A SCOTTISH poet who began his writing career as a youngster by throwing bottles containing scribbled messages and maps into the sea was last night awarded the biggest prize in British poetry at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Niall Campbell, 30, from South Uist scooped the inaugural Edwin Morgan Poetry Award worth £20,000 which is only open to young Scottish poets.
He was presented with the award last night by Jackie Kay for his debut collection Moontide, which draws heavily on the myths, seascapes, wildlife and winters of South Uist, and was published by Bloodaxe earlier this year.
At the ceremony Campbell was hailed as a worthy first winner of a prize that organisers hope will have a transformational effect on Scottish poetry. The award was set up after the death four years ago of Edwin Morgan, Scotland’s first national poet, or Makar, who also left a £1 million bequest to the SNP.
Poet Stewart Conn, one of the judges of the prize, said that the poems’ “rich textures, succulent descriptions and seductive cadences reveal a gifted wordsmith” and “transform the sea-bound Uist they celebrate”.
But despite drawing on nature and the outdoors for inspiration, Campbell has stated that he believes the role of the poet is to “unbalance” the reader.
The poet needs to be the “bringer of the feast and the bill” he said in an interview given to the Scottish Poetry Library.
Speaking before he won the £20,000 prize, Campbell said he would eschew the long-term security of a writer-in-residence position at a university, other than for a couple of months, because the “idea of institutions can become dangerous for the poets and poetry. Where’s the friction?”
Campbell’s work ranges from poems such as Song about the “music” in farming instruments to Rodin Sculpts The Kiss which he wrote after a visit to the Musée de Rodin in Paris.
But Campbell has described how his first attempts at reaching an audience involved writing messages and drawing maps before throwing them out into the waves in bottles.
Growing up as one of six children in South Uist and with a large extended family around him, he was encouraged to “get out the house” and spend most of his time outdoors.
“It wasn’t Huckleberry Finn, I wasn’t reading books under trees,” he said.
“Maybe before risking words I was having fun, enjoying that ‘lie’ element where there was no right of reply.”
Now living in Edinburgh and married to an art historian, Campbell has admitted that he gets bored in art galleries and that “something about the air makes me start yawning quickly”.
But he said a visit to view the Rodin sculptures, the majority of which are outdoors, had inspired his poem about the sculptor.
“They are outside, weatherbeaten, open to the air and the stars. You can touch them, be quite tactile.
“Rodin just speaks to me. The poem includes the line: ‘There with a swung hammer is a man in love’”.
Campbell left his South Uist home to read English language at Glasgow University. He then took an MLitt course in creative writing at St Andrews University, where acclaimed poets Don Paterson, John Burnside and Robert Crawford are on the staff.
Although the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award is his big breakthrough, Campbell’s unshowy but accomplished lyrical poetry has already marked him out as someone to watch in the poetry world.
He has already won an Eric Gregory Poetry Award, his works have been included among the 20 best poems of the year in the Scottish Poetry Library’s annual selection, and Moontide has been shortlisted in the best debut collection for this year’s Forward Prize.
James McGonigal, Morgan’s biographer, who is also one of the award’s trustees, said the award reflected Morgan’s optimism.
“He was a poet who always preferred to look forward, not back,” McGonigal said.
“The Edwin Morgan Poetry Award supports a new wave of Scottish poets in practical and positive ways. The quality of work emerging is ample proof that such faith in Scottish poetry was justified.”
The other short-listed poets, who each receive £1,000, are Claire Askew, Tom Chivers, Harry Giles, Stewart Sanderson, and Molly Vogel.