2007 - 2021

A Land of Poets

When more than 90% of the population of a country have absolutely no influence on the social, economic or political policy of that country and do not benefit from any of it, then, in reality, they live in another country. In Scotland, as the Cameron cooked-up Brexit authoritarian shambo-fest enters its grinding, yet gutless, endgame, we can see that we do, in fact, live in another country. In the country where we have no influence the Scots hear orders coming down from above, from Government and from Strong Men in Business, but none going back up the way. In the other country we can at least imagine (or dream) of a future where we can have a face to face participatory democracy. The country where the orders come down from above is in fact not a country at all but a state called, somewhat ironically, the United Kingdom. The country where people are encouraged to speak to each other we can still, optimistically, call Scotland.

Those who hold power in the UK do not like political instruction coming from below. Participatory democracy, their modern media Cicero’s tell us, does not work in the large, concentrated and complex population centres; that commercial production, financialisaton and the global economy is too complicated a matrix to be held to local account and can only be facilitated by a centralised system based in locations like the City of London. However, in the other country we optimistically call Scotland, where people can discuss the issues of the day with each other, we can see that, for example, far from the UK leaving the EU, in reality it is Europe that is leaving the City of London.

Daily the media shows us a British Parliament that does not even know how to talk to itself and at its head a Prime Minister – Theresa May will be followed by yet another similar reactionary – who leads a government that is hostile to most forms of democracy, except that limited kind which keeps its own party together. Which from a political/scientific point of view is highly understandable. What is the Tory party but a compound, an amalgamation of various conservative, nationalist and radical right-wing political ingredients? All welded (loosely) by the need for common and imagined enemies (the Scots being one of them, Europe another), with ill-defined passions for a regenerated and purified “nation”, purified of the EU, Muslims, whingeing Jocks, because it is important to the Tory myth that they see themselves at odds with “the establishment”, even though they are that establishment. They pursue their zeal as the true upholders of the rule law and order whilst at the same time undermining it. They proclaim themselves the natural champions of free enterprise and all its private, trickle-down benefits as loudly and as actively as they trample the free institutions and rights of others into the dust of their desire. On the other hand, the Tory party in action looks more like a network of relationships than any fixed essence, being as they are, and as we can see, the result of a set of dubious choices, alliances, compromises and above all – rivalries. Brexit is a result of this internal, highly masculine rivalry. Their primary interest is themselves. “Omnia mihi”, as the historical Cicero might have said – “All for myself”. Which translates, politically, as “Nothing for anyone else.” Certainly nothing for Scotland. Nothing for us in the orders coming down from above. No audience for the voices of dissent at the grassroots, informing on the reality from below.

The reality of Brexit Scotland is that we are being diminished political and economically by Westminster and redacted socially, culturally and artistically by the media. Hugh MacDiarmid’s squib of a poem, The Little White Rose of Scotland, painted one squint of perception,

“The rose of all the world is not for me.

I want for my part

Only the little white rose of Scotland

That smells sharp and sweet—and breaks the heart.”

For most Scots “The rose of all the world” is what we are being denied, but we are damned if our hearts are going to be broken… again. So, whatever Scotland is or is not, one thing she is, is a land of poets.

It is important, at this stage in our history we remember that, at least. Especially as in December 2018 we lost the poet Tom Leonard and in March 2019, Donald Campbell. They were two of our best dissenting, hugely original poetic voices. The former a quintessential and existential Glaswegian with strong Irish roots; the latter very much an Edinburgh poet even though he was born in Caithness. Their poetry, like all true poetry, was constructed from two basic things: the thing the poem is about and the language it is written in. Language is a lens: it illuminates and clarifies, but it also can alter and distort. Language, for Tom Leonard, was politics. In poem after poem he tackled the class and power issues of language head on. “Six O’clock News” is probably his best known, but this poem shows that Leonard had a purpose, something to explain.

right inuff

ma language is disgraceful

ma maw tellt mi

ma teacher tellt mi

thi doactir tellt mi

thi priest tellt mi


ma boss tellt mi

ma landlady in carrington street tellt mi

thi lassie ah tried tay get aff way in 1969 tellt mi

sum wee smout thit thoat ah hudny read chomsky tellt mi

a calvinist communist thit thoat ah wuz revisionist tellt mi


literati grimly kerryin thi burden a thi past tellt mi

literati grimly kerryin thi burden a thi future tellt mi

ma wife tellt mi jist-tay-get-inty-this-poem tellt mi

ma wainz came hame fray school an tellt mi

jist aboot ivry book ah oapnd tellt mi

even thi introduction tay thi Scottish National Dictionary tellt mi


ach well

all livin language is sacred

fuck thi lohta thim.


