Obituary: Tessa Ransford, poet and Scottish Poetry Library founder

Tessa Ransford, tireless literary champion whose proud legacy is the Scottish Poetry Library. Picture: TSPLTessa Ransford, tireless literary champion whose proud legacy is the Scottish Poetry Library. Picture: TSPL
Tessa Ransford, tireless literary champion whose proud legacy is the Scottish Poetry Library. Picture: TSPL
Born: 8 July, 1938 in Mumbai. Died: 2 September, 2015 in Edinburgh, aged 76.

Tessa Ransford was a redoubtable lady who was devoted to poetry and championing Scottish poetry. Her major undertaking – indeed her undeniable legacy – was the Scottish Poetry Library (SPL), founded in 1984, which at a stroke rivalled the similar institution in London that had largely been created by TS Eliot in 1958.

The Scottish equivalent is a spectacular building close to the Scottish Parliament. Initially Ransford and the poet Tom Hubbard were the principal employees with some 300 books. By dint of Ransford’s energy and drive there are now over 30,000 books, with examples of poems in Scotland’s three indigenous languages: Scottish Gaelic, Lowland Scots and English. The impressive building at the bottom of the Canongate, designed by Malcolm Fraser Architects, has been described as “a poem in glass and stone”.

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Ransford’s contribution to nurturing Scottish poetry was unflinching. “No-one has done more for the cause of poetry in Scotland than Tessa Ransford,” wrote Dorothy McMillan in the Scottish Review of Books. Ransford made poetry more available and inaugurated the Callum Macdonald Poetry Pamphlet Memorial Award, popularised poetry at meetings and schools throughout Scotland, and in 1987 presented a Scottish Poetry Library recital at the Edinburgh Festival in St Cecilia’s Hall.

Liz Lochhead has recently paid tribute to Ransford. She said: “Tessa was a fine poet of great sensitivity herself and the prime mover behind the establishing of the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh. Its dedicated library supports all kinds of poetry, serving poets, spoken-word artists, scholars of poetry, students, readers, and enthusiasts all over the world.”

Tessa Ransford was the daughter of Sir Alister and Lady Torfrida Ransford. Her father was Master of the Mint in Mumbai and in 1948 the family returned to Scotland, where he became Bursar of Loretto School, Musselburgh. Ransford attended St Leonard’s School in St Andrews, where she discovered a love of poetry. Indeed, she read German poetry at Edinburgh University but got a degree in Philosophy.

Ransford joined the Quakers and in 1950 married Kay Stiven, a minister of the Kirk, and for over a decade they did missionary work in Pakistan. She loved the country and the teaching but it was not easy – two of her sons contracted malaria. They returned to Edinburgh in the Sixties and Ransford worked at the Netherbow Centre in the Royal Mile and attended evening classes in Scottish literature where her teacher, Bob Tait, introduced her to the poets Norman MacCaig and Robert Garioch. In 1973 Tait published two of her poems in Scottish International and two small volumes followed the following year.

In 1982 the Scottish Poetry Library Association was founded, and two years later she, and others, were instrumental in opening a small room in Tweeddale Court.

It was a casual conversation in the Assembly Rooms in George Street in 1981 that made Ransford decide to have the SPL built. An exhibition of poetry was held during the Festival in the Assembly Rooms and someone asked where the poetry library was in Edinburgh. With much difficulty, Ransford eventually set up a steering committee (including Edwin Morgan, Iain Crichton Smith, Norman MacCaig, Hamish Henderson and Ian Hamilton Finlay) and MacCaig proved a particular enthusiast. They spoke endlessly in nearby bars and she recalled: “He would get quite cross if you refused a drink.”

For the next 15 years Ransford was an enthusiastic steward of the Library’s affairs and planned and oversaw the Association’s move into the grand premises in the Canongate.

Significantly, the inscription Ransford chose to place above the door of the new library building were the words of the Scottish biologist Sir Patrick Geddes: “Creando pensamus” (by creating we think).

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Her work at SPL took up much of her time but Ransford published more than 23 books of poems, all finely crafted with an expert use of words. In Epithalamion she concludes the poem: “In knowing we know/the spirit-creator/insurgently moves./ For we are the creature/who knows that it loves.” Her Not Just Moonshine: New and Selected Poems was published in 2008, winning her particularly favourable notices. She also translated many poems into German.

Her poems often had spiritual or religious overtones but her strong sense of the natural world and Scottish (and Indian) history proved a passion all her life as was evidenced in her Made in Edinburgh: Poems and Evocations of Holyrood Park with photographs by Mike Knowles.

Ransford was tireless in her work on behalf of Scottish poetry. She was a fellow of The Royal Literary Fund (working at Queen Margaret University) and was awarded an OBE in 2000.

Her first marriage was dissolved and in 1989 she married the publisher Callum Macdonald.

She is survived by her children from her first marriage.

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