PREDICTIONS can be difficult to get right, of course. And yet one can try to give some sense of the range of possibilities. Start with Hannah Lavery (b.1977), poet, playwright, performer, director.

Her autobiographical play The Drift toured Scotland in 2019 and Lament for Sheku Bayoh in 2020 was a response to a horrific news story whose ramifications are still being addressed by complicit authorities and media; and by family, friends and people who are simply genuinely concerned.

You might say that play was prompted by and based upon a contemporary headline story but as a work of literature – not a newspaper article or a media bulletin nor a legal document – it was both deepened and sharpened by its deployment of traditional literary structures.

Its strict form enhances its impact both as a permanent lament and a lasting protest. Characters named “Keener” and “Singer”, remind us that the “Keen” is the song of lament in Gaelic.

Lavery’s poem “Scotland, you’re no mine” defined a position of defiance against any conventional, static, fixed national identity, re-affirming the principle of openness not as a vague ideal but with specific points of reference. Racists and cowards might say Lavery does not belong in their “pure” xenophobic Scotland but the poem answers the question of belonging with: “I am limpet stuck on you”. It’s a nice pun: “stuck on” like superglue but also like a dreamy lover.

Scotland, you’re no mine

(you were no his)

and I don’t want you.

So go ahead, say I don’t belong,

wi your sepia-tinged cross eye sweeping

over all that swept-away,

blood-stained, sweat-

stained sugar for your tablet.

Ya macaroon. Ya rotten,

gobby, greedy, thieving bastard you,

sitting atop a that shite and broken bones, weeping,

Poor me.

She promises: “I will dance jigs on your flags blue n white; blue, white n red

It doesnae matter but, ya wee chancer!” And she rejects with all the vehemence possible the powers that have been “making us complicit,

handing us whip and chains, an officer’s coat, a civil-service pen, a Queen to love.” And, rejecting all those reactionary parts of Scotland, she can still say, “I love you

with your mountain thyme and all your coorie in.

And you can say, I dinnae belong to you—go on / —but I am limpet stuck on you.”

And here she stays!

my blood and your secrets,

bleed into you, root and earth,

and you, forever, pagan, will, in the spill

and the seep, see all you really are.

I have politely quoted lines other than those with the passionate expletives for the sake of gentle readers of The National, that you might not be too shocked over breakfast, but you can read the whole poem on the Scottish Poetry Library website or buy the book it appears in, Finding Sea Glass, published by Stewed Rhubarb Press (2019).

Jenny Lindsay (b.1982) likewise combines theatrical performance and poetry as verbal practice (rather than a printed source of silent contemplation) in books including The Things You Leave Behind (2011), The Eejit Pit (2012), Ire & Salt (2015) and This Script (2019).

Nalini Paul draws on roots and myths from India, Canada and Scotland, in collections such as Skirlags (2010) and The Raven’s Song (2015), while stage performance and verse combine in Beyond Mud Walls (2016), bringing Scotland and India together through language, memory and the ambivalence of belonging and estrangement.

In Settle (2016), Theresa Muñoz presents poems on immigration, contemporary technology and the benefits, constraints and ambiguous senses of exclusion and welcome.

These poets’ work demonstrates the dynamics of performative verse, rap, slam poetry, verbal pyrotechnics and fun crashing alongside the depth of deadly seriousness about issues increasingly understood as inescapable in early 21st-century Scotland. Their poems, songs and performances are made compelling by their skilful deployment of personal experience in highly crafted writing: that is, literature.

That blend and balancing of reflective, introspective verse and performative, theatrical forms of presentation is there too in the work of Len Pennie or “Miss Punny Pennie” (b.1999), whose fame through online social media spread faster than a biological contagion, drawing both popular support and extremes of hostile misogynist denigration, during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020.

But Pennie was and is a contagion of health. As an advocate of the Scots language, in speech and writing, and of mental wellbeing as a correlative of linguistic self-confidence, her writing is a needed corrective to that national pathology known as the cringe. She comes from a long tradition of defiance of Anglophone, Anglocentric normativity.

