ST ANDREW’S Day was our prompt. The annual McCash Scots Poetry Competition, run jointly by Alan Riach from the University of Glasgow and Lesley Duncan, poetry editor of The National’s newspaper cousin The Herald and which celebrates Scots in all its forms and aims to support it, is now open for entries.

It’s a decade since in 2012 we published The Smeddum Test: 21st-Century Poems in Scots (Kennedy & Boyd), an anthology of some of the finest contemporary poetry written in Scots between 2003 and 2012. The 101 poems were selected from outstanding entries to the James McCash Scots Poetry Competition, an annual event in the nation’s literary calendar. The title (taken from one of the poems) employs that good Scots word smeddum, meaning strength of character, spirit, energy, grit, vigorous common sense, and resourcefulness.

It’ll be familiar to many readers from Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s wonderful short story “Smeddum” in which the central character, Mistress Meg Menzies of Tocherty Toun, trumps the petty bourgeois aspirations and hypocritical pretentiousness of most of her own children by supporting the only daughter she has who possesses the quality: “She’s fit to be free and to make her own choice the same as myself and the same kind of choice.

“There was none of the rest of you fit to do that, you’d to marry or burn, so I married you quick. But Kath and me could afford to find out. It all depends if you’ve smeddum or not.”

Kath has the strength and independence of mind to go her own way and find out for herself what life holds. Just as Meg did, holding her opinion to herself and not committing to marrying the father of her children: “I could never make up my mind about Will,” she informs her stunned brood, sitting there, gap-mou’d, wide-e’ened and stunned, taking in the new information that they are all illegitimate, as Kath and her lover walk up the road towards them.

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Something of the spirit of an independent Scotland, our mongrel nation, is possessed by Meg Menzies and smeddum is its meaning. Who among our politicians has it? Who among our poets will deliver it?

The poems in The Smeddum Test not only reflect such stalwart quality but the anthology itself came at an auspicious time, as Scotland was re-examining its relationship with the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom.

Two years after its publication, 2014 delivered one answer but not the final one. As we begin to gather poems for a sequel anthology, the prospect of a further decision approaches us again – with much greater urgency!

If there’s a renewed sense of national identity and confidence in our distinctive cultural and creative inheritance, the Scots language is one of its major components.

So it ought to be a good time for lively, open-minded, unprejudiced poems, of any determination – or poems that have the courage of their prejudices and can express them in a convincing way – as poems, and not just vacuous politicians’ speeches!

For example – who else but MacDiarmid could deliver a poem entitled “Separatism” with a poetic conviction that reaches beyond the miserable world of petty party politics and really throws down the gauntlet:

If there’s a sword-like sang

That can cut Scotland clear

O’ a’ the warld beside

Rax me the hilt o’t here,

For there’s nae jewel till

Frae the rest o’ earth it’s free,

Wi’ the starry separateness

I’d fain to Scotland gie.

I’d like to see every single member of the Scottish Parliament, whatever their party, learn by heart and recite that poem in turn, once a week, at any moment in parliamentary proceedings, for a surprise intervention.

“Pardon me, Mr Speaker, or Madam Speaker, it’s time for a poetry moment.” And then recite it, with passion. It would be an apt test of anyone’s ability to speak one of the languages of our country – wherever the speaker might “come from”!

I’d like to see that not to persuade the unpersuadable (or even the unthinking) to the politics of independence (though you never know). I’d like to hear our politicians reciting this poem for the poetic skill and deft turns of it, swordlike, to test what they might make of it.

Consider it. The worst implications of exceptionalism are challenged here by the dazzling appeal of language and metaphor: both the energy of “Rax me the hilt o’t” and the beauty of “starry separateness” are verbally persuasive beyond the clod-bound correctnesses upon which mundane politics insists.

And it’s true. Stars are beautiful in their separateness, and in their moving places in a constellation, what MacDiarmid calls elsewhere “an aching spargosis of stars” (a “spargosis” is the bulging distention of breasts filled with milk, if you want to know).

Again, the continuity may be found in the vision of an independent self-determined nation in which there is room for difference and dialogue and nourishment and no enforcement of sterile conformity. And there is no Supreme Court higher than poetry.

With the McCash competition, in some past years we’ve proposed a theme – from the Walter Scott quotation “This is my own, my native land” to one Scots granny’s cheery observation that “Change is lichtsome”; and, most recently, when Covid still loomed ominously, “Thinking of others.” This year, however, poets can submit material on any theme of their choice.

The prize was endowed by a former engineering graduate of Gilmorehill, James McCash, who won an earlier Herald poetry competition in the 1970s. In the last 20 years it has become a landmark in Scotland’s cultural calendar after Glasgow University joined forces with The Herald to promote it to readers worldwide.

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And entries have come in from as far afield as Hong Kong and Alaska, the Caribbean, Finland, and the United States, as well of course as the Scottish heartlands and archipelagos. And the poets have ranged in background from a North Sea oil worker and a former miner to artists, teachers, academics, housewives, professionals and amateurs, young and old.

Do Scots have a particular fondness for poetry? Maybe. Perhaps because we have a poet for a national icon rather than a soldier, not to mention the celebratory suppers with his songs and poems as popular entertainment in the dead of winter.