(Tom Leonard, 1984)

Tom Leonard’s poems were never merely an advanced form of rhetoric, although they were beautifully rhetorical; nor were they purely entertaining, although they were deliciously entertaining as direct address. Leonard’s poems always displayed a great confidence in themselves and in their materials and were never just a speech by the poet or even a performance, even though he was a great performer of his poetry when his health allowed.

In an interview with the BBC he said, “I don’t ever claim to represent the excluded, I’m not the Robin Hood of working-class language. If someone’s got high-status language, the truth pours through them like a tap. Whereas if they’ve got low-status language, the pipe doesn’t run their, sorry.” This was proven in 1984 when his seminal collection Intimate Voices shared the Saltire Society’s Scottish Book of the Year Award with David Daiches’ God and the Poets: The Gifford Lectures: it was duly banned from Central Region’s school libraries. The pipe didn’t run there, obviously.

It is a part of the function of poetry to serve as a test of truth, because it is the job of the poet to find out what the world is trying to be and to report back to the tribe. In this regard Tom Leonard was both a modernist and a tradition bearer because his poems concerned themselves with accuracy, precision and truth. They also concerned themselves with tenderness, love and the multi-verse of essential humanity. Contrastingly, he had his own special relationship with reality. His views on Scottish independence, for example, were complex – often warm, when it came to the aspirations of the Scottish people, and often hostile, even scathing, when it came to the SNP. However, an entry in the journal on his website for January 1st, in the referendum year of 2014, is revealing. It read simply, “Self-determination in art. Independence of mind. Nationality an irrelevance.”

One of the great tragedies of Scottish theatrical life was that Tom Leonard never saw his version of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage produced on a Scottish stage. This mixture of indifference and hostility, when it came to the theatre, from those who run and manage it towards radical voices, was shared, and endured, by his fellow poet, Donald Campbell.

My relationship with Tom Leonard was occasional – we met up from time to time, laughed and argued, agreed and laughed. My relationship with Donald Campbell was more intimate – I knew him for forty years. It was seeing his play The Widows of Clyth at the Traverse in 1979 that showed me that I could write about my own people in their own language, and that as a poet the theatre was my natural medium, and that the language of the theatre was, in fact, poetry. To no other single writer do I owe so much.

The language of Donald Campbell’s poetry was that of the Edinburgh streets, the football terraces and the pubs. It was not the literary language of the post-MacDiarmid generation but a living, breathing lingua Lothian of an observed reality, of a compassionate socialist whose deep affinity for those he lived amongst was apparent in everything he wrote. All his poems were captured epitomes and epiphanies, where humanity was allowed to speak for itself. He once told John Herdman, then editor of the magazine Catalyst, “For me sound is everything.” Which is why Campbell’s language worked so well in the mouths of Scottish actors. His portrayal of ordinary squaddies in his play The Jesuit (1976), the way they spoke in relation to the “high heid yins”, was a revelation and a joy for audiences who saw it. As his long-time collaborator and director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre Donald Smith put it, “He hated snobbery and pretension and wanted a classless theatre.”

This “spark of joy”, as the poet Rayne MacKinnon termed it, was a recurring energeia (potential and actuality) throughout Donald Campbell’s creative life. I think this can be traced back to his earliest visits to the theatre in Edinburgh. For example, he recalls in an article he wrote for the magazine Chapman, of how, in 1956, aged 16, he went with his parents to the Lyceum to watch Duncan Macrae play the title role in Robert McLellan’s play, Jamie The Saxt. Campbell described Macrae’s performance being “of such theatrical power that it remains in my imagination 30 years later”. Of the play itself, Campbell recalled how “from beginning to end, frissons of excitement sped through the auditorium perpetually, creating a marvellous feeling of release which everyone seemed to share. Entertaining as it was, Jamie the Saxt gave us something more than mere entertainment – it gave us liberation.”

