World Poetry Day Staff Picks: Our Favourite Scottish Poems

  18 Mar '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

The act of choosing a favourite can be all about the moment in time, it’s to capture a feeling, mood or resonance rather than to designate a ‘best’ or ‘most meaningful’. For World Poetry Day a group of Birlinn staffers have been asked to choose, and here are our favourite Scottish poems right now. Old and new, in English, Gaelic, Scots and with a smattering of Shaetlan, we hope you find a new ‘favourite’ here.

National Galleries of Scotland: Modern One [Photo by PURE · VIRTUAL on Unsplash]

In September 1937′ by Ruthven Todd, from A Gathering

“Ruthven Todd is a name unknown to most. I owe it to Alexander McCall Smith to have brought it to my attention. It is a powerful and moving evocation of the minutiae of daily life on an island as in the world around clouds of swirling madness gather. It speaks to all time but has a sharp resonance at the moment. It is a poem which anchors us in place and community with great gentleness and immense strength as an anchor against the tides which threaten to uproot all meaning around us. It is about what is truly important” – Hugh Andrew, Managing Director

Coming, in September, through the thin streets,

I thought back to another year I knew,

Autumn, lifting potatoes and stacking peats

On Mull, while the Atlantic’s murky blue

Swung sluggishly in past Jura, and the hills

Were brown lions, crouched to meet the autumn gales …

Read on in A Gathering: A Personal Anthology of Scottish Poems, edited by Alexander McCall Smith

Poets Need Not’ by Liz Lochhead, from Fugitive Colours

‘”Poets Need Not’ from Fugitive Colours by Liz Lochhead deconstructs the process of writing a poem, in which Liz writes with equal tenderness about the flash of inspiration and the painstaking rewriting that finally, with luck, will result in a poem. It contains a lovely analogy of poets being like herons waiting patiently to ensnare a fish, and as you would expect from Liz Lochhead, this poem is a prize catch” – Kathryn Haldane, Publicity, Sales and Marketing Administrator

Poets need not be garlanded;

the poet’s head

should be innocent of the leaves of the sweet bay tree,

twisted. All honour goes to poetry. …

Read on at the Scottish Poetry Library website

Sir Patrick Spens’ by the great Anonymous

“The first lines are just so evocative, and immediately create an image of power and aloofness and the fate to come, as the king sits drinking the ‘blood red wine’. The monarch is unwitting or uncaring of the plot to send the young nobleman and his crewmen to their deaths ‘fifty fathoms deep’.  They do their duty nevertheless, knowing that their voyage is doomed. All the power of a Homerian epic in just 19 stanzas” – Laura Poynton, Sales Director

The King sits in Dunferline toun,

Drinkin the blude-reid wine

‘O whaur will A get a skeely skipper

Tae sail this new ship o mine?’

Read on at the Scottish Poetry Library website

Strawberries’ by Edwin Morgan, from The Edwin Morgan Twenties: Love

“‘Strawberries’ by Edwin Morgan is without a doubt my favourite Scottish poem – it’s a sultry, beautiful, hot summer afternoon poem with one of the finest last lines in literature. Best read in the sunshine accompanied by a big tub of freshly-picked Scottish strawberries” – Lucy Mertekis, Events Coordinator

There were never strawberries

like the ones we had

that sultry afternoon

sitting on the step

of the open french window …

Read on at the Scottish Poetry Library website

Shores’ by Sorley MacLean from Hallaig and Other Poems

“I’m a romantic at heart and the poem combines an expression of love with some beautiful places in Scotland: the shores of Talisker, Calgary and Moidart. For me that’s about as good as it gets” – Joanne Macleod, Finance Director


If we were in Talisker on the shore

where the great white mouth

opens between two hard jaws,

Rubha nan Clach and the Bioda Ruadh

I would stand beside the sea

renewing love in my spirit

while the ocean was filling

Talisker bay forever:

I would stand there on the bareness of the shore

until Prishal bowed his stallion head. …


Nan robh sinn an Talasgar air an tràigh

far a bheil am beul mòr bàn

a’ fosgladh eadar dà ghaill chruaidh

Rubha nan Clach ‘s am Bioda Ruadh,

sheasainn-sa ri taobh na mara

ag ùrachadh gaoil ‘nam anam

fhad ‘s a bhiodh an cuan a’ lìonadh

camas Talasgar gu sìorraidh:

sheasainn an siud air lom na tràghad

gu ‘n cromadh Priseal a cheann àigich.

‘Kishie Wife’ by Roseanne Watt from Moder Dy

“Choosing the Poem of the Week from the Polygon poetry catalogue is a regular joy, so I’m choosing a recent discovery here, ‘Kishie Wife’ by Roseanne Watt. This short poem, like the Wife’s backbreaking basket, contains multitudes. It’s a reconsideration of the myths about the bringer of fire. It’s specifically Shetlandic but its arms reach out to embrace women around the world” – Kristian Kerr, Publicity Manager

The Great Journey’ by Hamish Whyte and ‘In a Time of Distance’ by Alexander McCall Smith

‘Over the last few months two poems have really struck home. The first is ‘In a Time of Distance’, the title poem in the collection of the same name by Alexander McCall Smith. Written in the early period of lockdown, Alexander captured the mood of the nation, so much so that it was read on BBC Radio 4 and published widely in magazines and newspapers – and shared extensively on social media – not only in the UK but throughout the world. Quite different, my second poem is ‘The Great Journey’ by Hamish Whyte from the anthology, Whatever the Sea: Scottish Poems for Growing Older. Just a few lines long it takes me back to my parents and their contrasting attitudes to life: my father was one who would look back and build a life founded firmly on the past; my mother the one who would look forward and live only for tomorrow. They balanced each other out perfectly. Later in life, when both were in the early stages of dementia, my sister and I took them to the train at Waverley as they left on a great journey to Pitlochry. As the train pulled away we looked at each other and written clear on each face were the unspoken words, “Will we ever see them again?”‘ – Jan Rutherford, Publicity and Marketing Director and Deputy MD

The Great Journey
The old couple

board the train

and make for a table

with facing seats.

The woman says

you sit here

and see where we’re going

I’ll sit there

and tell you where we’ve been.

Hamish Whyte, in Whatever the Sea: Scottish Poems for Growing Older

In a Time of Distance

The unexpected always happens in the way

The unexpected has always occurred:

While we are doing something else,

While we were thinking of altogether

Different things …

Read on at Alexander McCall Smith’s website

Read Polygon Poetry Editor Edward Crossan’s reflections here.

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