From the All Under One Banner March in Ayr on 29 July to the poets of modern Scotland, Alan Riach argues that if we want to know what’s good for us, we have to fight against what’s being fed to us, all the time.

SATURDAY, July 29: the All Under One Banner independence march through Ayr. We started on the Esplanade, with fluttering flags on the long poles bent in the high winds, and high clouds rolling over the blue skies up above. We walked up to Wellington Square, round past the Mercure Hotel, on into Burns Square, opposite the closed down art deco cinema, past the closed down wrapped-up Station Hotel, then left along High Street, the main road, then left at the bottom and up the Sandgate, back around to Wellington Square again and then back down to the Low Green, with the open sea in front of us. The wind was still buffeting us all, but the rain had held off and the sun was shining.

All-in-all, when the figures came in, there were 2000 counted. Not bad for such a venal Tory stronghold territory as Ayr. I was walking right at the front, not far behind the very front banner that was kept up, spanning across the breadth of the street: ALL UNDER ONE BANNER. There was a lot of good humour and laughter. Before the banner, we were preceded by two police, a man, a woman, on top of two of the tallest, biggest horses I have ever seen, punctuating the journey with dollops of fertiliser. In fact, it was very pleasing to see just how many police were out supporting us. Walking, on bicycles, in vans, in cars, and on horseback, most of them smiling or nodding, just keeping things moving.

At one point, just round from the Mercure Hotel, there was one elderly lady who opened her window and from her second-story flat seemed to be shouting at us as we walked past, shaking her forearms with her thumbs pointing down. The chorus of ‘What do we want?’ / ‘Independence!’ / ‘When do we want it?’ / ‘Now!’ changed when she was spotted to, ‘Tories! Tories! Tories! Scum! Scum! Scum!’ Nothing more was needed than grins, waves and verbal disdain: the serious point was safely conveyed.

And then there was a small bunch of Union Jackies at the corner of High Street and the Sandgate. Maybe five quite big men and two quite big women, holding up butcher’s aprons, one seemed to have AYR PROTESTANTS neatly embroidered upon it.  A few police were lined up between them and us, most of them smiling. A few of the Unionists seemed to be smiling too. A couple were scowling, locked in facial grimace.

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There were all ages amongst us, wheelchairs, walking sticks, oldies, middlies, younkers, infants, mammies, daddies and pushchairs, and there were bunches of families separately clustered, dotted on the pavement all along the route waving flags and calling out support. I talked to a couple from Wales at the start, who were very supportive: “It’s worse for us – in Scotland, you’re showing the way!” And there was a group of “English Scots for Yes!” who were punching their fists in the air and shouting “We’re with you!” – and all along there was an athletic redhaired young woman jumping all over the place at the front of the march calling out, “What do we want?” in the most pleasingly piercing of voices and with the most radiantly penetrating of grins, apparently unstoppable.

We got back to the Low Green and the stalls were set up and the music and speeches and gathering began as the 2000 people came in.

I note all this as a prelude to another essay noting some recent work by modern Scottish poets because the knowledge of such poets and the acknowledgement of the independence marches are cognate. They just don’t get reported enough. What was there on the mainstream news about the march? Not just that it had happened but also what it meant, what all these marches mean, these demonstrations, lively and affirmative, uplifting, even joyous, undaunted by the miseries, defiant of weather and the usual opposition? Where in the world of reporting and discussing the news is there any fair representation of something as life-enhancing?

The same applies to poetry.

Rymour Books is a small Scottish publisher whose website tells us a few salient facts, but like all websites, you won’t get to it unless you know it’s there. So now you know. The website is easy to find. The books they publish are worth some attention. It was founded in 2020 by Ian Spring and Ruby McCann, incorporating books published earlier mainly on the Scottish folk tradition under the Hog’s Back Press imprint. The name comes from Thomas the Rymour, or Rhymer, or Thomas of Ercildoune (Earlstoun), the poet and prophet who was taken away by the Queen of Elfland and spent seven years in Fairyland that seemed like only a moment. He’s the main character in Nigel Tranter’s novel True Thomas (1981). If Thomas had been a publisher, he would have published the sort of writers in the list of Rymour Books.

