For those brought up to associate Scottishness with silence, exile and cunning, much Scots verse sounds megaphonically noisy. 'You've a good Scots tongue in your heid,' generations of mothers have told their children, preparing them to meet royalty, headmasters, Sloane Rangers or public transport officials. This lore of speaking out is evident in the poetry of thieving, upstart medieval bagpipers (as ventriloquised by Lowland poets) or, even further back, of the saintly immigrant, Columba, bringing the celestial house down with his apocalyptic organ-blasts of aureate Latin. The percussive, masculinist Scottish muse lets rip through the rat-a-tat of Blind Hary's Wallace; and in the brassy Reformation of John Knox it blares even in the sophisticated George Buchanan's over-the-top 'Elegy for Jean Calvin'. The volume remains high in some of Robert Fergusson's sophistic-performative street-talk, Burns's on-off, rip-roaring 'Tam o'Shanter', MacDiarmid's last trump blawing 'tootle-ootle-oo', Edwin Morgan's Loch Ness Monstering 'Splgraw fok fok splgrafhatchgabrlgabrl fok splfok!' and Kathleen Jamie's equally exclamatory concluding line 'THE QUEEN OF SHEBA!' The orality of Scottish poetry is of the battlefield and pulpit. It does contain subtleties, even in the brass section, but it's seldom averse to a yell.
LRB 5 April 2001 | PDF Download