One of the liberations Donald Campbell desired to be free of, ironically, was from what he called “loquaciousness”, as was best summed up as the one quality to unlearn in his early poem “Prayer to the Poets”, where he lists all the “qualities” he could learn form the long list of Scottish makars and their “particularities”. As the years passed and Donald’s health failed and his involvement with the Scottish theatre scene diminished, he returned to writing poetry and in a circumnavigational sort of way his imagination returned to the landscapes of the far North of Scotland, the land of his birth, the setting of The Widows of Clyth, and to the poetry of 18th century Strathnaver bard Rob Donn Mackay in particular. In this poem, in plain English, Campbell, the 21st century poet, is addressing his illustrious antecedent and poetic forebear, Rob Donn: in many ways he is summing up his entire creative life. I find it extremely moving, deeply resonant, full of gratitude and humility. In many ways it is an answer to the “Prayer to the Poets”,

Homage to Rob Don

From the Gaelic of Iain MacEachainn


One plant in every garden

aye wants the soil it needs

Filius ante patrem

The flowers outgrow their seeds.

Should favour for my talents

in eternity be found,

my best verse, in the balance,

will be owing to Rob Donn.


I once was used to making rhyme

that won my friends’ goodwill.

In taverns, where they’d pass the time,

they’ll no forget my skill.

But that old trade, I’ll now deny.

My taste for it is dead.

I’ll give it up, but surely try

to honour you, like this, instead.


On days when light is dwining

the earth’s beset with gloom,

but let thon sun start shining

and joy returns to every room.

My own verse may be rejected,

tunelessly lacking renown,

but whenever our art is respected

they’ll pay homage to you, Rob Donn.


Donald Campbell

from Homage to Rob Donn (Fras Publications, 2007)


It may be a difficult thing to accept right now as the Brexit drums batter, as Prime Ministers rise and fall, but Brexit, for Scotland, in the long run, does not matter. It is part of our historical disentanglement from our larger, more insular, prosaic neighbour. There will be more desperate battles to come, just as there most certainly have been in the past. In Rob Donn’s Strathnaver in 1814 Patrick Sellar, the factor for the Sutherland estates, was beginning the first of his notorious clearances. A mere 23 years after Rob Donn died the British Army raised, in 1800, some 700 men from North Sutherland in Strathnaver to form the 93rd Regiment, a forerunner to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. In January 1815 these same men, their numbers swollen to over 900, fought in the Battle of New Orleans, as the British took advantage of Napoleon’s incarceration on Elba to re-engage violently with the newly formed USA over control of the northern American continent. By the end of the day on 8th of January 1815 half of them were dead.

Six months later, on 16th June 1815, two days before the Battle of Waterloo, at Quatre Bras, after an engagement with the French Army, 900 more Highlanders lay dead upon the muddy field. By 1820, the straths of Kildonan and Naver, where these soldiers’ families had lived in continuation for 2,000 years, were empty of humanity and full of sheep. The house walls were ruins. The roof timers charred and burned. For those of us who live in the North Highlands there is a cold familiarity when we see a cohort of English public-school incompetents in the House of Commons leading us to oblivion. The officers leading the Highland troops at New Orleans and Quatre Bras proved equally incompetent, equally fatal.

At New Orleans the Americans lost eight men killed and fourteen wounded. They took pity on the retreating Highlanders, whose bravery they admired, and did not seriously harass their defeated opponents. Instead they distributed leaflets amongst them inducing them to desert, offering them lands and the “superiority of democratical government”. As James Hunter remarks in his book about the Sutherland clearances, Set Adrift Upon the World, “It would be a long time before there was anything approximating to ‘democratical government’ in Sutherland.” It could be argued, with the state of the Highland Council, the size of the political constituencies and the archaic nature of land ownership, that ‘democratical government’ is still absent.

