Book review: Modren Makars: Yin, by Ann MacKinnon, Finola Scott and Irene Howat

This first book in a new series from Aberdeenshire publishers Tapsalteerie features the work of three powerful female Scots language poets, writes Joyce McMillan

Modren Makars: Yin
Modren Makars: Yin

Now nine years old, Tapsalteerie is a small publishing imprint – founded by Duncan Lockerbie, and based in Tarland, Aberdeenshire – that specialises in new and innovative poetry across the Scots, Gaelic and English languages. It already has almost 30 titles on its list, ranging from Russell Jones’s sci-fi poems Dark Matter to Ciara MacLaverty’s Glasgow collection Past Love In The Museum Of Transport; and now, it publishes the first in a series of collections under the title Modren Makars, featuring the work of three powerful female Scots language poets, selected and edited by Shetland writer Christie Williamson.

All three of the poets represented in this first collection are of retirement age, with Finola Scott proudly declaring her status as “Scotland’s first slam-winning granny”; yet the most striking aspect of their work is their huge and energetic range of inspiration, and their refusal of the nostalgic tone often wrongly expected of writing in Scots.

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Ann MacKinnon, who was born in Fife, begins with Occitania, a Europe-wide reflection on the oppression of old languages by rising imperial states. Her 30 featured poems also include Looking For The Rowe Back, or rewind button, a shockingly timely reflection on watching the horror of war on television; a vivid vision of Faslane naval base; poems by Louis Aragon and Charles Baudelaire translated from the French; a terrific poem called They Brought Me His Cap, about the loss of the Iolaire off Stornaway in 1918; and two laments for Glasgow School of Art, damaged, restored, and then finally utterly destroyed. Her style is spare and rhythmic, her language a strong, straightforward modern Scots, with never a syllable wasted; and her poems breathe with the life of modern Scotland, sometimes haunted by its own past, but also bound up, day by day, with all the stresses of a struggling planet, and with history that goes far beyond our own shores.

Finola Scott is both more of a historian and more of a dramatist than MacKinnon, delving deep into Scottish history to find voices that often sound completely contemporary. Some of her most serious and moving poems confront the often hidden history of Scotland’s Covenanters, who, in the 17th century, faced imprisonment, torture and death rather than conform to the state version of Protestantism. There are also heart-stopping poems about an Irish migrant woman waiting on a hill above Greenock for the arrival of her starving husband, and about the police horses sent out to suppress demonstrating suffragettes outside Perth prison in 1914; and a humorous trilogy – ideal for performance – about figures in history expressing disgust at the new-fangled ways of the Romans, or, in Scunnered fae Skara Brae, with a husband who insists on spending his time building huge stone circles across the Orkney landscape.

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Irene Howat’s poems, finally, are of a slightly more traditional cast, written in a strong Ayrshire Scots, and often returning to what seems like the same haunting story, beautifully expressed, of a crofting village and a family traumatised by the First World War. The experience of grandmothering is strongly present here, both in memories and in Howat’s own grandmotherly experience; but the tone is not so much regretful or nostalgic as shot through with a deep sense of the richness of life, and of its sometimes irreparable sadness. Tapsalteerie means “upside down”, as the very sound of the word suggests. Yet the imprint’s first collection of Modren Makers features three wise women poets whose view of the world could hardly be more upright in its sense of values, more realistic in its knowledge of pain, and more infused, nonetheless, by love and wonder; and it augurs well for the future of the series, as it rolls out over the next few years.

Modren Makars: Yin, by Ann MacKinnon, Finola Scott and Irene Howat, Tapsalteerie, 122pp, £10.