A haunt­ing per­sonal mix­tape that gives voice to the ghosts of Scot­tish po­etry

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - Books - RE­VIEW BY ALAS­TAIR MABBOTT

A GATH­ER­ING

Edited by Alexan­der McCall Smith (Poly­gon, £14.99)

Hav­ing at­tained the sta­tus of a pro­lific and beloved au­thor, Alexan­der McCall Smith can be rea­son­ably con­fi­dent that there are at least a few peo­ple out there who would be gen­uinely in­ter­ested in learn­ing about the po­etry that is clos­est to his heart. A Gath­er­ing is his mix­tape to the world, an an­thol­ogy of Scot­tish po­etry that makes no claims to be­ing any­thing other than a col­lec­tion of per­sonal favourites.

Since the 14-year-old McCall Smith wept in the class­room at his first en­counter with A Man’s a Man For A’ That, the au­thor has been a devo­tee of Scot­tish po­ets, par­tic­u­larly those of the 20th cen­tury, whom he be­gan col­lect­ing as a stu­dent. A Gath­er­ing is cor­re­spond­ingly weighted to­wards the likes of Nor­man MacCaig, Ed­wins Muir and Mor­gan, Hugh MacDiarmid, Iain Crich­ton Smith, Hamish Hen­der­son and Sor­ley MacLean. Most of the usual sus­pects, then, but not nec­es­sar­ily the choices one might ex­pect.

The highly per­sonal na­ture of A Gath­er­ing al­lows the ed­i­tor to shine a light on some lesser-known works. His self-im­posed rules for in­clu­sion were that the po­ets had to be born be­fore the Sec­ond World War and to be no longer alive, which may or may not be set­ting the scene for a fu­ture an­thol­ogy of Alexan­der McCall Smith’s favourite liv­ing Scot­tish po­ets, but al­lowed him to dart as far back in time (mak­ing stops for Hogg, Steven­son and Wal­ter Scott) as those 16th-cen­tury cor­ner­stones of Scot­tish lit­er­a­ture Wil­liam Dun­bar and Ge­orge Buchanan, as well as Mary, Queen of Scots, not gen­er­ally known as a poet but cer­tainly ca­pa­ble of turn­ing her hand to a ser­vice­able son­net when the need arose.

Pos­si­bly the most valu­able as­pect of this book is the space given to the more ob­scure Scot­tish po­ets of the 20th cen­tury. Kate YA Bone’s con­tri­bu­tion, which be­gins “Some ghaists haunt hooses, this ane haunts ma hert”,

def­i­nitely de­serves to be more widely known. McCall Smith also in­cludes sev­eral po­ems by the im­pres­sive Ruthven Todd, who railed in 1940 against Ed­in­burgh’s ghosts, “the mas­ters of my fail­ure”, who nev­er­the­less “helped make me what I am”.

Ev­ery reader will find some­thing dif­fer­ent to latch on to, but Sir Alexan­der Gray’s ir­re­press­ible rhyth­mic mo­men­tum is a sure high­light. Vi­o­let Ja­cob’s verses too, beg to be de­claimed joy­fully aloud. Robert Gar­i­och and Nan Shep­herd are hardly ob­scure (the lat­ter fea­tur­ing on the Royal Bank of Scot­land £5 note), but Gar­i­och’s bit­ing wit and Shep­herd’s un­par­al­leled abil­ity to evoke the pri­mor­dial rock­i­ness and damp­ness of the Cairn­gorms should never be al­lowed to drop out of print.

Fans of John Cooper Clarke, mean­while, will be star­tled to see how closely Hamish Blair’s Bloody Orkney, be­lieved to have been writ­ten when Blair was sta­tioned at Scapa Flow dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, re­sem­bles Clarke’s early clas­sic Ev­i­dently Chick­en­town.

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