Her poem “I’m no havin children” is a playful and absolutely convincing assertion of the validity of the word “weans” and by extension, the rightness of Scots, both as a language and as an act of national self-determination. Use it.

Poets investing in performance run the necessary risk of becoming lost to the record. The moment is all. Accounts of the terrific impact of readings by Sandie Craigie (1963-2005) suggest that recordings do no justice to them, and print is cold by comparison.

In print, Imtiaz Dharker (b.1954), confidently bringing the confluence of her Pakistani-Scottish resources into her work, delivers a worldview essentialised only in its humanity. The poem “Text” might be “set” in Scotland, or it might not. The person to whom the message is being sent might be in Scotland or somewhere else.

THE locations or imagined landscapes in this poem don’t matter so much as the human contact happening through the ether of technology, and the threat of material, physical violence that can be felt in the body, a trembling, even as you read it.

The full text is available from the Scottish Poetry Library and is published in The Terrorist at My Table (Bloodaxe, 2006).

I am sending a message again.

Maybe you can’t hear it

through all the noise of lights

and the dangerous way things move

in that other city

where I think you are,

if I have the dates right, though

of course I could be wrong.

The poet wonders whether the intended recipient of the message will be standing, eyes open, looking at the screen, trying not to listen to anything, just focused on the visible message, just like the sender of the message, as if the two figures mirror each other at either end of an invisible line of contact. And the reader is the third mirror, reading the poem with equal intensity.

Everyone in the city in which the sender is standing seems to be “tuned to maximum” as if something is imminent, some vital or violent interruption about to happen. The message is “Just to ask if you are safe / and well?” But then:

A phone shrills, a clock explodes,

in the next room, a TV switches on.

Everywhere, the sound of sirens, drills.

Cars screech, horns blare.


are you?

Why have you stopped singing?

In 2022, Peter McCarey’s Pogo was a timely series of biting, bitter, anti-monarchical squibs, funny, dangerous, nifty and necessary, as the hypocrisies of royalty reach new extents of exposure, as we noted a fortnight ago (“Ohmage to the royals” The National, September 4).

McCarey’s Orasho is a book of observances and considerations, poems and texts as barriers and bridges, coherences and fragments, amounting to a warranty of justice, still touching but going beyond what everyday occurrence brings. The poems in both books (both Red Squirrel Press) do what only poems can do. And underneath them all is a sense of moral redress.

Joseph Conrad, in his Preface to The N***er of the Narcissus (1897), puts it like this: “A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line. And art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect.”

The title of Conrad’s story might be profoundly offensive these days, but its historical significance is a permanent fact: inexcusable but undeniable, something that requires the rendering of justice to redress the social priorities that made it possible and acceptable.

The moral meaning of Conrad’s affirmation of what the artist does resides within the work of every one of the writers we’re dealing with here, and with any writer or artist of any consequence whatever. And we’re fortunate in Scotland to have such a range.

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Harry Josephine Giles (b.1986), born in Walthamstow but having grown up in Orkney, uses the language forms of that archipelago to overturn expectations of locality, conservatism and convention in exhilarating excursions through transgender identities.

Roseanne Watt (b.1991) draws on tender but essentially secure roots in the Shetland archipelago, and while publishing strong poems in Shaetlan Scots and English in Moder Dy / Mother Wave (2019), is also an innovative musician and film-maker, combining words with moving images to complement, interrogate, riddle, cross, soak and marinade both genres with each other. Imagism arises between words and visualisation, with vulnerable, personal strengths transmitted through screened presences and aural landscapes.

Further poets might be named simply to indicate the range of dispositions at work – Elizabeth Rimmer, Lesley Benzie, Jock Stein, David Bleiman – each emphasising different priorities and questions about nature, morality, religion, languages, ways of living, histories of displacement and commitments of residence.

All these authors are weathervanes of sorts, indicating where things are, and directions of travel. Their work counters racism and superiorism with a broadening articulation of international ancestry and cultural complexity.