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Another source for the name is the Rymour Club, an organisation set up to preserve Scottish songs, folklore and tradition. They met at John Knox’s House in the Canongate, Edinburgh, now the Scottish Storytelling Centre, where William J Hay, the curator, devised the Rymour Club’s declaration of intent: “to gather the relics that are left that they perish not.”

I’ve been reading through some of their books recently and among many to choose from, I’ll mention here only two books of poems, but we’ll come back to others. I should mention, though, Gerard Cairns’s No Language! No Nation! The Life and Times of The Honourable Ruaraidh Erskine of Marr, a much-needed account of a key figure in early story of Scottish independence, linking John MacLean and Hugh MacDiarmid. And Tom Hubbard’s Invitation to the Voyage: Scotland, Europe and Literature, a collection of essays that couldn’t be more pertinent to present concerns.

But start with Collected Poems by Crombie Saunders (1914-91), edited by Donald G. Saunders. Glasgow-born Saunders was a relatively self-effacing poet associated with the Scottish Literary Renaissance writers mainly in the aftermath of the Second World War. He edited the first Selected Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid (1944), thereby, as his son says in the Preface to the book, “sustaining MacDiarmid’s reputation during the war years.” He published only three volumes of poetry: The Year’s Green Edge (1955), XXI Poems (also 1955, gathering most of his poems in Scots) and The Old Tree (1986), privately printed and circulated among friends.

For most poetry readers nowadays, he’s fallen out of sight. And yet, reading this book, we’re reminded of what’s so worthwhile about gathering such works that remain, “that they perish not”.

Take “The Mole” for example. Here’s the first of its three stanzas:

The withered days blow from the shaken branch

And drop on cold earth where the worms feed

On dead memories. Frost silvers decay,

And through the soil of time in a blind hope

Love tunnels with small powerful hands,

The last ally in the time of our defeat.

If this had been a poem by Norman MacCaig, we’d know already we were talking about a mole, but while the imagery is exact, and the tone is precisely controlled, we’re aware that there’s a metaphor at work: “love” is the mole, tunnelling through the underground of devastation and defeat.

But this is unobtrusive (as the mole is), unemphatic, quietly suggested and left to do its work. Here’s the second stanza:

In every heart the desperate headlamps race

Down the black roads of distrust and fear,

Each bend revealing futures we do not want

And each road ending at a past we dread.

So midnight wheels its cargo through the sky

And not a voice is heard to cry repent.

It’s pretty clear by now that we’re working the imagery out as a metaphor describing a condition that could be personal, or much more than that, a social or national, or European malaise. It sounds familiar: how many futures are we now presented with “we do not want”? How many confront us with “a past we dread”? Imagine the answer to the first: the Union, continued and preserved by legal, political and military might, and a media almost all sold out to cancel all space to articulate an opposition.

Imagine the answer to the second: the past that started maybe in the 18th century, in the wake of Culloden, the Anglophone Ascendancy, the Butcher’s Apron, industrialisation, an Empire built on slavery and fossil fuel. Our epoch methodically consumed all those that went before. We might not want a past like that but what do we do with it, now that it’s coming back to say hello – not in a friendly way? What about that mole, love tunnelling under the ground? Is there any hope there? Here’s the last verse:

Under the frozen leaves the small beast turns

And strains at a task it does not comprehend,

Its muscles taut with destiny, and joy

In its sightless eyes. But O, the time is short

Already the raven lifts a tattered wing

And flies to meet its shadow on the crag.

No, there’s not much optimism here, and not a trace of sentimentalism. The verse is turned exactly, emotion sustained: it’s a masterly piece of work. There are a sufficient number of poems in this book to keep any reader returning to it, learning from it lessons about simply how to cope. You keep tunnelling, of course you do, but the clear articulation of meaning that poems allow is an answer in itself – not a consolation, nor a panacea for the ills of the world, but a hard fact art delivers.

