Profile: Liz Lochhead, Scotland's new makar

IT IS not easy to picture Alex Salmond, Jack McConnell and Henry McLeish around a table, drinking tea and discussing closed couplets.

But in the interests of selecting the new makar, Scotland's poet laureate, current and former first ministers put aside party divisions and considered the literary craftsmanship of Douglas Dunn versus the lyrical observations of Kathleen Jamie.

In the end, they agreed on Liz Lochhead. Salmond, usually more of a Racing Post man, singled out her broad appeal, genre-hopping body of work and championship of the Scots language. "As an author, translator, playwright, stage performer, broadcaster and grande dame of Scottish theatre," he said, announcing her appointment last week, "Ms Lochhead embodies everything a nation would want from its national poet".

Lochhead, 63, accepted on behalf of poetry itself, "which is, and always has been, the core of our culture, and in grateful recognition of the truth that poetry - the reading of it, the writing of it, the saying it out loud, the learning of it off by heart - all of this matters deeply to ordinary Scottish people everywhere".

She then read one of her poems, about the process of writing, comparing it to a lonely heron, doggedly fishing the River Kelvin near her Glasgow home.

"If it never in all that greyness passing caught a flash, a gleam of something, made that quick stab.

"That's how a poem is after a long nothingness, you grab at that anything and this is food to you."

Lochhead was born in Newarthill, near Motherwell, Lanarkshire, in 1947, to an aspirational working-class family. An academic girl, she chose to go to Glasgow School of Art, where Gillies MacKinnon, now a film director, remembers meeting her at his first pottery class: "She stood out immediately. She emanated a strength of character and was also very beautiful, with great bone structure and dramatic nostrils."

Even as she made pots and stretched canvases, Lochhead was starting to write. MacKinnon recalls finding her in the corridor, looking worried. "She said, I'm beginning to feel that words are what I want to be involved with. I just couldn't grasp that, because Liz was a really good painter. She began by illustrating individual poems, and later had a little book of poems published, with a hippy-looking picture of her on the cover."

That little book, Memo For Spring, was published while Lochhead was teaching art and writing in her spare time. Alasdair Gray, another emerging writer of the 1970s, paid the typist who compiled her manuscript. She managed seven years at the chalkface. "I was," she said later, "terrible".

The 1970s and early 1980s were a fertile time for Scots with typewriters. Gray, James Kelman and Tom Leonard were all finding their voices, experimenting with the distinctive vocabulary and rhythms of the Scottish language. It was poetry that demanded to be heard as well as read and they performed their own work as well as collaborating on joint ventures, writing songs and sketches as well as verse.Drama was the logical next step and, with 1984's Fire And Ice, Lochhead found the form where her wit, insight into human relationships, poetic ear and political sensibilities could finally have room to breathe. Here, in the story of Mary Shelley and the creation of Frankenstein, were the themes that Lochhead would spend the next decades exploring: sex, gender roles, the tensions of motherhood, what one academic calls "the energies spent in the clash and struggles of sexual difference".

She brings the same agenda to her translations, which she calls adaptations. Whether she is working on Medea, Tartuffe or Le Misanthrope (which she renamed Misery Guts), she scythes through the self-indulgent twiddles of previous versions and finds the story's edge. These period pieces will, she says, be full of references that defy translation. "The Greek language holds loads of things I can't access," she said of Medea, "like what religion was to them. I can't translate it. So I adapt, I home in on what matters most to me".

Lochhead's most famous piece of work, Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, started life in an Edinburgh Chinese restaurant, in 1984. Gerry Mulgrew, founder of Communicado Theatre Company, had spotted the forthcoming 400th anniversary of Mary's death and wanted a play. There was debate as to what form this might take. Lochhead recalled Mulgrew, a working-class Catholic, said: "I was brought up to think she was a saint." She retorted: "Well, I'm a Proddy Scot, and I was brought up thinking that she was the devil incarnate." Somebody else said: "All we know is Mary, Queen of Scots got her head chopped off."

So Lochhead, a feminist republican, spent the next three years in Glasgow's Mitchell Library, researching a queen. The resulting play - her masterpiece - was the sensation of the Edinburgh Festival of 1987, transferred to London's Donmar Warehouse, was published by Penguin and is studied across the English-speaking world.

Yet she credits Mulgrew with finding the voice that made the story sing, and the rehearsal process with giving it the structure that is now so widely admired. Mulgrew, she recalls, came barrelling into the rehearsal room one day saying: "I've got it, it's a bear pit, it's the people under the waltzers, it's the fairs, the travelling circus. We're the vagabond players, a gang of tinks telling a story."

It is typical of Lochhead that she readily admits to all this. There is a no-nonsense earthiness about her, a warmth that is visible in her poetry and her more recent, comedic plays. Her creative writing students at Glasgow University - at one point she co-tutored the famous course with old compadres Leonard and Gray - recall her taking off her shoes before starting tutorials. She does not hold dinner parties but invites friends round for mince and tatties. Defiantly undomesticated, she claimed she moved out of her old flat in Kersland Street "because it was either that or hoover".

These days she lives alone, high above a busy street in Glasgow's west end. Her husband, architect Tom Logan, six years her junior, died suddenly last year. She misses him sorely. Asked what makes her most happy, she once replied: "Sitting on our sofa with Tom and a wee glass of grappa watching The Sopranos." What makes her most unhappy? "When Tom forgot to tape The Sopranos. Once."

Facts of life:

• Liz Lochhead was great friends with Edwin Morgan (right), the first Makar, and read his poem 'For The Opening Of The Scottish Parliament' at Holyrood in 2004 when Morgan was too ill to attend.

• Her first duty as Makar was to open the new Robert Burns Museum in Alloway last Friday.

• In 1982, Lochhead, Alasdair Gray, Jim Kelman and Tom Leonard wrote a sketch show called The Pie Of Damocles, performed at the Edinburgh Fringe.

• She was once charged with keeping a disorderly house after a particularly riotous student party, and fined 2.

• Her favourite writers are Alice Munro and Chekov.

• She wrote Perfect Days, a romantic comedy with a happy ending, for her old friend Siobhan Redmond. It was the hit of the 1999 Edinburgh Festival.

• In 2003, Lochhead was writer in residence at Eton.