EQUALLY, writers might treasure their given local family and deep roots in one territory. Traditional literary genres are always there to be drawn upon, played and experimented with, deployed in varying degrees of invention, mixing voice and print, performance, declamation, and celebration, combining the virtues of writing with those of theatre, film, music.

Language itself is mixed, made up of impurities and diversities. This is as always, but perhaps more accepted as bringing potential benefit, so long as pluralism itself does not become a dulling convention. To be of any worth, literature, however defined, needs its cutting edge, to set against the dominance of uniformity, to oppose sterile conformity, to resist the dictates of supremacy and rules of the establishment, to stay open, and never give in to the closed. Poetry keeps its outlaw status.

But go beyond the genre of poetry, in all its forms and classifications. Think of other genres and genres that cross over and mix things up, the mongrel media the “mainstream” doesn’t reach.

The mixing of generic expertise is exemplified by the novelist Louise Welsh’s collaborations with the composer Stuart MacRae on operas such as The Devil Inside (2016, combining elements of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The “Bottle Imp” and Jekyll and Hyde) and Anthropocene (2019). Such collisions of expectations and disturbance of safe conventions are increasingly familiar.

As a child, Jenni Fagan (b.1977) was adopted twice, grew up for some years living on a caravan park and was also homeless. A sense of the radical unreliability of “safe ground” or “home” animates her stories, novels and poems. She sang in punk and grunge bands, and the granular, vigorous resistance of those idioms can be felt in her writing.

The New York Times described her as “the Patron Saint of Literary Street Urchins”.

Her novels The Panopticon (2012) and The Sunlight Pilgrims (2016) are unsettling, with aggressive narrative gear shifts and twists, and Luckenbooth (2021), while centred on a multi-storey tenement building, takes the reader through, down and up into different dimensions of history, violence and oppositional energy.

Her poetry collections, The Dead Queen of Bohemia (2016), There’s a Witch in the Word Machine (2018) and Truth (2019) enact similar themes of determined dislocation, creative threat and disturbance, in quick, sharp and curious verse, with no time for repose or complacency. Edwin Morgan’s Demon is at large, and roaming:

“My job is to rattle the bars.”

Another kind of genre mix was the gauntlet thrown down by Darren McGarvey (b.1984), the rapper Loki, whose tightly controlled verbal elaborations found a wide audience as he set about encouraging teenagers to find expression for rage through words and music.

He broadcast programmes about the consequences of deprivation on BBC Radio Scotland between 2004 and 2008, and published Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass (2017) and The Social Distance Between Us (2022) as autobiographical literary accounts of social conditions.

In prose fiction, Shuggie Bain (2020) by Douglas Stuart (b.1976), a closely-observed, quasi-autobiographical novel about a young man growing up in working-class Glasgow with a mother to whom he is devoted and whose propensity to self-destruction is depicted with piercing compassion, won the 2020 Booker Prize and international acclaim.

Presenting a similar social world in the Lanarkshire town of Airdrie, neighbouring Glasgow, The Young Team (2020) by Graeme Armstrong (b.1992) risked mixing racy dialogue and youthful exuberance with deadly serious presentations of a misogynist, abusive and self-abusive, economically devastated social world, where the main character faces the choices of escape, education and exile or the local entrapment of violence.

Graeme Macrae Burnet (b.1967), in His Bloody Project (2015) and Case Study (2021) took a place within the crime fiction, or rather, “noir” vision vogue and made it singular, by both drawing on literary tradition and blurring the lines between documentary realism and fictional fantasy (Hogg’s Confessions is not far away).

With such a wealth of variousness in recent and contemporary works, any summarising overview would of course be crazy to attempt. All these writers work within and to some degree in relation to the nation we persist in calling Scotland.

You can try to deny their diversity, or you can dig in and watch it all happening around you, or you can get out the surfboard and see what the waves are doing, feel them moving through your feet and muscles, ride them, or, switching the metaphor, clip on the skis and set off on the slopes.

But remember: the best snow for skiing is always the most likely to avalanche. Bon voyaging!