I’ve been in a bar when a friend quoted a verse of Burns to me and a man sitting in the neighbouring booth leant over in a friendly way (as sometimes happens in Glasgow bars) and pointed out that the quotation wasn’t quite right and corrected my friend. We thanked him cordially.

Spoken, everyday Scots is in vigorous health, in spite of the homogenising effect of mass media, the internet and the magnification and pervasive saturation of what MacDiarmid (again) called “Yankee trash culture”. And in spite of the trolls and the Morlocks.

But if Scots is in good health in the oral world, it’s equally clear that the written language is capable of contemplating the most serious current issues, from wars and the tragedies of refugees, to the evergreen matters of love (and loss), nature, ageing, and mortality. Scots has always been able to move quickly – and no poet is quicker than Burns – but it’s also able to act with the nobility and grandeur particular occasions demand, without the ridiculous pomposity of some English-language buffoons who show up on TV too often.

In Gaelic, there’s a word for this, and because we’re here talking about Scots, Gaelic should be noted as well. The word is “uaisleachd” and is conventionally translated as “nobility” but it signifies more than a hierarchical distinction of social class.

It might be used disparagingly, as in, “Tha e anns na h-uaislean ach gu dearbh chan eil e uasal.” / “He is in the nobility but certainly not noble.” And “na h-uaislean” has a certain negative connotation, referring to overlords, estate owners and so on, but the word on its own has a different authority.

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It suggests, without any undercutting irony that might come in an age of democratic egalitarianism, “honourable”. But it also conveys gentleness, firmness and stature, sensitivity and care, attentiveness and self-knowledge of righteousness, and self-confidence (but without any of the liabilities of hubris western culture normally associates with these). It’s a quality of character.

If the vocabulary of Gaelic has such richness, so does Scots, and so does English, used with appropriate carefulness – and smeddum! But the McCash prize is dedicated to poems in the Scots language, so concentrate on that. Poems in any variety of the Scots language are welcome, from echoes of the 16th-century makars Dunbar and Henryson to the regional dialects of Aberdeen and Orkney, Fife and the Borders.

The vernacular language of the cities is also welcome and if serious poems with the character of “uaisleachd” come in, we hope, too, that we might find the sharp humour of Scotland in some of the poems as well.

The judges will take a liberal attitude towards the predominance of Scots in the poems, as long as there’s a sufficiency of Scottish vocabulary and/or idioms. After all, Burns himself did not hesitate to use English words when they suited his purpose!

I’ve been quoting MacDiarmid but I’d like to come up to date and indicate some of the recent and contemporary poets working across the range of idioms and geographies, whose work shows some of the depth, speed and brightness I’ve been suggesting.

A recently published anthology edited by Linda Jackson, Wanderlust Women: 3 Poets (Glasgow: Seahorse Publications 2022) collects work by Lesley Benzie, Donna Campbell and Linda Jackson herself. Check out the publisher’s website at and order some Christmas presents that’ll keep giving well beyond the season of vicissitudes.

Wanderlust Women is a great collection, and an eye-opening reading experience, as the poems are arranged chronologically through their time of composition, with the three women located in different places: Linda Jackson in Ireland, Bute, Paisley and Inchinnan, Donna Campbell in Germany, America and Istanbul and Lesley Benzie in Australasia and Cambodia.

The proposition of the book is attractively questing – it’s a set of explorations, acts of balancing, a confirmation of convictions and a sense of the tentative, the affirmative and the regretful.

There are various connections through family, random roaming around, political engagement, good humour and sympathetic understanding of different things. The cumulative effect of the whole book is a marvellous testament to the human depth and quickness of understanding that poetry can deliver.

Most of the poems are in English, some are translated into German or Irish Gaelic, but Lesley Benzie’s poems in Scots are lively with the intensity and flair the language possesses. Here’s her reunion with her son in Melbourne:

Son an mither fa hadnae seen ane another

For twa lang years

smile skinklin in the sun curlin aroon

an settin aboon us wi tenderness on a scale

as gigantic as Australia itsel.

There is no shortage of fine poems being written in Scots, as we’ll see next week, by authors as diverse as Sheena Blackhall, also an illustrator, traditional ballad singer and storyteller in Scotland’s north-east; Sheila Templeton, former McCash award-winner; or a small constellation of voices from the Orkney archipelago, writing in the regional Scots of that territory, including Kevin Cormack, Ingrid Leonard, Caroline Hume, Sheila Garson, Barbara Johnston and Greer Norquoy.

Work by the latter four is collected in Gouster, Glims and Veerie-Orums: Writeen fae Orkney Voices but we’ll be returning to all these poets. You might not have heard of them before but they all repay attention with pleasure and particularities of wisdom. Wait and see.

How to enter

Poets can submit three original, as yet unpublished, entries, up to 30 lines long. They should be typed or handwritten legibly on A4 paper with address and contact details on the back and sent to McCash Scots Poetry Competition, c/o Lesley Duncan, The Herald, 125 Fullarton Drive, Glasgow East Investment Park, Glasgow G32 8FG, to arrive by Burns Night, January 25, 2023. The judges are Professor Alan Riach, Chair of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University; Lennie Pennie, poet and Herald columnist; and Lesley Duncan, Herald poetry editor.