Incidents of bloody military catastrophe in the 19th century may seem irrelevant to political disaster in the 21st century but I think they are prescient. The men who lay dead at New Orleans and Quatre Bras came from a bardic culture where poetry was as natural as speaking, and for many of them, was speaking. They were destroyed by the mercantile and military demands of the British Empire. They literally were consumed by greed. They were far from Scotland, for in truth, after 1707, Scotland lay dormant. Once the Tories have devoured themselves – and whether one member, of whatever sex, of the British officer class resigns or not, it makes not a bit of difference – and the post-Brexit economy lies like a smouldering wreck on the roadside of history, we can get on with the business of rebuilding our country, of making Scotland new and prosperous again.

It is writers such as Tom Leonard and Donald Campbell who remind us, no matter what else we think we are or what happens politically, that Scotland is a land of poets.

Comments (22)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    As always, a well constructed and insightful piece taking a long historical perspective up to and including the present.

    Are we ‘a nation of poets’ to the degree that Ireland has been?

  2. Fay Kennedy says:

    As always George Gunn you inspire and inform with your prose and poetry. I had the pleasure of meeting Tom a few times when visiting Glasgow from Australia which is another settler state embedded in the regressive thinking of the mother country; the so called UK. The wealth of Scotland lies in its people and am grateful for this heritage and the poets both dead and alive.

  3. James Mills says:

    Entertaining and educational and uplifting in equal measure !

  4. Tom Hubbard says:

    Brilliant. Many thanks for this George.

  5. Richard Easson says:

    Sic transit gloria Scotii, if I recall, (A Drunk Man Looks at The Thistle)

  6. Robbie says:

    Felt a surge in my heart and my spirit when I read this ,so uplifting to know others feel the same and can put it into words,many thanks.

  7. JACK ELLIOT says:


    poetry is all around us in Scotland

    luckily we get poets from all over

    They come and we benefit from –

    grateful together is our strength




  8. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Thanks George. Here for readers are a few verses from a song-poem by ROB DONN.

    Neither Gaelic orthography nor translations (not mine except for a word or two) should be taken as definitive academically. Just informally “as found” online. The French is happily included as an anti-Brexit flourish :).


    Och! mo thruaighe sin Albainn!
    ’S tur a dhearbh sibh bhur reusan,
    Gur i an roinn bh’ ann ur n-inntinn,
    ’N rud a mhill air gach gleus sibh;
    Leugh an Gòbharmaid sannt
    Anns gach neach a thionndaidh ris féin dhibh,
    ’S thug iad baoight do bhur gionaich,
    Gur cuir fo mhionach a chéile.

    Ghlac na Sasannaich fàth oirbh,
    Gus bhur fàgail nas laige,
    Chum ’s nach bithteadh gur cunntadh,
    Nur luchd-comh-strì na b’ fhaide;
    Ach nuair a bhios sibh a dh’easbhuidh
    Bhur n-airm ’s bhur n-acainnean-sraide,
    Gheibh sibh searsaigeadh mionaich,
    Is bidh bhur peanas nas graide.

    Tha mi faicinn bhur truaighe,
    Mar nì nach cualas a shamhail,
    A’ chuid as fheàrr de bhur seabhagan,
    Bhi air slabhraidh aig clamhain;
    Ach ma tha sibh nur leòmhainn,
    Pillibh ’n dòrainn sna teamhair,
    ’S deanaibh ’n deudach a thrusadh,
    Mun téid bhur busan a cheangal.


    I am saddened by Scotland!
    You’ve shown clearly your motives;
    your mind is divided,
    which has spoilt every venture.
    The Government read greed
    in those who had turned to them,
    and gave avarice bail
    till you tore at each other.

    Englishmen took advantage
    to weaken you further,
    lest you still might be counted
    among those who opposed them.
    But when you’ve surrendered
    your swords and equipment,
    you’ll endure body-searching,
    and peremptory punishment.

    I am watching your trouble
    As something unheard of,
    The best of your falcons
    Are to buzzards enchained;
    But if you really are lions
    Retaliate quickly,
    And bare your teeth ready
    Before your mouths end up muzzled.


    Comment ma pauvre Écosse
    Ne pas perdre la raison?
    Quand celui qu’on protège
    Cause votre perdition!
    En qui soutient sa cause
    Il croit voir un vil épervier
    A qui l’on tend une charogne
    Pour s’en faire un allié.

