane.”

With a loving, supportive family, Tam works with dedication and punctuality but for every minute of his time not spent with work or family, he’s completely committed to learning at first hand everything he can about the natural world.

What man in his sober senses

’ud set

Cases o’ preserved spiders and pickled snails

Roond his cottage wa’s insteed o’ a picter

O’ His Royal Highness the Prince o’ Wales?

It shoulna be allowed. That’s a’ that’s aboot it.

Let him think instead o’ the Wrath To Come.

He’d better spend his time on his bendit knees…

Every wave o’ the sea, every inch o’ the land

Was fu’ o’ a thousand ferlies to him

That no’ a’e man in a million ever sees….

“Waste your lives, fools, in needless sleep.

Nature at least is never at rest!”

MacDiarmid’s poem follows Tam’s ever-expanding knowledge, learning about “The Sandsucker and the Blue-striped Wrasse,/ Six kinds o’ Gobies, the Saury Pike, / Yarrell’s Bleny, and the Silvery Gade …” But then, after 10 pages or so, astonishingly, MacDiarmid refocuses everything in the last stanzas of the poem, turning away from Tam to Soutar himself.

For more than a decade, from 1930 until his death in 1943, Soutar was confined to bed with spondylitis, writing many of his astonishing poems in this isolation, cared for by his parents and friends. MacDiarmid acknowledges Soutar’s life, so different from Tam’s exhilarating discoveries:

I had written this and I suddenly thocht

O’ ane withdrawn frae the common life o’ men

Shut awa’ frae the warld in a sick-room for aye,

Yet livin’ in what a wonderfu’ world even then

– The pure world o’ the spirit; less kent

To nearly a’body than Tam’s interests even

And I saw in his sangs the variety o’ creation

Promise in a new airt mair than a’ he was leavin’.

A Scotsman o’ a faur rarer type

Than Tam o’ the Wilds, and still mair needit,

Tho’ still less likely than Tam’s kind even

By the feck o’ oor folk to be prized or heedit…

And that’s the point: the wonderful, praiseworthy Tam is a counterpoint to the even more miraculous Soutar. Reading that poem, I’ve never been able to doubt the quality of MacDiarmid’s friendship, respect and love for Soutar.

TO both poets, as with Tam, the real, wondrous world is only discovered through finding out for yourself. After their experience of the First World War, their witnessing of fascism rising in Spain and the Second World War, both knew that something better had to be created than the world that produced such horrors as Guernica.

Soutar’s legacy, like MacDiarmid’s, stays with us but it’s been badly eclipsed in our educational system, media and channels of cultural control. The Scots language has to be fought for, at least as much as Gaelic. Neither is exercised publicly with the liveliness they demand. Our cultural gatekeepers are strict. Fun is of the essence. As William Carlos Williams says, “If it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem!”

All Soutar’s bairnrhymes and whigmaleeries are joyful. But how many “educationists” still cower before the Scots language? Why are some folk always girning about Scots along the lines of, it’s not a language, it’s just a dialect, or slang, or bad English? Why not just have some fun with it?

Bawsy Broon’s oot there in the nicht, waitin for the gormless chiel tae wander owre the muir, and there’s lauchter in the munelicht and tremblin in the grun, and gin ye walk on yon shoogly muir, ye’ll hear the eldritch croon – och, ye shuldna gang oot in the nicht, dinna gang oot in the nicht, for Bawsy Broon is oot there waitin, lauchin and lowpin aroon, and lowpin aroon, and gin he gets near ye, weel, ma wee frien, there’ll be somebody grippin ye, nippin ye, trippin ye, somebody haudin ye, ticklin ye, kickin ye, somethin that’s no tae yer likin’ll lippen ye – and that’ll be Bawsy Broon –

Now, that isn’t William Soutar’s poem “Bawsy Broon” (which you can find online) but I was reading it and found myself so prompted by its effervescence and the sheer fun of its linguistic dexterity and sinister comicality, that paragraph just spontaneously combusted itself onto the screen!

So let the lesson be to show respect through our irreverence. There is no sacred text but life itself.

I love the Scots language for all its velar fricatives! I love it for its body-ality, the way it keeps you aware of your muscles and throat and saliva.

From his long confinement, the poems of Soutar show greater linguistic brio, sheer smeddum and poetic virr than some folk ever have the courage even to read, let alone write! We learn from this because we must. Mind and body are not separate. Feel with your mind and think with your deepest feelings. For when heart and brain are not connected, well, dear readers, you’re dead. And Soutar was among the most contagiously lively of Scots poets ever.

Visit the Friends of William Soutar website at