Scottish poetry: it’s not just Rabbie Burns!


‘Scottish Poetry Library at night’ by chrisdonia

Georgi Gill, Learning Manager at the Scottish Poetry Library, helps Young Poets Network celebrate St Andrew’s Day (30 November) by sharing some of her favourite Scottish poets!

Of course Robert Burns is great but Scottish poetry didn’t stop when he died. From the romantic to the hilarious, from political to sci-fi, there is so much good poetry to be found north of Hadrian’s Wall. Here’s a tasting menu of a few of our finest poets*.

Edwin Morgan  – ok, so I’ll confess to being a diehard Morgan fan. I read, write and talk about Eddie Morgan’s poetry to anybody who will listen. However, in all seriousness, do check out his work. Morgan was Scotland’s first modern Makar (an official role not dissimilar to Poet Laureate). This was mostly because of his ability to write about such a wide range of subjects: if you’re into sci-fi, read ‘The First Men on Mercury’. Like politics? Look at his poem for the opening of Scottish

Liz Lochhead is fast becoming Scotland’s national treasure. After Morgan’s death in 2010, she succeeded him as Scots Makar. Renowned both as a playwright and poet, she is famously as candid as she is funny. ‘My Rival’s House’, like many of Lochhead’s other poems, celebrates the fierce tenacity of women through the generations. Poems such as ‘Trouble is not my middle name’ show her commitment to a better society – Lochhead doesn’t flinch from dealing with the uncomfortable or unappealing aspects of life. Yet ‘Sorting Through’ is just one example of the tender side of Liz Lochhead. Like Morgan, she’s a versatile and prolific poet.

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry often represents a quieter, reflective approach. She often uses the natural world to explore our relationship to each other and to the world we live in. ‘Here lies our land’, which commemorates the Battle of Bannockburn, is a perfect example of this. Jamie is also a travel writer and that keen observational eye can be seen in the imagery of poems like ‘The Whale-watcher’ and ‘The Glass-hulled Boat’. Well worth a read!

Billy Letford is one of the new young guns of Scottish poetry. His voice and subject matter are recognisable to us all – he’s colloquial, conversational and funny. Some of his poems deal with the world of work, particularly builders and labourers yet they subtly take on philosophical questions as well. He’s one of those rare writers whose work is very clever without trying to look clever. Have a read of ‘Wit is it’ and ‘Worker’ to get a flavour of Letford’s writing.

W N Herbert on the other hand is quite comfortable with showing off his academic side which, as a university lecturer, he should be. His poems and their use of word play and complexity can be dazzling. Take a look at ‘Ariadne on Broughty Ferry Beach’ to see an example of how he uses literary tradition and myth. Mind you, he is also very at ease with playing the clown and his humorous poems are great. I defy you to read ‘Can’t spell, won’t  spell’ without cracking a smile. Or take a look at ‘Facts about Things’ and enjoy its unusual perspective on the world.

*All of these poets featured write predominantly in English but as with everyday life here in Scotland, some Scots vocabulary always sneaks in – it’s just so expressive! Most of the words in the linked poems should make sense from the context, however if you need a helping hand with your Scots vocabulary pop over to Dictionary of the Scots Language.

The Scottish Poetry Library is a unique national resource and advocate for the art of poetry, and Scottish poetry in particular. They are passionately committed to bringing the pleasures and benefits of poetry to as wide an audience as possible. 

Georgi Gill was born in North London to Yorkshire parents and raised on the west coast of Scotland. She has taught in Tamil Nadu and Warsaw, and spent many happy years teaching in primary schools in Haringay. On moving to Edinburgh, she spent a couple of years studying Creative Writing with a focus on Poetry at the Open University, whilst working for charities, and is now working in her dream job as Learning Manager at the Scottish Poetry Library!

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Published November, 2014

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