    L’Anglais saisit sa chance
    De vous mâter pour toujours.
    Votre vertu guerrière
    Ne pèse guère plus lourd:
    Dépourvus de vos armes,
    De vos harnois de jadis
    Vous serez soumis à la fouille
    Et plus vite punis.

    J’observe votre peine
    Avec une vive émotion,
    O milans qu’on enchaine,
    Alors que vous étiez faucons!
    Si vous êtes des fauves
    Il est temps de vous venger
    Que vous retroussiez les babines
    Avant d’être muselés

    One general reference for above –

    1. George Gunn says:

      Thanks for that Fearghas. It has all the swing, verve and attack of Rob Donn

  9. florian albert says:

    ‘ma ma telt me

    aw the teachers telt me

    the priest telt me’

    That was my experience sixty years ago. Except that they did not tell my that my language was disgraceful. They explained that much of it would be hard to understand outside the housing scheme where we lived. More importantly, they pointed out that escaping from the (relative) poverty around us, was most likely to be achieved through education. ( Decades later, Tom Devine and Lindsay Paterson showed that this was correct. ) Further, it was better to have a society where people could easily understand each other’s speech and writing.
    In school, you spoke and wrote in a certain way. In the playground you spoke a bit differently. Nearly all pupils adjusted their language accordingly. Nobody felt that they were betraying their culture.
    I am glad that I listened to my parents and my teachers.

    1. Alf Baird says:

      ” it was better to have a society where people could easily understand each other’s speech and writing.”

      Oh really? Maist Scots fowk A ken aye unnerstaund ane anither nae bather at aw.

      However it would help if Scots bairns in scuil were taught some words of their own mother tongue, a human right which they are still denied, in addition to being taught other languages such as ‘administrative’ English (as it is known in certain ex UK colonies). Scotland’s dilemma is that the more privileged among us disregard and discredit the Scots language in their headlong cultural rush towards achieving Anglo-Scottishness whilst our many incoming elites from south of the border don’t know Scots at all and are not remotely interested in learning it, and neither do they need to. The linguistic deficit in Scotland is therefore a consequence of Scotland’s elites who run our social institutions (including education) and who are predominantly Anglo-Scottish or English. Hence for Scots working class laddies and lassies, learning the ‘English’ spoken by our elites is their only route to professional status, with the un-taught Scots language left to wither, like much of rest of Scotland’s population. In other independent countries such as Norway, Iceland, Denmark etc, those who do not speak the indigenous language would not be qualified to apply for never mind be appointed to an elite post. If you cannot communicate with the people you seek to lead and manage you are inevitably rendered fairly useless. It is not therefore Scots speakers in Scotland who are lacking, maist Scots fowk dae unnerstaund Englis; it is those who neither speak nor unnerstaund Scots who are unqualified, linguistically.

      1. florian albert says:

        I grew up in Glasgow and lived in working class areas in and around the city for 50 years. I never met anybody who believed that they spoke the Scots language.

        1. Alf Baird says:

          Did you never consider that this may be because the language of the powers that be in Scotland suggests (tae ordinar wirkin fowk) that Scots is merely ‘bad English’? And whilst the language of the powers that be is, by law, taught in schools, our language of the playgrund, the back coort an the hoose is prevented from being properly learned by its users (i.e. lairned tae read an screed). It is looked down upon by the powers that be and has no regulatory status, no equality, and no respect. Does it really surprise you that people wha aye spik Scots dinnae e’en ken thay hae thair ain langage? Or that in some circumstance they do not wish to speak (in thair ain mither tung) for fear of being regarded as inferior? Scots language oppression helps explains how Scots are culturally held captive (in oor ain laund) by what is essentially another culture, the basis of which is another language.

          1. florian albert says:

            ‘Scots are culturally held captive’

            Fair enough, that is what you believe. Your problem is that very few Scots agree with you. Very few see the Scots language as a political/cultural priority.

        2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

          I agree with Alf on this one. Like you, I was born and brought up in Glasgow and have lived and worked in the area all my life. My experience of school as a pupil and as a teacher was that speaking in our ‘natural language’ was something that was scorned and subject to rebuke. It was portrayed as being ‘vulgar’ and a sign of a lack of education. While I never saw any child corporals punished for it, this was the experience of my mother who was a native Gaelic speaker.

