AS Scottish literary centres go, the seaside town of Stonehaven might not be the first that springs to mind, but the summer sunshine brought out poets of page and stage and audiences alike to celebrate, recalibrate and come together for The Poets’ Republic’s Wee Gatherin last week.

The festival had been slated to take place last year, but, at various junctures, restrictions on venues and social-distancing meant primary programmer Neil Young had to think on his feet in response to the contemporary moment, in order to bring this much-needed meeting of poetic minds into being. Indeed, it almost didn’t happen.

In this way, the confluence of literary talent beside the North East’s crystalline waters could not have been sweeter, with all performing breathing a sigh of relief, as the tide ebbed and flowed, that perhaps the scene of readings, recitations and signings which forms our creative calendars might just be returning. I was one of such poets who relished the opportunity to read new works before a live – and often lively – audience.

The festival, much like its parent Poetry Magazine, was run as a not-for-profit co-operative. Local venues rose to the occasion, welcoming audiences that might not normally breach the threshold. Amongst them was the local bowling club, which served as Wee Gatherin HQ, with satellite venues being the local craft-shop-cum-community-centre The Trading Post and al fresco performances taking place at The Tollbooth courtyard, under canvas and blistering sunshine.

The festival was marked by a welcome sense of equal opportunities as well as a shared love of the form in its myriad guises, with a strong contingent of women writers, including Stirling Makar Laura T Fyfe and Linda Jackson and Lesley Benzie of Seahorse Publications. Young was keen to affirm Scottish literature’s three-tongued fundament, with poets working in English, Scots and Gaelic receiving equal billing.

In this regard, the festival achieved what others consistently fail to do – most notably the emblematic Edinburgh International Book Festival – demonstrating that all of Scotland’s literary languages are worthy of equal respect, consideration and space to breathe.

For emergent Gael Ceitidh Campbell and local Doric language exponents, such as Jo Gilbert, this was an affirming experience – a breaking down of the linguistic barriers imposed by our Anglocentric literary establishment. Of the minoritised voices, Paul Magrati was a clear stand-out with his exquisite bilingual reimagining of the life of Mary Queen of Scots – no mean feat considering the regularity with which the decapitated dame continues to show face within the contemporary canon.

THE link between song and poetry was affirmed, unbreakable and indelible, in contemporary Gaelic songwriting from Campbell and the close harmony of Shian Folk, led by Edinburgh-based chanteuse Joss Cameron. I was glad to dust off the cobwebs too with brand new compositions, sung and recited, from my latest trilingual collection Duileach. But, amongst all I heard, it was Glasgow-based Morag Anderson whose work caused that sharp intake of breath I hope for. Interrogating the urban and her South Uist-Barra heritage, Anderson is definitely one to watch, poised to be among Scotland’s pre-eminent contemporary wordsmiths with the release of her forthcoming début Sin Is Due To Open In A Room Above Kitty’s from Fly On The Wall Press.

Young succeeded in creating a mutually supportive space where new voices intermingled with established figures and publishers could engage directly with readerships.

These included Young and Hugh McMillan’s own Drunk Muse Press, which launched two landmark collections on the closing night – George Gunn’s intimate musings collected in Chronicles of the First Light and Harry Smart’s heart-felt accounts of bereavement, grief and the human condition in A Plain Glass.

The National:

George Gunn

England-based Red Squirrell Press, embodied by the inimitable Sheila Wakefield, and Ian Spring’s Rymour Books were also in attendance with colourful performances both on stage and off from spoken word renegades Jim Ferguson and Derek J Brown. Contrary to Brown’s offstage assertions, the best of Rymour’s recent publications were showcased by the iconic Sheena Blackhall and The Heretics’ own Spike Munro.

Despite minor ructions, the pith and humour embodied by Munro, Middlesbrough-based Bob Beagrie, Perthshire’s Jim Mackintosh and Galloway-based Hugh McMillan warmed audiences to works which might later give them pause, but also challenged perceptions of what poetry is and indeed could be in contemporary Scotland.

The National:

For me, the proof was in reviews received in situ at the bowling club with two audience members, ruminating over a cigarette: “I didn’t know what to expect with poetry, but some of this had me rolling.”

Indeed, emotions at times ran high at what has been the first gathering of poets in Scotland since lockdown. It was always going to be a weekend of pathos, perhaps even a watershed, but the key aim was that the stanzas might shimmer in the seaspray and sunlight – and that they did.

Marcas Mac an Tuairneir is an award-winning writer, working in Scottish Gaelic, English and Polari