Colin Mackay

Colin Mackay, novelist and poet

Born: 26 July, 1951

Died: 28 July, 2003

COLIN Mackay was a quiet recluse who did not have a high profile on the literary scene, but those of us who knew him and his work have, and always will have, an enormously high regard for both.

Born in West Lothian, he was the only child of Hugh and Margaret Mackay. The family moved to Edinburgh when he was about four, and he was thereafter very much a son of the capital. He loved the place, spending hours walking about at all times of the day or night, recording its views, its atmosphere, its culture.

Mackay’s father was an atheist (background Free Kirk), socialist and free thinker from Scourie, Sutherland; his mother was of Borders stock. Both were librarians. His father had a substantial collection of books and Colin was encouraged to read widely - the classics, Shakespeare, politics and philosophy. From his mother, a Christian, he would hear ancient tales from all over Scotland.

Unfortunately, the Mackays made it difficult for their son to form the usual schoolboy friendships. He was discouraged from bringing any friends home, and this predisposed him for a fairly solitary life of reading, rather than social intercourse.

Both his parents died of Alzheimer’s disease; Hugh about 20 years ago, Margaret two years ago. Colin nursed his mother until she died.

Both parents were absolutely central in his work. His first novel, Song of the Forest (Canongate, 1986), a legendary tale set in the dark ages and reminiscent of George Mackay Brown and Neil Gunn, remains his most acclaimed - behind it lie his mother’s stories. More specifically, The Sound of the Sea (Canongate, 1989) draws heavily on personal experiences of his father in the Second World War and his grandfather in the First World War. Taking in other wars as well, such as the Falklands conflict, it reads rather like a Homeric view of 20th century warfare, seen through their personal experiences. The unpublished Mary Barton’s Apple Tree graphically describes his schooldays at Broughton Primary and Broughton Senior Secondary. The latter he especially hated, and, being a rather languid, lanky, bespectacled boy, he came in for bullying from pupils and teachers alike. He didn’t enjoy Edinburgh University either. But, most poignantly, the novel focuses on his mother, and the difficult time he had with her in her later years.

After a short spell in London, he returned to Edinburgh and made a brief appearance on the literary scene, about which he was always deeply sceptical. He wasn’t very good at socialising, despised "networking" - and the projects he was pursuing were usually either dogged with trouble or unsuccessful.

He had a couple of plays read at the Edinburgh Playwrights’ Workshop in the early 1980s, but the anti-communist content provoked death threats from unknown quarters, and the police had to be called in. He once attempted an anthology of Edinburgh poetry, but at that time no one was interested.

My first encounter with him was a rather rude letter from London, sending me poems and expecting (almost calling for) a rebuff from an ignorant editor. However, he soon appeared in Chapman magazine, we met up, and, for a couple of years, he helped me greatly with the magazine. General disenchantment soon set in, however; he withdrew from the "scene" - and even showed me a pretty vicious lampoon of it in which all our "friends", including myself, were clearly recognisable. His disdain was such that when Canongate published Song of the Forest, he grudgingly turned up to the small, private reception, and hardly spoke to anyone. When, a year later, I came to publish Red Ice, his first collection of poems and the first book I published, he was at the Caf Royal reception for only half an hour, dressed as shabbily as possible, complete with wellington boots. But that was Colin: none of his publishers, including Black Ace Books who brought out Song of the Forest in paperback and House of Lies, a satirical, Kafkaesque masterpiece (1995), found him very amenable. What a pity he did not realise the commitment all of us had and have to his work.

He felt defiantly British - proud of the British Empire and most of its achievements. He never much liked Scotland per se. He had no time for Scottish nationalism and we frequently quarrelled about the need for devolution, which he didn’t want, about the Scots language, which he insisted didn’t exist (though his writing is full of it!), and about the "Scottish Literary Renaissance", much of which he pooh-poohed.

The most important event in his life was, undoubtedly, a trip to Bosnia with a colleague from work who had a van stuffed with provisions. There he saw horrible things, but, more significantly, he met and fell in love with Svetlana, a Serbian war widow with two children (her husband, a Moslem, had died fighting for Bosnian independence). His intention was to bring her back to Scotland and marry her (she was pregnant), but when he returned from Sarajevo, where he had been organising transport for them, he found her village had been destroyed, and all its inhabitants, including Svetlana, killed. It broke his heart. All this is movingly described in his poem-sequence Cold Night Lullaby (Chapman, 1998) and in an unpublished novel. Colin would bridle if you called him a poet, but apart from the above- mentioned collections, there are fine poems of his scattered liberally around in magazines.

A great lover of all nature, and topography, at the end his greatest love was his cat, Max. He would also stop to pick a worm on the pavement and put it to safer pastures; spend days on the Pentlands, destroying badger traps, and feed the birds in his slightly wild, but lovingly tended garden. In many ways he was an innocent, in other ways hugely sophisticated, especially in his depth of knowledge about subjects that mattered to him.