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19 August 2021

Why we should all celebrate Kathleen Jamie’s appointment as Scotland’s new Makar

Here is a national poet unlikely to be biddable or predictable, who has earned a natural authority of her own.

By Andrew Marr

It’s rare these days for a politician to announce an appointment that provokes no hostility. But then it is hard to imagine anyone – anyone who reads, at least – being anything other than bucked up at the announcement by Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, that Scotland’s fourth national poet or Makar, will be Kathleen Jamie.

Jamie’s three-year appointment means that she follows some huge figures in contemporary Scottish literature – the first and highly political Makar, Edwin Morgan, who hailed the revived Scottish Parliament; the feminist, urban poet Liz Lochhead, a superb performer of her own work; and Jackie Kay, who tested and analysed Scotland’s relationship to the rest of the world, and particularly to migrants.

Jamie is known best as a nature poet, and for her recent collections of essays about the natural world, climate change, archaeology, and deep culture. Characteristically, she seems to look first to the north. Her most recent prose collection, “Surfacing”, focuses on the effects of climate change in the far west of Alaska, where ancient villages are being uncovered by erosion; and in Orkney, once a hub and thoroughfare for pioneering humans.

As Makar it would be fair to assume that she will be concentrating on writing about the environment. A better appointment ahead of Cop26 in Glasgow is frankly hard to imagine.

Living in a small village in Fife, on the southern bank of the Tay, Jamie writes poetry that has flexibly encompassed much of modern Scottish experience, as well as ranging into Tibet and Pakistan. 

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Her nature poetry can sound at times like the work of Norman MacCaig, exhibiting a kind of poised, alert, wry, Caledonian Buddhism; but she does satire and cheery Rabelaisian celebration as well. She is a quiet writer, but not a woman who avoids necessary conflict: she had a pretty ferocious go at the contemporary school of macho, heather-bestriding nature writers who came up from England and rhapsodised about the “wild” areas of Scotland.

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Jamie writes both in English and Scots, but characteristically in Scots-tinged English, adding Doric words to her poems like one would a tincture – a staining, a spiral of whisky in the water. 

She has written a lot about coastal and rural life – seasons, floods, glacial landscapes, and the quiet joys of home. But she has also, similar to Lochhead, written about city slums and  growing up in the 1960s – their urban poetry seems to be in a kind of constant conversation with the great East End Glasgow paintings of Joan Eardley, who is herself being celebrated this year. 

Jamie is a feminist, and as I read her, a socialist. What she is not, or at least has not been so far, is an overtly party-political poet – of the sort which modern Scotland has had so many. She won a public competition to have a poem inscribed on the renovated site of the Battle of Bannockburn, on the 700th anniversary of that great victory over the invading English. No tubs, however, were thumped. She began with a declaration of ownership – “Here lies our land…” – but went on to describe that land as a place of unceasing movement, clouds and glimpses of sunlight, in which the humans were “mere transients”. Her final couplet was a clever debunking of narrow nationalism: “‘Come all ye,’ the country says/ You win me, who take me most to heart.”

So Sturgeon can be congratulated in appointing a poet unlikely to be biddable or predictable, who has earned a natural authority of her own. There must be a good chance that Jamie will be Scotland’s national poet in the run up to and during another independence referendum. How she decides to handle that will be fascinating; and will tell us a lot not just about her, but, perhaps, about modern Scotland too.

[See also: Andrew Marr’s Diary: A Glasgow homecoming, Scotland’s self-knowledge and what does England want to be?]