          The fact that the language we used in school and which we studied to Higher Grade and beyond was called ‘English’, and the ethos was that this was the correct language. In primary school one of our grammar books was called ‘The King’s English’ (yes, I was born when George VI was monarch).

          The only ‘Scots’ I encountered in school was on the occasions when we did some Burns poetry (not every year), or in the speech of a character in an RLS or Scott novel.

          However, gradually there was a growing awareness that there was a Scots language. BBC Scotland, via people like Billy Kay played a fairly significant role. Scottish literature and Scottish history became more common in school and university curricula. There was drama in Scots language. With the referenda in ‘79 and ‘97 more of us became aware of and unashamed of aspects of Scottishness.

          Although I mostly write, as I do here, in standard English, increasingly since we retired, my wife and I converse increasingly in Scots, partly because, we no longer have to speak ‘pan loaf’ as was the norm at work. It is not objective, but my impression is that more people whom I encounter in my daily life are using uninhibitedly their natural language. I do not mean just Scots born Scots, but people whom I meet in The north east of England use Geordie accents and idioms. Ditto in Yorkshire, Bristol and in multicultural London.

          1. Alf Baird says:

            Thank you Alasdair, I agree with all of what you say. As Scots have been taught by the state from a young age not to value the Scots language then this perhaps helps explain why, in answer to Florian’s point, “Very few see the Scots language as a political/cultural priority”. If we are taught not to value something we are hardly likely to prioritise it. Moreover, it is elites and institutions that ultimately make decisions and implement policy in regard to political/cultural/educational etc. priorities and most of them display little interest or it seems knowledge in the Scots language, and indeed many of our elite are unable to even speak Scots. If you cannot speak a language and/or you do not use it, and you are taught to view it as somehow inferior, you are hardly likely to promote it.

  10. Christine Macrae says:

    I think that Donald Campbell echoed the poem that Hugh MacDiarmid wrote following the death of my father Duncan Macrae which includes the verses :

    He made the matiere d”Ecosse
    A little less impervious to sense
    Than for several centuries, a single handed
    Triumph , against huge odds, for intelligence

    All the ubiquitous false Scottishness
    He alone, it seems , could expose
    With one thrust of an elbow or knee,
    Turn of a bony wrist or poke of his nose.

    1. Thank you so much Christine

  11. Redgauntlet says:


    J’connaitrai jamais le bonheur sur terre

    je suis bien trop con
    Tout me fait souffrir et tout est misère

    pour moi pauvre con
    Tout ce qui commenc’ va trop mal finir

    toujours pour les cons
    Tout plaisir s’efface — après c’est bien pire

    du moins pour les cons
    L’angoisse m’étreint m’étrangle et j’empire

    de plus en plus con
    Je ne sais que faire ou pleurer ou rire

    comme font les cons
    Quelquefois c’est bleu puis c’est noir de suie

    la couleur des cons
    On voudrait chanter mais voilà la pluie

    qui arroz’ les cons
    On veut espérer mais surgit l’ennui

    qui teinte les cons
    On voudrait danser — le sol est de boue

    pataugent les cons
    Nous sommes idiots bouffant la gadoue

    nous sommes des cons
    L’amour se balade en un autogyre

    au-dessus des cons
    Qui lèvent le nez ‘vec un doux sourire

    sourire de cons
    Attendant encor la belle aventure

    illusion de cons
    Car ils sont réduits à leur seul’nature

    nature de cons
    Les roses les fleurs et les clairs de lune

    c’est pas pou* les cons
    Les cons ils y croient mais c’est pour des prunes

    aliment de cons

    1. George Gunn says:

      Redgauntlet, my French is poor and my wife who speaks it is down with the flu. Could you give us a translation?

      1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

        Meanwhile some help at least on to pronounce Queneau’s poem. In fact it might just make translation superfluous… 🙂


  12. Graeme Purves says:

    I remember seeing ‘The Widows of Clyth’ at the Traverse Theatre too, George. Donald Campbell was a playwright I greatly admired.

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