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