THAT’S a reading of only one poem: the full range of Saunders’s work warrants the time it needs, to let it sink in. Imagery of natural wilderness, cultivated garden, city crowds and urban familiarity, are freshened: Aberdeen is a city “of desire”, there’s a “casual cow” in a “circumstantial landscape”, there are nicely-turned poems in Scots, both modern in sensibility and subject, and drawing on the long tradition, back to the Makars. There are translations from Heine and Hölderlin, and there’s a buoyant satire of his contemporaries, Douglas Young, MacDiarmid, Alexander Scott, Goodsir Smith and Maurice Lindsay, all paddling a boat “Doun the Wattir wi the Lave”.

Lindsay was apparently furious at being portrayed as the rower whose oar was only two feet long and never actually touched the water. Satires, celebrations, landscapes, elegies: Saunders may not be a major poet in world literature but we need to reassess our methods of judgement if that’s all we can say. In Seamus Heaney’s praise-word, he was “A Contributor” to the wealth and goodness of the world, of which poetry is a major part. That’s no small thing.

Mary Symon (1863-1938) was, like Crombie Saunders, a poet associated with the Scottish Literary Renaissance, but where Saunders’s work appeared mainly in the aftermath of the Second World War, Symon was publishing after the First, notably promoted by MacDiarmid (or C.M. Grieve) in the anthologies Northern Numbers, in the 1920s.

Born in Dufftown, Banffshire, there are some pawky, humorous poems of small-town Scotland, bordering on kailyard sentimentalism, but after the First World War, when her home territory, the Cabrach, and the regiment drawn from the local boys, the Gordon Highlanders, were devastated with disproportionate losses, her work turns sharp, its poignancy tainted with undercurrents of passion. Here’s a fine traditional poet dealing with the tragedies of war in the ways with which her own poetic understandings and skills have enabled her. She comes into her own with Marion Angus and Violet Jacob as poets of distinctive individual character, crossing the common ground between traditional “folk” verse, crafted “made” verse and the intellectually charged poetry of the Renaissance.

A few of her poems have been anthologised, but a sense of her overall achievement has been almost impossible to establish until, with this book, the necessary retrieval places the prospect before us: “they perish not.” The Collected Poems comes with excellent introductory essays by Fred Freeman and Ian Spring, giving close analysis of the poems and full context, historical and biographical, plus good notes and a brilliant glossary for the distinctive Scots vocabulary. And the poems deliver the goods in four sections, “War Poems”, “Local Vernacular Poems”, “Translations” and “Meditations”.

The second poem collected is stunning. Entitled, “The Glen’s Muster Roll: The Dominie Loquitur”, it’s a dramatic monologue spoken by the village school teacher, naming the boys on the list of his former pupils who have gone to fight, and died, in the First World War. This is no overflow of sentiment but a detailed itemisation of local characters, naming the names of the places and events in the war where they were killed. Particularisation expels emotional generalities and keeps the attention taut. At the end, Dysie, Sandy, Dick Macleod, Tam, Sam Browne and others, at Cressy, the Hooge, Gallipoli, all of them “Loons o’ Mine”, are seen returning:

Ye’re back on weary feet – you, you that danced an’ ran –

For every lauchin’ loon I kent I see a hell-scarred man.

Not mine but yours to question now! You lift unhappy eyes –

“Ah, Maister, tell’s fat a’ this means.” And I, ye thocht sae wise,

Maun answer wi’ the bairn words ye said tae me langsyne:

“I dinna ken, I dinna ken. Fa does, oh, Loons o’ Mine?”

They might have joined us on the march in Ayr last month. In 1927, MacDiarmid wrote: “It took the full force of the war to jolt an adequate majority of the Scottish people out of their old mental, moral and material ruts… The Scottish Renaissance movement regards itself as an effort in every respect of the national life to supplant the elements at present predominant by the other elements they have suppressed, and thus reverse the existing order.”

On we go.